New York: accent reduction

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jun 7 15:33:26 UTC 2007

[image: The New York Times] <>

June 5, 2007
 Accents on the Wrong Syl-LA-ble By MICHAEL T. LUONGO

It was not what Sergei Petukhov said. It was how he said it. "The way I said
'accent reduction,' he couldn't understand me," Mr. Petukhov said. That was
enough for Mr. Petukhov, a Moscow native who works for the law firm of Kaye
Scholer as a scientific adviser, to get his employer's approval to pay for
training to decrease his Russian accent. He is one of many educated
non-native English speakers working in the United States who take voice
training and accent reduction to improve presentations, workshops and
everyday conversations with their American-born co-workers.

Mr. Petukhov's accent coach, Jennifer Pawlitschek, said that from her
experience in New York, the field is growing. "Here it's hot, and I think
it's because it's an international crossroads," she said, both because
the United
in the city and because of New York's role in global financial
Ms. Pawlitschek, who has a master's of fine arts degree in drama from
the University
of California<>,
Irvine, said "the posture of the mouth" affects accent. She teaches how to
change "the way you hold your jaw, lips and tongue," along with stress and
intonation.  She contended that the term accent reduction is a misnomer.
"Accent reduction is learning an accent. It is learning an American accent."

Another coach, Brian Loxley, has a doctorate in speech from Southern
Illinois University as well as degrees in theater. He began helping
foreign-born students in 1983, when he headed the speech and theater program
at Pace University<>in
White Plains. Mr. Loxley said speaking English correctly allows
to look at you like you're a leader and your ideas count." His clients, he
explained, are "educated and brilliant people but they're having trouble
making themselves understood." Ms. Pawlitschek said the "r" and the "l" are
problematic for Asians, and the "v" and the "w" for Indians, who also often
have "a mix of their own mother tongue and then a British layer on top of
it." Some problems appear across cultures. "The 'r' is fascinating," she
said. "You can go to so many countries, and the 'r' is done in different

Non-native speakers may not even be aware that they are speaking
incorrectly. Melanie Hua Chen, 37, was born in Beijing and works as a lawyer
for UHY Advisors, informing clients on tax issues in China, Taiwan and Hong
Kong. She has lived in the United States off and on for 10 years and has
worked with Mr. Loxley since 2005.  "Taking the classes with Brian, I
started to realize that some Chinese have trouble with words with 'r' and
'l,' " she said. "I did not know this problem existed, until pointed out."

Often trained as actors, some coaches use techniques they learned to reduce
regional American accents or to affect foreign accents. Ms. Pawlitschek
teaches clients jaw exercises and muscle relaxation to reduce "a tightness
in the jaw that nasalizes the sound." Her exercises focus on mouth muscles,
and her clients listen to themselves from recordings and practice speaking
in front of mirrors. Mr. Loxley uses similar techniques. Ms. Pawlitschek
said she also used videos that show how the mouth should be positioned. Both
she and Mr. Loxley give phone training to clients who are traveling or too
busy for appointments.

Judy Ravin, who runs the Accent Reduction Institute, based in Ann Arbor,
Mich., said the institute works with clients directly and offers books, CDs
and other teaching tools. Ms. Ravin developed her program, which is called
the Ravin Method, in 1998 while teaching English pronunciation at Eastern
Michigan University in Ypsilanti. Her goal, she said, is "to make people
independent." The CDs and video programs allow clients to "model the
articulation techniques and how to place their mouths." The materials are "a
visual model," she said, so that "people don't have to get on a plane to get
to us." According to Ms. Ravin, the company has grown from working with a
handful of local automotive industry clients to working with over 50
corporations and universities.

One of her clients, Pascal Kinduelo, 39, has worked for
the last seven years. A native of Congo, he grew up speaking French
now lives in Ottawa. But most of his customers and co-workers are in the
United States. "Oftentimes over the years, on a conference call I was asked
to repeat myself or to clarify," he said, adding, "So I thought, O.K., there
was something I needed to do." He said he found Ms. Ravin's company on the
Web. "They were offering this remotely and so I didn't have to go to
Michigan," he said, instead using "live video sessions."

In addition to pronunciation techniques, Mr. Kinduelo said they caught
"specific technical words that could have been confusing" during a dry-run
for a presentation. Now, he said he gets fewer "looks like a deer caught in
the headlight." Training fees and duration vary. At the Accent Reduction
Institute, group training begins at about $40 an hour a person, and
individual training at $100 an hour, with additional fees for materials.
What Ms. Ravin calls Webinars can cost as little as $20 an hour, and clients
"can dial in from anywhere in the world and have a live presentation." She
believes "people should expect results quickly, after 10 to 15 hours." Ms.
Pawlitschek charges from $75 an hour for semiprivate lessons and $100 to
$125 an hour for private. Some clients have seen her for years, and she says
she believes that developing the proper "kinesthetic skill" takes time "so
the muscles will default into position."

Mr. Loxley coaches individually, at a fee of $150 an hour, or $210 for an
hour and a half session, plus material and travel time, though most clients
visit him. Regardless of the trainer, some clients pay directly, others are
covered by employers. Referrals, advertising, a Web presence and Craig's
List are ways trainers get clients. Of course, not everyone sees an accent
as something negative. Ms. Pawlitschek said that particularly for her
clients from the United Nations, "there is a lot of strong feeling there
about the validity of all accents and dialects," and the emphasis is on
"pronunciation." Mr. Loxley said that people once viewed accent reduction as
"an attack on heritage," but that is less the case now. His clients, he
said, "are very good at their jobs; they just want to be better."
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