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Accent Busters Strive to Make Pronounced Changes

Classes Help People From Foreign Countries, and Even Regions of the U.S., to Speak English More Clearly in Social Settings and at Work

March 09, 1998|SUSAN CARPENTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

'Mur-der-er." Ivan Borodin pronounces it slowly, looking around the classroom and singling out students to repeat it after him. "Come on, Frenchy," he coaxes. "I've seen you stick your lips out further for a piece of brie."

An instructor at Beverly Hills Adult School, Borodin is leading a class of foreign-born students in accent reduction. For some, the course might be more appropriately titled Tongue Twisters 101.

A French doctor, a Thai businessman, an Indonesian paralegal . . . they come from many backgrounds but share one goal: to reduce the accents of their homelands so they can improve their English communication skills in their new workplaces.

"Some people have difficulty to understand me," says the paralegal, Harry Margono, who moved to this country three years ago to marry his sweetheart. "On the telephone, they think it's a bad connection."

Shellie Bader of Clear Speech Inc., a firm that provides accent-reduction classes to corporations, says that about half her students are from Asian countries. She attributes that high percentage to the major differences between Romance and Asiatic languages.

But every tongue (so to speak) has its own muscle tone, and learning different oral musculature is crucial to any new way of speaking.

"Americans speak with the throat. The French, we speak with the lips," says Pierre Fontaine, a Parisian in Borodin's class. The 45-year-old oncologist has been in L.A. for six months. "At this age, I think it is pretty hard for me to educate these muscles now."

Experts agree that new languages and speech patterns are best learned before the teenage years.

But, teachers say, it is possible to reduce an adult accent effectively. Generally, they say, it takes between three and six months of daily practice, though it depends on a student's motivation and the severity of the problem.

Ironically, "the worse a person's accent, the easier it is to improve," says Borodin. "The thicker the better. If someone is trying to lose 500 pounds, he can drop 100 no problem. But to get that last little six-pack, it takes more discipline."

Suzanne Barnes, a speech pathologist in Arcadia, uses "the Cheerio smash" to help clients pronounce ch: They press Cheerios to the roofs of their mouths with their tongues until the cereal dissolves. Many instructors encourage their students to listen to TV newscasters.

An aspiring actor, Borodin urges his students to go to the movies.

"A free lesson anyone can give [himself] is to find a vocal model, like Harrison Ford," he says.

Vitaly Faydisovich is a 50-year-old Russian who attended Borodin's class after eight years in the United States. He watched a lot of Chuck Norris films.

"I look at not for action," he insists, "but for reason of improving my accent."

Not everyone with an accent comes from abroad. Borodin is a Queens native who, while studying drama at New York University, "would do Shakespeare and my teachers would say, 'Your voice is all wrong.' " Determined to lose his "Vinnie Barbarino" speaking style, he turned to phonetics classes and private coaches, learning how to say "huge" instead of "yuge."

Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that accents are "a dead giveaway as to what side of the tracks you grew up on. Most signs of class you can easily overcome--you can figure out what to wear and what to order in restaurants. But because the accent is something you can't easily change, that increases the incentive to overcome it."

It doesn't always work. One British gent took Borodin's class because his friends were Americans.

"I have no problem with communication. But I felt the odd man out," he says, his accent still pure Oxford.

Still others triumph over their accents--and then opt not to. One is Borodin.

"If I'm out having a beer," he says, slipping back into his native Queens, "I don't try to sound like a speech teacher. I sound like, you know, myself."

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