Foreign scholars seek to lose accents in Missouri program

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat May 20 16:42:10 UTC 2006

 Posted on Fri, May. 19, 2006

Foreign scholars seek to lose accents in Missouri program

Associated Press

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Myongchee Choi came to the University of Missouri-Columbia
ready to conquer the campus. The 36-year-old visiting scholar, an urban
planner and local government official from Ansan, South Korea, has studied
and practiced English for more than two decades. Once she arrived, Choi
quickly realized that textbook English doesn't take you very far in the
linguistic melting pot that is mid-Missouri. "They just taught us grammar
and how to read," said Choi, who has adopted the first name of Clara while
studying at Missouri. "They never taught us how to speak, and how to

So Choi, in an effort to lose her heavy Korean lilt, enrolled at her own
expense in the university's "accent modification" program, where she
worked with speech therapists who normally deal with stroke victims and
childhood stutterers. Missouri has long offered such programs to nonnative
speakers, but funding shortfalls limited the sessions to only one or two
foreign students or visiting scholars each semester, said Dana Fritz, a
clinical instructor at the university's Speech and Hearing Clinic who
oversees the program. Earlier this year, the campus Asian Affairs Center
reached out to Fritz in an effort to expand the clinic's reach. A group of
16 visiting scholars from China and Korea recently completed the program,
with dozens more on a waiting list.

"We are not in the business of making accents go away, but trying to help
people really improve how they're understood," said Fritz. For Choi and
the other participants, that meant exercises such as looking in a mirror,
mouth agape, to see how their tongues form certain sounds. They worked on
consonant formation, vowel articulation, stress patterns, proper pauses,
intonation and pitch - basic aspects of speech that most native speakers
take for granted. In essence, participants have to unlearn the techniques
by which they originally learned to speak English, said Fritz.

"So much of that is inside you, it's hard to take out," she said. At many
universities, including the University of Missouri, an increase in
foreign-born graduate students teaching large undergraduate lectures has
led to minimum language proficiency requirements. Like Choi, visiting
Korean scholar Ji-Wook Kim, a government procurement officer in the
Chungnam province, isn't spending his time in Missouri as a classroom
teacher. But he too quickly realized that the English he hears on campus
bears faint resemblance to what he learned back home. "We think we speak
English," he said. "But Americans don't know what we're saying."

Accent modification students work one-on-one with other graduate students
in the Department of Communication Science and Disorders, who tailor the
sessions to each student's needs. For Choi, that meant encouragement to
"growl like a dog" while working to enunciate the words in the Langston
Hughes poem, "A Dream Deferred" during a session in early May.  Kim,
meanwhile, spoke into a computer microphone that measured his voice's
pitch and intonation, producing a mathematical curve that compared his
results with those of a native English speaker.

In Missouri, University of Missouri system curators and state lawmakers
established standards 20 years ago for public universities that require
graduate teaching assistants for whom English is a second language to pass
a combination of tests: an Educational Testing Service exam known as the
SPEAK test, and a five-minute oral presentation before a grading panel
that includes two undergraduates. Referrals to the accent modification
program are reserved for those graduate teaching assistants who need
additional remedial work, said Michael Volz, coordinator of the University
of Missouri's international teaching assistant program.

Those graduate students can also pursue additional classroom work,
including an American phonetics course offered by the Department of
Communication Science and Disorders, he said.

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list