Classes that help people from around the world to lighten their accents are booming

Immigrants understand the value of being understood

By Kayce T. Ataiyero

Watching himself in a tiny handheld mirror, Faisal Rahman flexes his tongue as he tries to visualize the correct pronunciation of the word “about.” Though fluent in English, he usually says—ay-bout—a tell-tale sign that he’s from Bangladesh and not Burr Ridge, where he now lives.

After speaking English with the intonation of his native Bengali, Rahman decided to take lessons in accent modification to sound more like people born in the United States .

“I speak OK English. I’m learning American,” Rahman said with a chuckle during a lesson at The Sound Center in Downers Grove . “There’s a subtle difference.”

Fluent in English and usually highly educated, immigrants such as Rahman are taking classes in increasing numbers to give their speaking voices extra polish.

More and more foreign-born professionals, experts say, are opting to minimize their accents to remove obstacles to being understood and accepted by Americans — and to avoid problems in the workplace. Studies suggest that people with foreign accents often are regarded as less credible and competent.

Oscar DeShields, a marketing professor at California State University , Northridge, has examined the impact of accents on sales performance and found they can present a disadvantage in connecting with customers. In most cases, people with an American dialect were more successful with their sales pitches, he said.

“People with accents aren’t perceived as capable and as intelligent as people without an accet,” DeShields said. “If you are talking about the average salesperson or clerk, if you have an accent you tend to be looked down on.”

With so much at stake, speech-language pathologists in Chicago and nationwide are reporting a sharp increase in the number of immigrants seeking help in perfecting their English.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, a professional organization of language and hearing professionals, reports that inquiries about accent modification has more than doubled in the last two years.

The aim is to help someone speak English with a mainstream American cadence. Instructors emphasize proper pronunciation, vocal stress and the rhythm and pacing of words.

The length of training varies, depending on the goal of the speaker, but in some cases it can take a year to learn the correct techniques.

And although a foreign accent can be minimized, it is not lost altogether. In fact, many speech-language pathologists encourage their clients to retain the unique sound of their voices.

“There is nothing wrong with an accent. It is not a disorder. It is part of your heritage,” said Michelle Eppley, director of The Sound Center. “My philosophy is to give them a choice to be intelligible.”

The desire to be more easily understood brought Lin Chen to the center. For six months, Chen, president of Westmont Web-development firm NewCircleConsulting, has worked to improve her pronunciation as well as the melody and speed of her speech.

Chen, 34, a Westmont resident from China, said she used to feel self-conscious when asked to repeat herself. Learning how to speak more clearly has given her confidence a boost, she said.

“My main motivation is I want to sound like I can speak with authority,” she said, pausing to consider how she had just pronounced “main,” which came out “min.”

Laughing, Chen said she is still working on her vowels sounds. She acknowledged that “main” is a troublesome word, but added, “I’m getting better.”

Even immigrants who have no difficulty being understood are choosing accent modification. Rahman, CEO of a pain-management company, APAC Groupe of Chicago, said his goal is to lighten his accent.

“I have a heavy accent and I am trying to lose the heavy part,” he said. “Sometimes it is a bit of a distraction for the people I am conversing with. I want to have less attention on me and more on what I am saying.”

Rahman plans to send others from his company to the language program mainly doctors whose accents have created problems for patients.

More health-care providers are electing to offer such training to their foreign-born medical professionals, experts say.

Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago has been providing accent-modification courses for its staff for two years. Joanne Shearer, director of educational programming, said the voluntary program has been well-received and has prompted inquiries from other health-care providers.

“We have a very culturally diverse patient and employee population and because of that mix we felt that to enhance communication it would be helpful,” she said.

Deb Kowalczyk, director of ClearSpeak, a Chicago speech-language pathology practice, said she gets inquiries from firms seeking to improve employee communication.

“They have trouble when they are in a meeting, or if they need to convince people on the phone, there are a lot of problems. They are treated so poorly,” Kowalczyk said. “I have had people who said they have had trouble getting a job because of their accent.”

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Oppoprtunity Commission’s rules on national origin discrimination, employers sometimes have legitimate business reasons for basing employment decisions on whether a person has a foreign accent. In general, such decisions can only be made if the job requires effective oral communication in English and the person’s accent “materially interferes” with his or her ability to perform job duties.

The number of complaints about “accent discrimination” has fluctuated since 1996 when the agency began tracking the issue. Discrimination filings climbed to 161 cases in 2006 fro 85 the year before, according to information provided by the agency. Spokesman David Grinberg said he suspects many cases go unreported because people are either unaware of their rights or fear retaliation and, in some cases, deportation.

“It is an emerging issue that we are increasingly focused on,” Grinberg said.

But accent problems aren’t unique to employees. In some cases, even the boss could use a little adjustment.

Columbian-born Juan Carlos Bedoya, president of Easy Call, a Chicago prepaid-phone card company, underwent accent-modification training to polish the Spanish-accented English he taught himself.

“I still have a very strong accent, but I feel very secure right now, and when I talk to other people they understand me better,” Bedoya said.

“Customers I have known for a long time, they ask if I have started going out with an American girlfriend. I say now, I’m married, but I have been taking this course…”

Printed in The Chicago Tribune, September 14, 2006.