Accent reduction

The issue of accent keeps coming up with the students that rehearse oral presentations with me – and I’m not the one bringing it up. Many students are very self-conscious about their accent. Some of them just ask for advice on how to pronounce this or that word, others express their concern that they will receive a worse grade for their presentation because of their heavy accent, yet others are worried about their future job interviews, some of which could happen over the phone. And recently one of the students asked me whether there is an accent reduction program/service/course/whatever available at Baruch. I don’t think there is anything like that, am I wrong?

It seems to me that given a large number of ESL students at Baruch, this would be a valuable program to have. And if nothing like that exists at Baruch, maybe we should think about collaborating with the ESL program on this issue. If there aren’t very many resources available for a consultation service or a course on accent reduction, maybe it would be worth it to acquire someaccent reduction software? What do you all think?

Comments

  1. Deborah says:

    Hi Yana:

    I had mixed reactions to your post on “Accent Reduction.” So below is quite a long response, because I think you hit on something that has broader implications than just our work with BPL students.

    Initially, I felt my left-leaning instincts kick in when I read your post–accent reduction smacks of assimilation and a Melting Pot, privileging conformity to the ‘norm.’ However, I also happen to have spent my entire childhood in the Midwest-U.S., the land newscasters travel to in order to reduce their regional American accents and achieve the accent norm. In fact my mother was from Texas, and her response to people who commented on her ‘accent’ was to say, “Everyone has an accent.”

    I am often surprised when I hear of students who worry about their accents. I would say many Business Policy Professors at Baruch were not born in the U.S., and in fact, many of the Communication Fellows were not either. In fact, I would say New York City is a polyglot of accents. We live in a city where you don’t need to speak English, let alone speak it with a middle-american accent. On the other hand, in the very brief time I lived in another country, I was quite self-conscious of my own accent.

    With all this in mind I hit the Google button, and came upon a site for “Foreign Accent Modification/Foreign Accent Reduction Therapy.” (http://www.gbmc.org/voice/foreign.cfm) I was surprised that the particular link I came upon is situated within a hospital system’s website, at the head and neck center. Apparently we could find a medical component here? Does insurance cover this? They lead in with: “Success in American society depends greatly upon one’s ability to communicate clearly and effectively.” Sounds just like us! And after accent reduction therapy, “In general, you’ll begin to hear and feel how to modify your speech to communicate more clearly, and achieve a more North American sound.” They also offer “Tips on Reducing Accent.”

    I also discovered that the American Speech Hearing Language Association(ASHA) addresses the question of ‘accents.’ This reminded me that when I was in grammar school, there were twin boys who moved to town, and once a week they had to leave class and go to speech therapy because they said the word ‘quarter’ like “qwahter.” It turned out their father was from New Jersey and their mother was from Connecticut.

    ASHA’s website asks, “How do accents affect communication?” They suggest that, “Accents reflect the unique characteristics and background of a person. Many people take great pride in their accents. However, some people may encounter difficulties communicating because of their accent. These difficulties include:

    * People not understanding you
    * Avoiding social interaction with those that may not understand you
    * Frustration from having to repeat yourself all the time
    * People focusing on your accent more than on what you are trying to say”

    I think my concern with helping students change their accents comes from this list of frustrations–particularly the last. In my opinion, this is the listener’s problem, not the communicator’s. Certainly each of us wants to be understood. But I must say, that among the BPL students I have worked with, it is a rare, rare occasion that someone’s accent makes it impossible for me to understand them. I think helping students gain confidence in public speaking is probably more important, and that takes practice and experience on their part. I also wonder if focusing on ‘accent’ in oral presentations is the equivalent of focusing on ‘grammar error’ in writing. In responding to student writing, WAC teaches us to ask questions that provoke better/clearer thinking in writing. Perhaps we could think of oral presentations in a similar way. Can we ask questions to help students understand their material more thoroughly, and to thus feel more comfortable with presenting it to an audience?

