San Francisco Chronicle

 

Shedding an Accent to Attain Success
By L. A. Chung

It was painful for Irwin Altneu to warn his recently promoted procurement manager that he had to correct his speech – or it could cost him his career.

The word “vendor” came out of Edwin Wong’s mouth sounding like “wendor” and “this” sounded like “dis,” and sometimes there were misunderstandings.

“I was given the equivalent of an ultimatum: ‘Either you improve your accent or your future in getting promoted to senior management is in jeopardy,’ ” said Wong, 31.

Wong is a junior manager making $51,000 a year at Acurex, an aerospace and processing control unit manufacturing company m Mountain View. Despite mixed feelings, he hired a speech pathologist.

He is not alone. Accent reduction is rapidly turning into a bonanza for speech pathologists in the Bay Area and other large cities. Young, first-generation Asian professionals hoping to improve their careers appear to make up the majority of those paying to get rid of their accents.

“I have people whose command of English is good, they’ve gone to universities here in the United States, but … when they go in the workplace, they feel held back, and rightly so,” said Arthur Compton, founder of the Institute Language & Phonology in San Francisco.

Teased by Colleagues

About two-thirds of Compton’s clients are Asian professionals, although he works with people from 65 different language backgrounds.

Wong, who emigrated from Hong Kong when he was 15, said he was embarrassed and tried to ignore incidents throughout his career when be was teased by colleagues for his pronunciation.

Actually, Wong’s speech was about 80 to 85 percent comprehensible, said Compton.

Wong’s experiences early in his career made him sensitive about accent problems and, like many other Asians, he compensated by piling on the educational credentials.

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Accent-Reduction can improve self-esteem

“I felt that just because I had an accent, a lot of Caucasians thought I was stupid,” Wong said. “They lost patience, they did not want to wait to listen for what I was trying to say. It made me feel like an idiot. I felt I have so much to offer, so much I could do for them and the company – and all that would just fall by the wayside because they didn’t have patience.”

Speech pathologists and others say that Americans are biased against Asian accents.

“People ascribe brilliance to someone with a German accent,” said Ron Brown, president of a management consultant company. “But they don’t have tolerance for an Asian accent. … They think the person is not intelligent.”

Exhausting Drill Work

Accents are not easy to erase by oneself. Each language has certain sounds not found in other languages, said Veronica Harris, a speech pathologist offering accent reduction services in Montclair. The ways of making those sounds are established from infancy in set patterns of moving the lips, mouth, and tongue muscles.

For 13 weeks and at a cost of $795, Wong spent an hour each week with a speech instructor, enunciating words such as “zipper” and “this” and “vendor” while looking in a mirror at his mouth.

“Every time I got out of that class, I was exhausted,” he said. But it paid off. He improved by 78 percent, is much more confident, and he said he should have done it sooner. His boss, Altneu, called it a “win-win” situation and is so enthusiastic that he is sponsoring a second employee in the program.

Some people caution against putting too much stock in accent reduction. “If it improves your self-esteem, take it,” said Byron Kunisawa, a management consultant. “If you think it’s going to get you a promotion, don’t.”

Cho Chan, the 40-year-old manager of financial services for Tandem Computers said he wanted to improve – to ensure that future employers had “no excuses” when it came to promoting him into senior management.

“When accent is not an issue, experience is not an issue, and education is not an issue, then the only (possible) barrier is the old boys club,” said Chan, in clipped, precise tones. “It’s very difficult to break through that barrier. I want to give it a good shot.”

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

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