For These Students, The Accent Is on Reducing Theirs
By Lena H. Sun, Washington Post Staff Writer
Christina Hsu, a telecommunications computer programmer, wanted her for thcoming speech to be perfect. But her opening line used the word pleasure, with its dreaded “l” and “r” consonants.
The 42-year-old Taiwan native practiced the presentation at home, asking her U.S.-born teenage daughter to correct her English pronunciation. But after several futile attempts, she gave up and settled for something she knew she could say easily, ”I’m glad to be here.”
The speech was a success, but the episode was frustrating for Hsu, who works at Bell Atlantic Corp.’s Silver Spring complex and has lived in the United States for 16 years. So several weeks ago, she signed up for a class with speech pathologists to try to reduce her Chinese accent.
Hsu is among a growing number of foreign-born professionals in the Washington area and across the country who are turning to such specialists for help in reducing accents that have stuck despite decades of living in the United States and despite mastery of grammar and vocabulary.
Community colleges in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia now offer courses in accent reduction. Speech pathologists say their practices have shifted from the traditional focus on stroke and accident victims to immigrants who want to speak better English. And a growing number of employers-in the private and public sectors-pay for employees to take such classes.
As the workplace and other institutions become more diverse and as foreign-born professionals become more established in their jobs, speech experts say there is increasing awareness among immigrants and their employers about the “need to do something about their pronunciation and their English,” said Arthur Compton, director of the San Francisco-based Institute of Language, which offers a foreign accent program for speech pathologists.
At the same time, because of rising anti-immigrant sentiment, language is an easy target. Earlier this year, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) used a fake Japanese accent to mimic the judge in the OJ. Simpson murder trial, Lance A. Ito, even though Ito is a third-generation Californian who has no Japanese accent. D’Amato later apologized.
In the Washington area, an estimated 12 percent of the population is foreign-born, including large numbers of professionals. “We’re seeing a more sophisticated level of interest,” said Barbara Reiner, a speech pathologist in Silver Spring. “‘We’re getting calls from individuals who are finding that because of some element of their work, they need to be more intelligible when they speak English.”
Mobil Corp. and Bell Atlantic Corp. are among some local companies that have paid speech experts to teach classes, at the request of their employees. The federal Patent and Trademark Office initiated voluntary accent reduction classes several years ago after some customer complaints.
“The public in general may be having some negative feelings about having to deal with accented speakers,” said Sharon Heffley, a speech pathologist who answers the telephone at her Great Falls home, “ Accent Modification Center.”
Some who want to lose their accents are tired of repeating themselves — or spelling the words — to people who don’t understand them. Others say better English will improve job performance and shield them from discrimination.
Prices quoted by Heffley and Reiner vary from about $300 to $1,000 per person for eight- to 12-week sessions, depending on fluency and class size. Half the time, employers pick up the tab, they said.
The goal everyone agrees, is to enhance communication, not to erase all traces of an accent or cultural identity, which is almost impossible anyway.
Edwin De Castro, 27, a native of El Salvador, took a course last year and still has a Spanish accent. That suits him fine.
Foreign-born professionals want presentations to be perfect
Foreign-Born Employees Work on Their Vowels and Consonants
“I think the accent itself is not a problem as long as you speak in a clear, concise manner,” said De Castro, who works in Fairfax County’s Department of Family Services. He no longer says “hiss” for “his” and tries to keep his voice from rising at the end of a sentence, unless he is asking a question.
But accents are touchy.
After Anne Grenade, a native of Belgium, and two colleagues at Mobil Corp. received approval to take a course paid for by the company, one supervisor noticed some initial misunderstanding.
There were some people who felt, “What’s wrong with people having accents?”, recalled John Ennis, a systems project manager. Ennis, who supported the course, explained that the initiative came from workers, not Mobil.
The fear of appearing racist makes some employers
shy away from raising the subject, even when problems exist, said Lynda Katz Wilner, a Baltimore speech pathologist who works with foreign medical residents.
“It sounds very prejudiced to say, ‘Because of your Asian accent, no one wants to come to you,’ “she said.
Many people who learn English as a second language are taught in grammar and vocabulary but little about intonation and pronunciation, the basic elements of an accent, speech specialists say. Often, individuals learn English in their native countries from an accented teacher or from books, which do not work well because much of English does not sound the way it appears in print.
But an accent is key.
“It’s the first thing you hear,’ said Anka Nemoianu, a linguistics professor at Catholic University. “If you know nothing else, people do for m judgments based on accents.”
Some accents are more accepted than others. British and French accents tend to be better received than Asian and Spanish accents, speech specialists said. A New England accent is more prestigious than a southern one.
English is difficult for non-native speakers for many reasons, specialists say. Much of the meaning comes from timing and stressing the right syllables. Then there is linking, what happens when “is he busy” becomes “izzy bizzy.”
English also has many sounds that do not exist in other languages, Reiner said.
Many Asian languages, for example, do not have consonants at the end of words. As a result, many Vietnamese make no distinctions between the words “nice,” “night” and “nine,” said Hoa Le, 34, a patent examiner at the Patent and Trademark Office Crystal City. They all sound like “nigh,” said Le, who took an accent-reduction class two years ago.
Because these sounds require speakers to work their tongues and mouths in ways that are new to them, accent reduction classes are as much lesson in learning the geography of the mouth as in pronunciation.
In a conference room at Bell Atlantic’s Silver Spring complex, Christina Hsu and three others are studying the syllabic “l,” one of the most difficult sounds for Asians. In fact, most of the students trip over the name of their employer, “Bell Atlantic,” because of the feared “l”.
To show them where the tongue must be to make the “l,” Reiner and partner Mary Ellen Doran-Quine, a speech pathologist in Reston, pass out latex gloves and direct students to find the ridge of the mouth — behind the front teeth — with their index fingers.
After much giggling, they try the first exercise.
Hsu must say “approachable.” Head bent, she frowns. “Approacha-bow.”
“This is a hard one for me,” Hsu says, laughing and shaking her head at her mistake.
Dorm-Quine suggests a trick. Say “lady” after “approachable.” The “l” in “lady” for ces Hsu to keep her tongue up in the right place.
It works. The syllables roll out slowly, but distinctly: “approacha-bull lady,” “assem-bull lady.”
‘Yes!’ exclaim Doran-Quine, pumping her fist in the air. Hsu beams with embarrassment.
The weekly 75-minute sessions end in January. By then, the teachers say, the students will master many of the words they use on the job, including “Bell Atlantic.”
“They do know how to say it when they’re finished,” Reiner said.
Individuals interested in participating in an Accent Reduction Program Online, may contact the ARTA at PH: (844) Speak-Well.