Talk about accent reduction
Speech Pathologists can tone down just about any dialect
By Frank James
Mark Twain, on a trip to Italy, took note of the way the locals uttered the names of a couple of that ancient land’s most famous sons.
Twain said that when the Italians said Michelangelo, the Michel sounded more like “mickel,” which rhymes with pickle. And then there was Vinci, the name of the genius artist-inventor as well as the town he hailed from.
“They spell it Vinci and pronounce it Vinchy,” wrote Twain in “The Innocents Aboad,” his record of the trip. “Foreigners always spell better than they pronounce.”
Twain said it all tongue in cheek. His point was really about how foolish Americans sometimes seemed when traveling overseas and making unflattering comments about the natives based on parochial U.S. standards.
But now there are some people, foreigners and natives alike, who readily agree with the legendary humorist. They do spell better than they pronounce,at least when it comes to American English. And they’ve been searching out speech pathologists, hoping to change their accents to sound like Bryant Gumbel.
Well, maybe not quite that perfect. Not even many native-born Americans can match that TV star’s seemingly flawless, midlander intonations.
Speech pathologists agree that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having an accent or distinctive regional dialect such as Bostonians or Southerners do. Linguists point out that the Midwestern accent, which the broadcast networks decades ago made the standard of American speech, is itself a dialect, if only the most socially accepted one.
“If an accent is not impeding business transactions causing undue attention that interferes with the communication process, I don’t see the need to remove it,” says Bernadette Anderson, a speech pathologist who owns the Speech Excel Center in Chicago. “But if it is, then it makes sense to modify it.”
For most non-natives past puberty, an accent is virtually impossible to lose, the experts say. Adults with foreign accents can for get achieving the pristine tonalities of a Gumbel. But many immigrants would settle for sounding more like Ricardo Montalban. It’s not just people who’ve learned English as a second language who want their accents reduced. If s also those who have English as their first and only tongue. “Some of the speech pathologists working in the South get the majority of their calls from people with regional dialects, people who want to get rid of very strong Southern accents,” says Arthur Compton. Compton has developed a pronunciation program and heads a not-for -profit company that he says has trained more than 2,000 speech pathologists in accent reduction.
“Another area we’ve had a fair amount of calls from is black executives, middle-management people who find their black speech is holding them back,” Compton says.
Started with caveman
Accent improvement isn’t new. Probably its earliest occurrence was when the first caveman happened upon a new type of cave dwellers and decided he’d better make his grunt sound more like theirs if he intended to get any mastadon leftovers.
Perhaps the most famous example of accent improvement comes from fiction. In George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion,” later turned into the stage and film hit “My Fair Lady,” professor Henry Higgins, teacher of phonetics, transfor ms Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, into an elegant speaker.
There have long been voice coaches who’ve tried to squeeze the Brooklyn or Texas out of the voices of actors and anchors. But lately there appears to be increased interest in what’s also known as accent reduction, removal or moderation. The arrival of larger numbers of highly skilled, foreign-born professionals to the U.S. appears to account for some of this.
All of this is presenting new opportunities for speech pathologists, though the Rockville, Md.-based American Speech-Language Hearing Association, the certifying body for speech pathologists, isn’t sure how many of its 60,000 members have gotten into accent improvement.
At an association conference held last summer at the Palmer House, more than half the 120 pathologists attending expressed interest in accent adjusting, says Tom Smith, a spokesman for the group.
“I was really surprised,” Smith says. “A lot of pathologists feel that’s where the money is. Some of that is misguided, though. There’s a feeling that there’s a lot of money and commitment in corporations to pay for this. But it’s not necessarily automatic. You really have to sell and promote it.”
Accent modification isn’t cheap, with a full series of sessions ranging from $700 to $ 1,800.
Middle-management find their black speech is holding them back
Bridging the Language gap
Marcia Hoodwin is a speech pathologist who began working on accent reduction earlier this year after learning the Compton program. She calls her business Accents Away, Accent Improvement and visits her clients at their offices. Not that all of them want such service.
