Surge in accent reduction classes speaks volumes

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.”

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.”

Martinez said he didn’t expect to lose his accent entirely but just to speak more clearly. Since he began classes, Martinez said he learned that he had been making the same mistakes for two decades, including switching the “s” and “z” sounds and mispronouncing the “th” sound. After just a few months, he noticed a difference in his accent and comfort level.

“Every carpenter needs to polish up the furniture he is building,” Martinez said. “It was always the issue for me, knowing I didn’t sound like a normal person. . . . Maybe it was all in my head, but now that I am confident, that has all disappeared.”

Though there is a general tolerance for linguistic diversity, experts said, English-only and anti-immigrant movements have made even some legal immigrants and naturalized citizens who sound different feel unwelcome.

“The mainstream takes its resentment against immigrants and picks something visible, like accent,” Baron said.

Accents can lead to stereotypes, linguists said. If someone speaks with an accent associated with an Asian language, people may assume they work as engineers or computer scientists. If someone speaks with certain Spanish accents, people may think they are recent immigrants working in landscaping or the hospitality industry.

Some accents are more desirable than others, said UC Berkeley linguistics professor Robin Lakoff. For example, a French accent evokes images of romance and elegance. A British accent -- the “Queen’s English” version -- suggests superiority and sophistication. An Australian accent brings to mind adventure and fun.

“Whatever the nationality suggests to us, the accent does too,” Lakoff said.

A distinctly American accent, Lakoff said, is one that has no Southern drawl, no Midwestern twang, no Brooklyn bellow. Truth be told, she said, it’s how Californians speak. Basically, the American accent takes all the distinct regional dialects and flattens them, she said.

Under U.S. labor law, employers can make job decisions based on accent only if it interferes with work, such as in teaching or telemarketing. Every year, a small number of people who believe they are victims of accent-related job discrimination take their complaints to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

William Chen, who attends classes with Mojsin and emigrated from China almost 10 years ago, said he believes that his inability to speak clearly cost him at least one job opportunity. And in his personal life, he often felt nervous conversing in English.

For many years, Chen spent most of his time near his home in Monterey Park.

“I just stayed in the Chinese community and spoke Chinese,” he said.

About six months ago, Chen, 33, decided he was tired of not being understood. He started taking classes and working on his intonation and rhythm. Chen said he has made some progress but still has a long way to go.

But not everyone has a lot of time. Carla Meyer, a Los Angeles-based dialect coach for actors, said clients sometimes come to her with just a few weeks, or days, to prepare for a role.

She has been coaching for about 25 years, working with actors, including Ewan McGregor, Cate Blanchett and Clive Owen, on developing specific regional American accents, such as rural Georgian or Long Island.

Adopting a specific American accent for a film or TV show can be very difficult, she said, in part because the actor must be able to express a wide range of emotions in the new dialect.

Most of Meyer’s clients are already at an advantage because they are from England, Australia or New Zealand and were raised speaking English.

She helps them become conversational and casual in American English, shortening the phrase “let me” to “lemme” and softening words such as “pretty” to a more everyday, phonetically sounding “priddy.”

“In business, the challenge is to be understood,” Meyer said. “For the lion’s share of our clients, it’s to have real ease and comfort in using American for every kind of emotional experience.”