  2. Yana says:

    Deborah,

    thank you for such a detailed reply.
    What can I say? I’m not so right-leaning myself, and I did not mean that everyone should learn to speak with a “newscaster-type” accent. I have an accent myself and I don’t mind it (although I used to be frustrated with myself when I had a stronger accent).
    I was talking about people who have exactly those difficulties that are mentioned on the ASHA website, particularly “People not understanding you” and “People focusing on your accent more than on what you are trying to say”. We cannot brush it off as a listener’s problem, because many listeners don’t see it that way. Not everyone wants to make an effort to understand an accent they’ve never heard before, and these students will need to deal with all kinds of people. And what if they want to move to a city that’s not as multicultural as New York?
    I also don’t address it during presentation rehearsals. At most, I would suggest to people with heavy accents to speak a little more slowly. I agree that our job as communication consultants is indeed to help students “gain confidence in public speaking”, but I also believe that many students would benefit from some sort of accent reduction consultations, which could be provided in addition to our services, and not necessarily by us, since we are not professionally trained in this area.

  3. joyce mandell says:

    The subject of “accent reduction” brings up some very real issues. As a person who teaches pronunciation skills to non-native speakers, you’d be surprised how far advanced the thinking on this has become. First of all, we “Speech and Pronunciation Coaches” DO NOT try to eradicate anyone’s accent – an accent is as personal as one’s nose or eyes or hair color. I never even refer to what I do as Accent Reduction; really, it is “Accent Addition”. What we try to do is diagnose what parts of the person’s pronunciation is contributing to his or her lack of clarity and help them target their sounds, rhythm, stress and intonation so that they become more easily understood by their listeners.

    I feel that many students at Baruch could really benefit from pronunciation training that bills itself as “Clear North American English Speech” rather than “Accent Reduction”. Not everyone who has an accent needs to take it, but in my many years of experience in the field I find that people who are motivated to improve their pronunciation skills do very well in these classes. It clears up their problem areas and gives them the confidence they need to speak up in all sorts of real-life situations that demand clear communication skills.

    Yes, there are many people out there who have no patience trying to de-code someone’s innaccurate pronunciation. Still, there are many times that even I, who have a trained ear and a strong sympathy for the struggling speaker, cannot figure out what someone is saying during a stream of discourse with too many errors in pronunciation, word and sentence stress, and incorrect intonation. The real world can be highly unforgiving if a speaker does not meet the “threshold of intelligibility” that is necessary for the listener to follow the message. All too often, even well-meaning and kind people simply grow tired and irritable when the effort required to understand someone becomes too great.

    Baruch has a terrific ESL language lab with lots of material geared towards helping someone improve their pronunciation in English. Currently this facility is underused by the general population of non-native speakers at Baruch; it is mostly used by students taking courses in Continuing and Professional Studies. With direction and coaching, I believe that students can make serious gains in their overall clarity and intelligibility. I believe students would appreciate the help, and we should provide them with every possible tool to further their success in this area.

  4. Deborah says:

    After all this informative back and forth on cac.ophony, today in my email appeared an announcement that in the fall, the CUNY Graduate Center will offer a new course: “Advanced Spoken English, Teaching, and Presentation Skills”

    The course description and objectives are interesting,

    Course Description:

    This course is designed to help students improve their spoken English in a variety of academic and casual settings through guided instruction of American-style conversation and direct instruction of spoken English fluency and pronunciation skills. Additionally, students will be instructed in the standard methods and style of teaching and presenting for the American university classroom. As part of the class, students will be discussing and learning about American culture via themes and topics that are relevant to the students’ interests.

    Course objectives:

    * To offer students opportunities to practice speaking English in a controlled environment and to provide professional feedback for continued improvement.

    * To provide direct instruction in Standard American English pronunciation and fluency training and to give students insight into their own strengths and weaknesses in this area so that they can improve on their own.

    * To give students the tools necessary to make effective presentations and/or handle teaching to diverse groups and to feel comfortable speaking in most academic and conversational situations.

