A sharp staccato lingers in Teresa Amper’s voice eight years after she left her native Philippines. While her English language skills are nearly flawless, her accent has isolated her from co-workers and inhibited her from cold-calling in her job as a part-time realtor.
“Most of my friends hold the phone a good distance away from their ear when they talk to me. They tell me that,” Amper, 44, of Irvine, said recently as she sat in an Irvine Valley College classroom working to adopt the pitch and pattern of mainstream American English.
“Sometimes, every time I say something, they ask me to repeat what I’m trying to convey. I feel very embarrassed,” Amper said. “I think I have problems. I talk too fast and too loud.”
More and more of Orange County’s immigrant residents--who hail from Mexico, Honduras and as far away as Iran, Korea and Vietnam--are craving the American cadence they hope will bring them acceptance in a county that still feels predominantly white despite steady demographic change.
Enter “Talk American,” a program taught by Laguna Niguel speech pathologist Jill Farman, one of a gradually increasing cadre of specialists offering courses in accent reduction at colleges and businesses in the county.
For some students, improving their tone and adopting the “step up, step down” rhythms of American English mean a better relationship with an American boyfriend, the end to taunts by their kindergarten-age children, or an increase in sales on the job.
Amper practices daily in her car using Farman’s cassettes, and already has noticed an improvement in her office relationships. And Mexican-born Miguel Diaz of Santa Ana said two courses that he took with Farman--one of them at the Irvine company where he works--led to a promotion.
But the courses are not without controversy.
Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana insisted on changing the title of Farman’s class from “Reducing a Foreign Accent,” to “Improving Your English Pronunciation,” fearing her title might offend the immigrant community by implying that accents are shameful.
And some students said they suspect complaints about their accents are motivated by discrimination.
Rosario Alcaraz, 50, who pursued English studies at the graduate level in the Philippines, said her previous Orange County boss lauded her as the best employee in the collection department, urging others to emulate her style.
Not so in her current job. After a customer in Georgia complained that Alcaraz sounded “rude,” and her boss reprimanded her, Alcaraz signed up for Farman’s class.
“With my job, I am dealing with a lot of people. I know that there are some who are discriminating. Even if I don’t mean to be rude, they say I’m rude, and it affects my job,” she said. “Why is it that some people, they find British accents classy, but an Asian accent, they call it no good?”
Alcaraz said she doubts she will ever lose her accent completely because she continues to speak Tagalog with other Filipinos and is encouraging her children to learn the language.
But for work, she said, it will serve her well to speak English more slowly, open her mouth wider for “ah” sounds, and practice the “f” and “sh” sounds that come slowly to native Tagalog speakers.
Her enthusiasm, however, is tainted by a mild resentment.
“When they hear that you have an accent they immediately jump at you,” she said of some clients she deals with on the phone. “I feel this should not be, because everyone here is an immigrant. But when you’re in Rome, do as the good Romans do.”
Professionals in the field of speech are more than aware of the need for sensitivity.
Over the past three years, the term accent reduction has been largely supplanted by accent enhancement or improvement, said Judy K. Montgomery, an assistant professor at Chapman University in Orange and president-elect of the Maryland-based American Speech-Language-Hearing Assn.
The association stresses in its literature that accent classes are elective, and that accents are not to be treated as speech disorders.
“We don’t want anyone to deny their culture or deny their ethnicity,” Montgomery said. “And we don’t want to make it sound like an individual has a disability. They don’t. They may just need a broader repertoire. The point is to Americanize the use of English, because that’s what we respond to in this country. It’s that ‘You sound like I do’ that makes people comfortable.”
Bahman Sepahvan, who recently started a mortgage company in Irvine with his friend, Ali K. Darian, 35, said the pair, both from Iran, came to Farman’s class precisely to make potential customers more comfortable.
“Even Iranians want you to sound American,” the 37-year-old Sepahvan said, joking.
In class recently at the end of Farman’s four-week course, Sepahvan and others videotaped themselves one last time and complimented one another on their improvements. One native Spanish speaker no longer mixed “v” with “b,” and Darian was praised for picking up the singsong of American English, a stark contrast to the flat tones of Farsi. All said they watched newscasters vigilantly for that uniform American accent that rarely betrays ethnicity.
For Sonia Bautista, 35, a dentist who moved to Mission Viejo from the Philippines several years ago, speaking English strained her breathing, sapped her confidence and limited her patients’ ability to understand her when her back was turned. It also led to bitter fights on the phone with her Van Nuys boyfriend, who complained that she should “speak up.”
“He would say, ‘Why can’t you communicate better? I can’t understand you,’ ” Bautista recounted after Farman’s class. “Since I’m a dentist I talk to people all the time. I can see when people have trouble understanding me because they look to my mouth instead of into my eyes.”
The class has helped turn things around. Because she puts less strain on her vocal cords by breathing properly, she is more easily understood on the job, Bautista said.
“And my boyfriend doesn’t yell at me anymore,” she added shyly. “I think any foreigner who believes they have a problem should enroll in a class.”
Montgomery said the field is becoming increasingly popular: Five years ago, there was only one person in Orange County to whom she would refer clients hoping to hone their American accents. Now, there are “10 or 12 I would have great confidence in.”
“It’s hot right now. Some people say they’ve been looking for something like this for 20 years,” said Farman, who also teaches at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo and Golden West College in Huntington Beach. “People want this stuff. They’re clamoring.”
Nancy Hiser of Newport Beach-based Speech Communication, which has about 30 corporate clients, said they used to be predominantly defense and aerospace companies. Now, she said, many are in the biomedical, health and computer engineering fields.
FileNet, a software company with 500 employees in Costa Mesa, has paid Hiser to work with small groups of interested employees since a few requested a course in 1992.
Miguel Diaz swears by it. Five years ago, he was cleaning bathrooms at Trimedyne Inc. in Irvine, a recently arrived Mexican immigrant who spoke no English. Today he is a computer technician in laser manufacturing.
“I feel more confident. It encouraged me to move up,” said Diaz, who persuaded his supervisor to attend a class with him and then helped bring Farman to Trimedyne to teach. Diaz, 32, is determined to keep improving--fishing for words he does not know, practicing them while driving and repeating them in front of the mirror at night in his Santa Ana home.
“Then I try to bring it up in conversation, to prove that I did it right. I’ve gained a lot of words in that way,” said Diaz, whose most recent victory is pundit.
Even after he became fluent in English, Diaz said, his accent hurt him.
“Sometimes, what you’re saying is right, but you don’t give the right pronunciation, the right pitch. Sometimes, people don’t understand or they pretend that they don’t understand,” he said. “It blocks the communication. A lot of people stop at that. They don’t go beyond it.”