A Von Vay Ticket For Accents

Suggy Chrai, director of pharmaceutical technology for North America at Bristol-Myers Squibb in New Brunswick, N.J., is sitting before a video camera, repeating words such as "management," "industry," and "chairperson" until he gets them right. It isn't easy. Chrai emigrated from India almost 25 years ago and still feels frustrated when he is misunderstood because of his accent. With the help of speech consultant Laura Darius, president of Corporate Communication Skills International in New York, he is modifying his pronunciation and putting the polish on his presentations at work.

Chrai, 45, is one of thousands of professionals who have called upon accent-reduction specialists to enhance their communication skills. Employees with heavy foreign or regional accents complain they are misunderstood frequently. Others feel colleagues pay more attention to how they speak than to what they say. Sometimes, situations can be humiliating. Take the Spanish-born professor, thrilled with his new job at Yale University, who told everyone he was "spending the semester in Jale."

DRAWL WITHDRAWAL. For some, losing an accent can mean winning a job. New York Speech Improvement Services (212 242-8435) had a client who said he was denied a promotion from his job as supermarket division manager because of his Puerto Rican accent. After four months of training with Director Sam Chwat, the manager was promoted to vice-president. Other immigrants, passed over on the job ladder for similar reasons, have sought relief in the legal system. Yet while the number of bias suits against employers for language discrimination is growing, few courts have upheld the claims (BW--June 21).

Professionals looking to "tawk less Noo Yawk," lose a southern drawl, or tone down a heavy foreign accent may seek the services of speech pathologists or consultants. Private lessons run on average one hour per week for 10 to 15 weeks and cost up to $250 an hour. Group lessons and community-college courses can be less intensive but usually offer better rates and a great deal of peer support. At Greenville Technical College in South Carolina, more than 100 students have completed the six-session "How to Control Your Southern Accent" course.

Most accent-reduction programs include lessons on enunciation, pronunciation, and sometimes diction. Students read from drill sheets, then imitate the instructor on audio- or videotape for review at home. Some programs specialize in business exercises with vocabulary that is specific to a client's profession.

Because of their need for effective communicators, companies often foot the bill for accent-reduction programs, sometimes held on-site. When Chrai approached the human-resources director at Bristol-Myers Squibb for help with his accent, the director found a specialist and got the company to pay for training. "It helps the company if good ideas are more easily communicated. We do not want brain power diminished by an inability to get those thoughts across," says Burke Stinson, a spokesperson for American Telephone & Telegraph, which has a similar program.

The American Speech-Language & Hearing Assn. (ASHA) offers free referrals to state-licensed and ASHA-certified speech pathologists. Check colleges for courses, often offered through a speech department or continuing-education program.

Experts are careful to emphasize that accent reduction is not meant to remove all traces of one's native speech patterns. As Diane Paul-Brown, ASHA's director of speech-language pathology, explains: "The focus is improving communication, not eliminating accents." Professor Henry Higgins would approve.

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