To Accentuate Their Chances for Success, Immigrants Seek Experts’ Help in Polishing
By GARY LIBMAN,
Times Staff Writer
When Der-Shsuan Lii arrived in the United States in 1985, he read and wrote English well enough to complete a master’s degree at USC.
But it was a different story when it came to speaking his new language. Lii. a native of Taiwan, had trouble with English vowels, l’s and r’s and the th sound. There were many words he could not pronounce.
His language problems quickly became a block to his career as management systems director for the San Gabriel Valley Medical Center, where his chances for promotion were dashed because managers did not understand him.
“My job is to persuade people to cooperate and to improve their management,” he said. “Naturally, I had a lot of resistance.”
To overcome this obstacle. Lii, like thousands of immigrants nationwide, sought to improve his speaking by taking an accent reduction course taught in by a speech pathologist.
“It’s really improved my pronunciation,” he said of the class. “People notice the change.” Speech Pathologists say they have become the modern equivalent of Henry Higgins, the Character who refashioned Eliza Doolittle’s Speech in “Pygmalion” and “My Fair Lady.”
Because people are judged not just by how they look but also how they sound, employees whose speech is unpolished are considered less intelligent and get promoted less often, experts note.
Retreat Into Silence
“People in the United States hear a Vietnamese accent, for example, and it’s unfortunate, but many are not going to listen intently to that person addressing a group because it’s difficult to understand,” said Lou Ann Brine, a Lakewood speech pathologist.
Lynn Dickson Gold, a speech therapist whose practice is based in Irvine, ob- served: “I have a client who is a very bright engineer. He told me that, where- as he puts all the work into a project, he does not present it because he has a heavy accent and his co-workers and supervisions do not understand time clearly.
“In work, the ability to interchange ideas verbally has powerful influence on the effectiveness of the employee and on the ability of that person to rise in the company. The silent employee is not recognized for his work and he very often is silent because people have difficulty understanding him.”
Although immigrants say accent reduction programs help, such efforts have been criticized because some say they homogenize speech-they make all speakers sound like television anchors.
But speech pathologists say this will never occur.
“A person will never lose an accent completely,” said Beverly Gottlieb-Karp, a Santa Monica speech pathologist. “There are infinitesimally few who can change their accent after they reach maturity or who can speak a second language like a native.”
The Accent is on Losing Accent
Iris Maybruck, a West Los Angeles speech therapist, agreed, noting, “My goal is not to necessarily help (clients) lose their accent but to pronounce English so that it enhances the way they speak. We in the U.S. love accents. You hear the television commercials with French accents and you love them, but it’s because you understand them.”
Therapy to reduce an accent does not come cheap, whether it is offered individually or in small groups. In the Los Angeles area, teachers contacted charged $60- $85 a session for roughly a dozen individual sessions. Fees for small group sessions – in which participants often are referred by corporations – were $475 a person for 10 meetings or $720 for 13 meetings.
The experts try various methods to help their clients. They hand out tapes and workbooks for home practice. One technique has speakers use a mirror to see how their tongue should be positioned – an exercise that Lynn Gold asked two Vietnamese immigrants to perfor m last week in a Huntington Beach class.
Maybruck tape-records her students periodically so they cm hear their progress. Dennis Napoli, a Newport Beach speech pathologist, requires clients to carry a notebook to jot down terms important to them. He then records the words so students can practice saying them.
English pronunciation, experts say, is difficult for newcomers to master because it differs from their native tongue in sound, grammar, syllabification and melody (the timing and pitch variations of speech).
The wrong emphasis on the wrong syllable can make a word in English undecipherable. Uncommon melody patterns also can be a hindrance; when the flat Wt of the Indian language is applied to English, for example, it can prove utterly distracting to a listener.
Learning correct pronunciation in a new language is always difficult. But it can be an even tougher chore if speakers studied extensively in their native lands, where they only heard the new language spoken with an accent.
Masatoshi Teramoto studied English in Japan and learned the language well enough to read novels.
But he heard English spoken only by Japanese. As a result, when he arrived in America in 1987, “I found I could hardly hear what people were saying.”
That was a problem in his job as a loan officer at Tokai Bank of California, where he communicates loan amounts, interest rates, maturity date and other information daily to foreign banks and governments.
Teramoto enrolled in an accent reduction class with South Pasadena speech pathologist Elaine Low and said that after 15 classes he felt “more confident”
“Before I wanted to speak English but I had no confidence to understand what people were talking about, so it was very difficult to ask questions. Now I can understand English much better,” he said.
“Even if I don’t understand all of what they say, I can understand what they mean. . . . I have to keep good relations with those who are working in our customer banks. . . . After I got confidence from her classes, it’s been very helpful for me.”
Individuals interested in participating in an Accent Reduction Program Online, may contact the ARTA at PH: (844) Speak-Well.