Calgary Herald Article


Accent Reduction in the News
An Article from the Calgary Herald

Speech therapy helps immigrants shed accent while climbing corporate ladder
Carol Howes, Herald writer

Corrie deBeurs was thrilled when a close friend called recently and didn’t recognize her voice.

‘It was really a compliment,’ she remembers. deBeurs, an accounting analyst with Imperial Oil Resources, moved to Calgary from Holland in 1982.

Like many immigrants, she had a solid grasp of the English language but spoke with a heavy Dutch accent, which sometimes made it difficult for friends and colleagues to understand her.

For some people, deBeurs’s accent was a love-able quirk. But for others less patient, it was a hindrance, a bother, a handicap. And a new colleague drove it home to her last year.

“Sometimes when you have an accent, there are misunderstandings. Some (people) can’t be bothered and they stop listening. Some are patient. But there was this one person who really didn’t want to be bothered and it really damaged my self-confidence.”

So when Imperial offered an intensive three- month course earlier this year – called Foreign Accent Improvement – deBeurs and six others jumped at the opportunity.

deBeurs learned to slow her speech and improve her pronunciation of vowels and consonants. Her communications skills improved dramatically – so much that her friend failed to recognize her voice. And her self-confidence soared.

Accent therapy – especially on an individual basis – is a now and growing field where speech and language pathologists like Nadia Pelton are breaking ground in Calgary.

The aim of the therapy is to systematically reduce an accent or dialect by improving vowel and consonant production and intonation.

For years Pelton had worked as a speech Pathologist with handicapped children and with the Calgary Board of Education. But when she returned to work three years ago after taking some time off to raise her children, Pelton found a nagging need in Calgary’s swelling, immigrant population.

“I saw that there was a whole area in the immigrant population that was not being addressed at all,” she recalls.

She realized many immigrants, anxious to improve their communication skills, would sign up for English and public speaking courses only to find little change in their ability to get their message across.

Often they had excellent grammar, and written English, but their speech was ineffective.

So Pelton started up her own consulting company, called Accent on Communication, and now spends almost all her time improving the accents of foreign-born clients.

Continued on Next Column

Speech pathologists help immigrants improve pronunciation

Pelton believes accents are creating barriers for Calgary’s immigrants in the workplace and educational settings. She believes they limit their advancement, economic potential, affect their self-confidence and self-esteem, and create cultural and social isolation.

In many instances highly talented and educated foreign-born employees are overlooked or ignored because of their limited communication skills, she points out.

“I have a number of professional (clients) who are not getting the jobs they should be getting. They feel strongly it’s because their accent is affecting them.”

Pelton points out that the aim of her therapy is not to erase an accent. “It strives to make an individual as communicative as possible.”

Most mistakes in speech made by immigrants are completely logical and stem from the structure of their mother tongue, she points out.

“They don’t understand all the idioms of English,” says Pelton, who is also offering a free drop-in course through Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association on pronunciation and computer terminology.

Tony Villamar, who sells insurance and other financial products in Calgary, says an accent create a major barrier for business people like himself.

Working as a travel agent, a chef, or an artist, his accent may even be revered, he says. But in his industry, Villamar, who as born Guatemala, says it is vital that nothing detract his clients’ attention from his message.

“In my case I don’t want to have people listening to my accent instead of what I am saying about my product.

With accent therapy, “you never really lose your cultural flavor but if you are able to communicate clearly, you’ll be happier,” he says.

Lahni Thompson, who used to work in human resources at Imperial Oil, hired Pelton to conduct a course for employees. In rare cases the cost of speech therapy can be recovered through company benefits plans.

A number of employees anxious to take the program had to be turned away. One employee drove in from Lloydminster once a week to participate.

Thompson says the communications skills of all participants improved 75 to 70 percent. And while it may be coincidental, six of the seven employees remain with the company despite rounds of layoffs.

“I believe being able to communicate has un- proved their chances of survival in the business his clients’ attention world,’ she says.

“If organizations truly value diversity, truly saying value equality, it may be something they want to look at.”

Individuals interested in participating in an Accent Reduction Program Online, may contact the Accent Reduction Training Association at (844) Speak-Well.

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