  5. As a speech pathologist in Connecticut, I was fairly shocked when my son started school at the University of Connecticut. Here we were, paying tuition AND taxes, and he couldn’t understand his professors or teaching assistants. I am a speech pathologist-accent specialist, and know that this could be changed quite easily and painlessly, but evidently the powers that be don’t think it’s a problem. I understand that this used to be addressed, but is no longer being handled. This is so frustrating. As was said by another writer, I do not believe in obliterating an accent, only modifying it so that the person can be understood.

  6. Agnieszka Kajrukszto says:

    This is a fascinating discussion. I have thought about it often since I am myself a non native speaker with a bit of an accent, and my students in the CUNY system often speak with a wide variety of accents.

    When I think of “accent reduction” I think of “allocution classes” at finishing schools for upper class children. I think the class issue needs to be addressed here.

    Isn’t it true that those who are ell educated speak better? This is also true for foreign born speakers as well. Their accent may hint at foreign status, but because they mastered the grammar and style they are perfectly understandable. So I think that it is misleading to stress accent reduction classes—perhaps a better way to address our students’ needs is to provide a solid, strong education in general. We can address their pronunciation problems by teaching them the rules of this new mysterious language, making them confident about their power to communicate, and thus teaching them that they too can master it, REGARDLESS of their accent.

  7. Lynn says:

    What luck that I should finally take a look to see what everyone spends their time blogging about and I find a post on accent reduction software

    Why did I search for accent reduction? Becuase I developed a software program called Accent Master. We have several editions depending on the speakers fist langauge. I woln’t get into the details of each product I publish because you can get that information on our web site http://www.AccentMaster.com

    I will however weigh in on the overall theme of this thread. Which may be is Accent Reduction or spoken English classes prejuidice toward those with accents or even more specifically prejuidice agaist some accents?

    I don’t think so. That is becuase having an accent is not the problem. It is only when there is a breakdown in communication is when there is a problem.

    When an intelligent person has to stand on the deli line and repeat his order three times to be understood, or when people stop asking her questions because they don’t understand the answer. When the potential job on the emergency room floor is lost because of potential errors due to communication inefficency. Or a busboy on the job for 10 years and never promoted to the better paying waiter job, becuase the customers can’t understand hime. Then you have a problem.

    We have had accent reduction for a long time look at My Fair Lady and Working Girl. In a recent study 97% of accented speakers said they would like to speak like a native English speaker. They reported that it was not an attack on their identity, becuase there identity was tied up in their first langauge which would remain unaffected.

    I am learning Spanish. Fortunately it is writen the way it is spoken, but in any case I hope I learn to pronunciate well so that I am understood when I speak.

    Lynn

  8. Jill Diamond says:

    I am a former singer and actor. When I started my company, Lanartco in 1997, I wanted to empower international speaker’s of English in their communication. I created a series of communication skills programs utilizing my performance background, including one for accent improvement.

    I want to emphasize in my message today the importance of confidence for individuals speaking a non-native language. When someone’s intelligence or knowledge are questioned because of one’s lack of clarity in their spoken communication, participation from that individual can lessen. And as others have said here, we can’t rely on the listener to do their job–they simply won’t. I don’t believe that one should eliminate their accent. One needs to focus on being understood. One also needs to focus on the communication process. Understanding native English speakers better is part of the accent reduction training. By increasing one’s speaking skills, they also learn how to hear and understand messages given by others. As trainers, we can not undervalue the importance of practice, but we also need to give our participants confidence-building tools that can be applied through mere concentration.

    In my program, a prominent speaking tool we offer is called chunking. I am sure all of you accent reduction coaches out there know what I am talkinng about. Chunking aids international speakers of English in the pacing of phrases and pausing between the phrases. Within each chunk, we discuss focus words and proper intonation and rhythm. We place emphasis on this because it is not as much about pronuncation as it about rhythm. Anyone in this business knows that a native speaker of any language listens first for the rhythm of the language and second to the pronunciation of sounds. If international speaker’s of English can focus on producing the rhythm, their native English speaker listeners can plug in the sounds more easily. It is much harder as a listener to catch up to a mis-used rhythm than it is a sound.

