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<i> Wabbits </i> Doesn’t <i> Weally</i> Make It in Accent-Conscious World of Business

Jeff Rowe is a free-lance writer

When Josie del Rosario lost her job as a telephone sales clerk, she was crushed, angry and determined it would not happen again.

So she made an appointment to see Laura Chrislip.

Although Del Rosario spoke fluent--but accented--English, which she learned in her native Manila, she was certain that she had been dismissed because her Pilipino accent made words like think came out as sink, while bit was pronounced as beet .

Chrislip, a speech pathologist, quickly diagnosed Del Rosario’s problem: sound substitutions and poor word stress.

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Del Rosario began weekly sessions with Chrislip, working on specific drills and exercises to Americanize her speech and make it sound like “television English.”

A month after beginning her studies with Chrislip, Del Rosario was promoted from accounts payable clerk to senior clerk at the Irvine Ranch Farmer’s Market headquarters in Costa Mesa. She attributes much of her new career success to her now smooth command of English. “I gained a lot of confidence,” she said. “I wish I had known this a long time ago.”

Chrislip has.

“Communications make a difference in how you are perceived,” she said. “It’s crucial, especially in image-conscious Orange County.”

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Most of Chrislip’s clients have a solid command of English, either learned in their native country or in classes in the United States.

Need Polishing

But language teachers tend to concentrate on the intricacies of the language and have little time left to polish pronunciation difficulties such as substituting b for v and s for t , thus making everything into ebbrysing. Another common problem is substituting w for r which makes rabbit come out as wabbit and really come out as weally.

Such mispronounced words can cause communication problems which can be crucial in business dealings.

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Because of mispronunciations or emphasis on the wrong words in a sentence, the biggest problem many non-native English speakers face is the need to continually repeat themselves. But repetition doesn’t necessarily bring comprehension. After the second repetition, “Americans will simply smile and say ‘Uh-huh,’ ” whether they understand or not, Chrislip said.

But foreigners sense when they are not being understood. “People look at you funny,” said an Iranian engineer, who asked that his name not be used. Chrislip’s coaching has “given me confidence,” he said. “Right now I feel my accent has changed--it’s more American. There’s a lot of communication (at my job) and the better you are at it, the better it is for you.”

Mary Barbas, who runs her own word-processing and report-writing business in Dana Point, did not realize how stiffly accented her spoken English was until she heard a tape recording of her own voice. “I decided to get some help,” she said. “I don’t feel very comfortable with an accent.” Barbas realized too, that in her business, it is important to show that she has a great command of English. “When you can’t pronounce things well, people worry,” she said.

Taught in San Clemente

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The birth of Chrislip’s 18 month-old business followed an evening class in English pronunciation she taught in San Clemente. She taught the course after earning a master’s degree in speech pathology at Cal State Fullerton.

Chrislip now is director of the speech therapy program at Healthtech Rehabilitation Inc. in Irvine. The Missouri-based company also offers physical therapy and occupational therapy programs.

Currently, Chrislip has about 25 clients, who come from every continent except Africa and Antarctica and range in age from young adults to a woman in her 70s. Most are professional or technical workers who want to improve their skills on the telephone, in one-to-one conversation and in formal presentations and speeches. Typically, the client’s company pays for the $50-per-hour sessions, and Chrislip often goes to her clients’ offices or teaches in the evening and on weekends to fit around working hours.

People use her services, she said, because “people in business don’t want to sound like they are from someplace else. They want to fit in.”

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Equally important, shedding a sharp accent usually means being perceived as more intelligent. “Unfortunately, that’s human nature,” Chrislip said.

Get Assignments

Clients typically meet individually with Chrislip for an hour each week and are given tailored homework assignments which include specialized drills, reading a newspaper aloud or reading from manuals or other materials used at work. Chrislip advises her clients to tape their drills and then critique their own pronunciation.

Thomson Lee, production control coordinator at Data Card Corp. in Buena Park, came to see Chrislip barely two weeks after arriving in the United States from Hong Kong. Like many well-educated foreigners, Lee had a textbook knowledge of English. But he often emphasised the wrong words, turning statements into questions. In addition, Lee had problems with words like bag, beg and big , all of which he pronounced the same.

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Lee also had a few problems that, while not directly connected to spoken language, plague many of Chrislip’s foreign-born clients--he was not familiar with many American business customs and idiomatic phrases.

Chrislip said she tries to help clients adjust to the differences in unspoken language--the myriad of gestures, expressions and customs that can be crucial in business dealings.

For example, one of her clients had angered his superior by smiling the entire time he was being reprimanded. While this is judged a sign of respect for authority in Asian cultures, most managers in the United States take a dim view of being smiled at by the recipient of a dressing-down and view such response as mocking.

Chrislip advised her client to maintain a sober expression at such times.

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