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Surge in accent reduction classes speaks volumes

Immigrants and others wanting to sound more American flock to the courses. But some linguists are skeptical.

October 23, 2007|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Sitting across from his teacher, Edgar Martinez repeated the word he couldn't quite pronounce: "situation."

"Sit-oo-a-shun," he said.

"What happens with the tu?" asked the teacher, Lisa Mojsin, hired to help Martinez reduce his accent.

"Chu," Martinez responded.

"Yes, like chewing your food," Mojsin said, saying the word slowly: "Sit-chew-a-shun."

"Wow -- that is another new one for me," said Martinez, 37, who emigrated from Mexico as a teenager and lives in Los Angeles. "I wish they had taught me this 20 years ago."

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."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Accent reduction: An article in Tuesday's California section about the rise in popularity of accent reduction classes misidentified a student and 37-year-old immigrant from Mexico. The student's name is Edgard Jimenez, not Edgar Martinez.

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.

Jennie Lo, 43, of Culver City said her accent has been an embarrassment since she arrived in the United States from Taiwan in 1988. Sometimes people couldn't even understand her when she said her name. While in college in Oklahoma, Lo said she didn't make many friends, fearing that no one could make out her words. One reason she works as a fashion pattern designer is because she can go entire days without talking to anybody.

But when her daughter noticed the Chinese accent, Lo took action. At first, she tried watching more English-language TV and listening to language tapes in the car. But those didn't go far enough.

"It was a handicap," she said. "I couldn't say the things I wanted to say."

Lo is now taking accent reduction classes near Culver City and hopes to apply for a manager position at work.

"I just want to feel good about myself," she said. "If I really work hard, if I practice every day, I can't be perfect. But I can be better."

The classes range in cost. 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.

"When we speak to somebody else, we tend to accommodate our pronunciation to theirs," he said.

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.

"At the end of the class, will someone still have an accent? Yes," Ravin said. "What they won't have is a language barrier."

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?"

Martinez, who graduated from college in the U.S., said he often led training sessions as an Herbalife distributor and worried that people were listening to his accent more than his message.

"As soon as you sound foreign, people do give you a different reaction," he said. "People do judge you if you have an accent. I've experienced it."

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