    Every international speaker of English can use the speaking confidence that comes from building their chunking and overall accent reduction skills. When they are able to communicate their intelligence and knowledge of a language and a subject, they can then compete amongst their native English speaking peers. I am very glad to hear that Baruch is offering the Advanced Spoken English, Teaching, and Presentation Skills as Deborah wrote.

    I’m always happy to speak with folks about my proprietary accent reduction program. Contact me through our website when you are interested in more dialogue(www.lanartco.com). And I’ll be back to hear more from everyone.

  9. Eva F. says:

    How fascinating, Yana! Your post has generated some very interesting comments.

    The funny thing about “accents” is that they’re as variable from the listener’s point of view as they are from the speaker’s, and making the judgment of who’s got an accent is always a relative thing. In a highly multilingual community like CUNY, we could specify as the “accentless” variety the North American white English vernacular spoken by people like Jon Stewart. Or we could just focus on helping students be more comprehensible. I take it that’s what “accent reduction” techniques actually do: they won’t get rid of your non-native phonology, but they’ll help you be understood — by slowing down your rate, helping you prosodify (=”chunk”) your utterances into more sensible units.

    Alternatively, we could become better listeners: I’m really good with “accents” I hear all the time, and totally thrown off by “accents” I’m not familiar with. I find, though, that all it takes is some careful training on my part to overcome the hurdles of communicating with a non-native speaker whose “accent” is unfamiliar.

  10. Shannon Lui says:

    I want to add that the term accent reduction is problematic, since it imlies ridding oneself of a ‘unacceptable’ accent. A better term used to imply a choice of accents or using a particular accent according to the social situation where it is appropriate is accent modification.

    With accent modification you can include code-switching. You do not forsake your 1st language accent or regional accent for your new one, but after having learned the general American dialect, for example, you can learn to use both, or switch between both whenever you are communicating with someone who understands the cultural implications of that accent.

  11. Frank Gerace says:

    Great discussion. I teach in CUNY and am interested in helping my students overcome some of their great pronunciation problems. I have gathered some resources (including Lynn’s) for them in  <a href=”http://www.GoodAccent.com”>http://www.GoodAccent.com</a&gt; I appreciate the “left-leaning” opinions of earlier posts which I share,. However, we must recognize that the nativist tradition in this country and its consequent discrimination is not a theoretical issue for immigrants. I feel this personally. I was born in Brooklyn but went to college inthe Midwest. I was made fun of, and oddly enough at the same time, feared as a gangster because of my accent. Over the years, I guess I have lost a lot of it but my kids tell me it still comes out when I talk to my brother. I like that! I hope this will be the experience of the new immigrants and spekers of the many New York urban dialects.

  12. Alia Curtis says:

    Accent Reduction is a very touchy subject.  Some feel that it is a necessity and others feel that it is overkill in terms of assimilation.  However, my personal experience with various students and clients imply that it is a necessity for many.Many professionals have  expressed to me that it is difficult to move ahead if you speak with an accent.  Some of the difficulties mentioned were college professors not being understood by their students, marketing people not being understood by individuals in face to face or over the phone consultations, business executives who were not understood when giving presentations, doctors working in emergency rooms who had to give verbal reports, etc.  The list goes on.Often people respond to the term Accent Reduction by thinking that it is an attempt to make an individual lose completely his/her way of speaking and adopt another’s manner of speaking, when in essence it is a solution to clarifying and correcting speech distortions.  Everyone needs to pronounce correctly in order to be understood, it does not matter what language is being spoken.  Unfortunately however, some have used the fact that one has an accent to be abusive to individuals who are ESL speakers.  But that is the exception and has little to do with the necessity of clear speech and the necessity of implementing it into ESL classrooms and training facilities.www.askalia.squarespace.com  Alia

  13. I just wanted to note that a version of this discussion has blossomed on Baruch’s Teaching Blog.

  14. For information on free speech tutorials for students and the well-equipped ESL Language Lab, see http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/esllab

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