Accentuating the ‘American’ in Their Speech

Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2007

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In classes and private tutoring sessions throughout the nation, immigrants and others are focused on sounding more American (think prime-time news anchor). They are practicing their vowels and reciting problem words. Koreans struggle to say “zero” instead of “jero.” Hindi speakers practice saying “available” instead of “awailable.” And Spanish speakers from Mexico and Central America strive to say “something” rather than “somesing.”

Accent reduction classes have been around for years, but linguists and teachers say an increasingly multilingual workforce is prompting a surge in enrollments. The American Speech-Language Hearing Assn. reports a 15% increase from 2005 to 2006 in the number of inquiries. Private tutors said they answer calls almost daily from prospective students, when just a few years ago the phones rang only periodically.

Author Amy Gillett said that sales of her book and CD set, “Speak English Like an American,” have tripled in the last few years, from 1,500 copies after its 2004 release to nearly 5,000.

Some courses report waiting lists; others have brought in additional instructors to meet the demand. Judy Ravin, president of the Accent Reduction Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich., said she has hundreds of students, including employees of General Motors and Cisco Systems, who follow her program, “Lose Your Accent in 28 Days.”

“As our workforce becomes more and more global,” she said, “these classes are becoming more and more popular.”

Accent reduction students said they are self-conscious about how they sound and whether their accents are limiting their job opportunities or stunting their social lives.

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The classes range in cost. [teacher Lisa] Mojsin charges $100 per hour for an individual lesson. A 13-week session with Dee Anne Barker, who teaches accent reduction classes in Santa Barbara, can range from $1,200 to $2,500. Many of the teachers are trained speech pathologists or therapists.

Some linguists are critical of accent reduction classes because they give students false hope that they will lose their accents. Eliminating an accent is difficult, experts said. Dennis Baron, a linguistics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he thinks taking courses is a waste of money. Calming an accent, he said, takes years of interaction with native English speakers.

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Speech teachers said the goal for their clients isn’t to eliminate accents but simply to improve communication in English. A successful class is one that helps students be understood, they said.

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Ravin and other instructors said their students’ motivations are driven by a dual desire to assimilate and to be understood. They are reluctant to ask for dates or make work presentations. They fear phone calls from American friends and interviews with prospective bosses. They universally loathe the questions: “Pardon?” “What did you say?” “Can you repeat that?”

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Though there is a general tolerance for linguistic diversity, experts said, English-only and anti-immigrant movements have made even some legal immigrants and naturalized citizens who sound different feel unwelcome.

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Accents can lead to stereotypes, linguists said. If someone speaks with an accent associated with an Asian language, people may assume they work as engineers or computer scientists. If someone speaks with certain Spanish accents, people may think they are recent immigrants working in landscaping or the hospitality industry.

Some accents are more desirable than others, said UC Berkeley linguistics professor Robin Lakoff. For example, a French accent evokes images of romance and elegance. A British accent—the “Queen’s English” version—suggests superiority and sophistication. An Australian accent brings to mind adventure and fun.

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A distinctly American accent, Lakoff said, is one that has no Southern drawl, no Midwestern twang, no Brooklyn bellow. Truth be told, she said, it’s how Californians speak. Basically, the American accent takes all the distinct regional dialects and flattens them, she said.

Under U.S. labor law, employers can make job decisions based on accent only if it interferes with work, such as in teaching or telemarketing. Every year, a small number of people who believe they are victims of accent-related job discrimination take their complaints to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

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Most of [Carla] Meyer’s clients are already at an advantage because they are from England, Australia or New Zealand and were raised speaking English.

She helps them become conversational and casual in American English, shortening the phrase “let me” to “lemme” and softening words such as “pretty” to a more everyday, phonetically sounding “priddy.”

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