Given an evaluation
“A lot of them are right downtown, and I’m very willing to go to their place,”
says Hoodwin, whose voice and demeanor remind you of the kindliest teacher. “But some say: ‘No. no, no. I don’t want anyone to know I’m doing this.’” Those secretive clients get their accents worked over at her Near North Side location.
When a client comes to Hoodwin, he gets an evaluation. (Most of Hood- win’s clients are men in upper-level management) This means having to recite a diagnostic list of words and sentences. The words are nothing fancy: horse, snake, clown, do and spring.
At the end of the last session, the client is again tested. If he has faithfully practiced, ideally an hour a day, there should be at least a 75 percent improvement in intelligibility, Hoodwin says.
In between the first and the last session is the tedious business of repeatedly practicing all the standard English sounds that stump foreign tongues, with Hoodwin patiently demonstrating how the mouth for ms each sound.
“Most other languages don’t have the ‘th’ sound,” says Hoodwin. “Or the ‘ih’ sound. So, they’ll substitute an ‘e’ for an ‘ih.’ That might seem like a minor difference but they’ll say ‘sheep’ instead of ‘ship’ or ‘eat’ instead of ‘it.’”
Dr. Pedro Poma, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Peru, knows the problem. Though he has been in the U.S. for 25 years, he still has a strong Spanish accent. On a recent afternoon, he took an hour between patients at his Melrose Park office to rehearse his English with Hoodwin. His drills included sentences with words ending in a “b” sound, which he tends to change to a “p.” First Hoodwin said a sentence, then he repeated such gems as: “Did Bob join the mob?” and “They’re having a probe concerning the bribe.” After the latter, he turned to a visitor and said with perfect dead pan timing, “That’s an important sentence in Chicago, isn’t it?”
Then the dreaded “ih” sound, the short “i” in words such as “give” and “live.” Hoodwin and Poma hold a large mirror so that he could see the difference between making the long “e” sound (the lips slightly curl as if about to break a smile) and the short “i.”
Poma’s natural tendency is to make it a long “e” sound, the way it’s pronounced in Spanish. He knows that’s wrong, but it confuses him. Making matters worse, he sometimes overcompensates by taking a word in English that has the long ‘e” sound and sticking an uncalled for “ih” sound in.
Because of this, he often dances around the word “sheet,” for instance, afraid he’ll say something scatological by mistake.
“As a physician I should use the word that means cover on a bed a lot. But I try to avoid it because I’m not sure I’m using it right and I don’t want to offend anyone,” he says.
“Although my effectiveness as a physician hasn’t been hurt, I think my career has been effected by my English,” says Poma who is active in the medical and Hispanic communities.
“I haven’t attained some things,” he says, despite having a successful practice where the majority of his patients are Latino. “Somebody can say, ‘I don’t need [the accent reduction classes] because I have my own fiefdom. But with what I do I have to reach other people.”
Like Hoodwin, Anderson began making office visits, largely to foreign-born physicians, in the early 1980’s.
Works in the Loop
Now she operates the Speech Excel Center, a speaking-skills consultancy in the Loop. Besides working with corporate clients, she helps Southerners and speakers of black English who want to change their speech patterns.
One of her clients is a young black woman from Georgia who has both speech patterns. She works for a large Chicago financial-services company.
She has 6 of 24 sessions that should lighten her Southern drawl, which is still marked on certain words such as July, which she pronounces JUE-lie.
She reasons that if she ever works in New York, the drawl could be a real disadvantage, making people think she was mentally “slow.” Also, she doesn’t want her race to be so apparent from her voice.
After a few sessions, she says she doesn’t extend her vowels for nearly long enough, and, on words that start with ‘th,” she has stopped pronouncing the opening sound as a “d.”
“I’ve gotten a lot better,” she says. “But my brother calls up and says my answering machine sounds too proper. I still think it sounds too Southern. I hate to hear the message.”
Individuals interested in participating in an Accent Reduction Program Online, may contact the ARTA at PH: (844) Speak-Well.