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New York Immigrants Work on Eliminating their Accents - 2002-10-27

Most immigrants to the United States face daunting challenges in the struggle to become new Americans. There is a new culture, and often a new language to learn. But even after learning to speak and understand basic American English, a strong foreign accent can still be an obstacle in the assimilation process. But there's hope for those who want to sound more 'American,' learned at an "accent elimination" class in New York.

In a classroom at Queensborough Community College in Queens New York, about 12 students from four continents are struggling hard to learn what most Americans take for granted the American accent. This evening, Helene Spierman an experienced speech coach, is their dedicated guide in 'foreign accent elimination.'

"The objective is to get people to be able to pronounce American more fluently so that other Americans, native-born Americans can understand them better," she tells her students.

Ms. Spierman says that a good attitude helps as much as good information and good practice. "The first thing I try to get them to do is to realize that they are going to be changing. And that it might be a little scary for them. And the second thing for them to try to do is to hear the difference between American speech, American English, and their accented English," she said. "For instance, we stretch our vowels out before certain consonants. Instead of saying 'bat,' when say you've been bat. I hold the 'AH' [sound] out a little bit longer. You've been BAD. And that makes it sound different than 'bat. If you are a batboy, then you are holding the bat for the baseball players. It's not that you've misbehaved. Also holding consonants out. For instance, a final "s." As in 'I need some gassss.' If it's at the end of a sentence it's held a little bit longer," she explained.

During the day, India native Sachidananda Peteru teaches medical technician skills at a local college. But tonight, he is a student taking copious notes both by hand and by tape recorder. This is the second time he has taken this course. "I found some difficulty in speaking and making my students understand what I speak," he said, nothing that students complained to his director, "who asked me to slow down so people can understand.... They told me to seek certain courses in the college. Then I found this course, which is exactly what I was looking for," he said.

Mr. Peteru said people who want to develop an American accent "have to listen and watch the people talking carefully. How they move the lips and the teeth and the mouth and the jaw. Break up the words according to the vowels, and speak slowly, clearly, [with] stress on each vowel and consonants properly. That's where I make mistakes."

Forty-year-old Maria Gonzales and her family came to New York from Colombia, South America several years ago. Ms. Gonzales has already graduated from an American college and wants to continue her studies in child counseling and the behavioral sciences. But she says her strong Spanish accent has been a significant obstacle on the road to success.

"I want to speak English in the same way like I speak Spanish! Quickly. But I can't. So it is hard, you know," she said.

Ms. Gonzales admits she is embarrassed by her accent. "For example, last summer I had an interview trying to get a better job in my career, the behavioral sciences. Immediately, the person that made the interview, he told me you [have] a really good skills, you have a really good grades, but your problem is the accent. So I stop[ped] looking for behavioral science opportunities, and I am taking this course. Because I want to be something in America ... to have a better life."

Some people want to lose their accents to enhance their personal, rather than their professional lives. Annie Kuan, who came to America from Hong Kong twelve years ago, already runs a successful small clothing factory. She wants to be able to communicate her feelings more effectively with American friends and acquaintances.

"Because I have a strong accent, they don't understand what I am talking. ... In just a few minutes, they are get very [bored]. I want to speak very good, correct English." she said.

All this is why teacher Helene Spierman sees this course as more than an education for her students. It could be the door to a new life in America a door she is both proud and gratified to help them open.

"It's extremely gratifying and, of course, along with that goes a tremendous responsibility to do what I do well… Mainly I find that the people I have are very hard workers. They worked hard to be able to get here [to the U.S.]. They've worked hard to be able to make a life here for themselves. And they are grateful for the encouragement they get from me in making them work even harder. Because they know it'll pay off in the long run," she said.