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Help for today's Eliza Doolittles

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 1999


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.

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"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."