WALTHAM, MASS. — When Margaret Klepacz emigrated from Poland to Canada as a teenager in 1981, she spoke no English. Although she now speaks fluently with only a slight accent, she knows that the patients in her dental practice must understand her perfectly.
"I have to be effective as a communicator," says Dr. Klepacz, of Acton, Mass. "When I speak, I would like people to listen to what I have to say, rather than to my accent."
That desire led her to an accent-modification course to work on difficult sounds and expressions. "The classes are a tremendous help, and it's fun," says an enthusiastic Klepacz.
As the United States becomes increasingly multi-cultural, instruction like this is growing in importance. "It's really catching on," says Doris Morgenstern, director of Communicative Health Care Associates in Waltham, Mass. Her clients have included a Belgian engineer, Chinese and Italian restaurant owners, an Armenian accountant, Romanian scientists, and Spanish health-care workers.
Like the so-called glass ceiling that limits some women's professional advancement, a "lingual ceiling" can stall the careers of nonnative English speakers - both men and women - if they cannot communicate well. More than 3 million immigrants entered the United States legally between 1995 and 1998.
"When you have unclear speech, misunderstandings are extremely stressful for both the listeners and the speakers," says Lois Cook, president of Speech and Communication Professionals in White Plains, N.Y. "The speakers lose confidence in their ability to communicate their ideas."
Some students enroll because of social needs. "Maybe family members were making fun of them, or someone is going into a dating situation and is not comfortable because of a heavy accent," says Patricia Wolf Gomola, a speech pathologist in Middletown, Conn. "The reasons are as varied as the people."
Even families benefit. Last month Mrs. Morgenstern began working with an engineer from Korea. Even after living in the US for two decades, he often found himself too shy to talk socially and at work, fearing that he was mispronouncing words. As a result he tended to speak quickly, which, Morgenstern says, "made him even more unintelligible."
In just one session, the man learned to pronounce "th." Now he says "Thank you" rather than "Tank you." As his English improves, even his children will benefit, Morgenstern says, because he reads to them. "He's thrilled," she adds.
Using videotapes and tape recorders, accent specialists single out the areas needing work. "It's not so much consonants and letters and vowels, it's the intonation patterns that make them hard to understand," Cook explains. "It's being able to say rhi-NOC-eros rather than RHI-no-CER-os." Teachers eliminate monotones, correct grammar, and build vocabulary.
After the first session, Morgenstern asks students to change the message on their answering machine. Outsiders can understand them better, but family members often think it's a different person. "They get hang-ups. A relative will say, 'Somebody else answered.' The person replies, 'No, that was me.' "
Ms. Gomola tells of a woman from a well-to-do family in Puerto Rico who worked in the US at a school for troubled teens. Although she was "marvelously cultured," she was "ridiculed by her co-workers. She was not able to advance."
Cook and others include culture in their instruction. "It's not only the accent, it's the repartee, the jokes, that can leave somebody on the outskirts of communication," she says. She discusses the history of baseball, identifies familiar names, and teaches students sports jokes to make them feel more confident with small talk.
As she explains, "When you fit in, which is what you do when you understand culture, you're more effective."
Cook once coached an Asian man employed by a Fortune 500 company in the American approach to sales and customer service. She also worked with a religious group that brought clergy members from around the world. Some malpractice insurance companies are also urging foreign-born physicians to modify their speech. If an accent confuses patients, insurers warn, doctors could be sued.
Still, employers find that they must guard against "accent discrimination." The US Department of Justice has run ads warning employers that the "ability to speak fluent English" must not affect their decisions in hiring.
Cook gained a new perspective on her work during a trip to France. "I had a hard time understanding the French, and they had a very hard time understanding my accent," she says. "That made me even more sensitive to the frustrations of clients."
She also works on body language, which can have a greater impact than verbal communication. "If somebody looks away, looks sideways or down, Americans might think they are sneaky people. The people looking away think they are being respectful."
Joel Etra, a speech pathologist in Norwich, Conn., calls those cultural differences "the unwritten rules of communication that we never even notice until they are violated." He offers examples: "How long can you look somebody in the face, and how close do you stand to somebody while you talk to them? Imagine if you are from a country where it's a tradition to stand closer. And how loud do you talk?"
Colloquialisms also make nonnative speakers feel left out. Morgenstern includes a session explaining expressions such as "lose one's shirt," "hit the roof," "be in hot water," and "twist someone's arm."
Nick Istrate knew little English when he arrived 10 years ago from Romania. Gradually, he says, "I just learned." But when he began a new career in real estate, he worried that his accent might be a liability.
"I know the words, I know how to speak, but the pronunciation is bad," says Mr. Istrate, of Lexington, Mass. Accent modification classes made him aware that he chopped off the end of words and did not pronounce certain consonants.
"It definitely has helped," he says. "My friends no longer ask, 'What did you say?' Before, I had to repeat two or three times."
Accent reduction is even being driven by technology. "There are so many voice-recognition phones now," says Ronald Kuebler, a speech pathologist in Columbia, S.C. "If you're placing an order and you're not really speaking to a person, but to a machine with voice actuation, the machine may not understand."
To Americans, Cook offers a suggestion: "It's better to say, 'I'm sorry, I didn't understand you. Would you mind explaining it in a different way?' rather than to pretend you understand. The speaker will appreciate that." Pretending "is just so embarrassing for the speaker. It takes away their dignity."
Yet accents add character. "I don't like to get rid of the accent altogether, says Gomola, echoing the comments of others in her field. "I think an accent is charming, and it's individual."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society