To sound more American

The Baltimore Sun

LOS ANGELES -- Sitting across from his teacher, Edgard Jimenez 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 Jimenez reduce his accent.

"Chu," Jimenez 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 Jimenez, 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 around the country, immigrants and other people 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 work force is prompting a surge in enrollments. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association reports a 15 percent 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 past few years, from 1,500 copies after its 2004 release to nearly 5,000.

Some courses report waiting lists; others have added instructors to meet the demand. Judy Ravin, president of the Accent Reduction Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich., said she has hundreds of students who follow her program, "Lose Your Accent in 28 Days."

"As our work force becomes more and more global," she said, "these classes are becoming more and more popular."

Students said they are self-conscious about how they sound and worry that their accents limit their job opportunities or their social lives.

Jennie Lo, 43, of Culver City, Calif., 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 that 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. 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 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, for example, charges $100 per hour for an individual lesson. 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, Urbana-Champaign, 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."

Although 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 might assume he works as an engineer or computer scientist. If someone speaks with certain Spanish accents, people might think he is a recent immigrant working in landscaping or the hospitality industry.

Some accents are more desirable than others, said Robin Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. For example, a French accent evokes 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. Basically, the American accent takes all the distinct regional dialects and flattens them, she said.

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

Anna Gorman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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