Foreign professionals undergo speech therapy

Attention, Pakistani doctors and Indian engineers with fuzzy speech: American accents are now only 13 weeks and $2200 away.
Accents help us identify a person’s racial and ethnic heritage by the sound of their voice and serve as an audio ID tag for our cognitive system. However, they can also slow down the speaker’s climb up the corporate ladder. More foreign-born professionals from South Asia are now trying to sound American so they can communicate better at work.

Accents are challenging in hospitals, as the time to understand mispronounced words is very limited. The Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, which regulates foreign doctors, added a third exam in 2002 in which doctors have to explain medical conditions to fake patients. Here, verbal interaction and comprehension are assessed. Foreign-born doctors must pass this exam to practice medicine. After certification, doctors need communication help as they need to talk to different groups on a daily basis. To improve communication, hospitals and medical groups are offering accent reduction programs.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which employs many foreign doctors, launched an accent modification program last summer. The response has been overwhelming. Andrea Malone is a speech-language pathologist at UPMC and has patients from Iraq, Turkey, and India. “Our goal is not to reduce the accent but to improve communication. An accent is never really eliminated and this should never be the goal. An individual’s accent is a part of their personality and ties them to their native country,” Malone said.
Accent reduction comes with a high price tag. Malone’s training sessions cost about $2200 and last for 13 weeks. She said, “People may use CDs and videos that promise to eliminate accents, but [these] aren’t really effective. You need professional help to target sound.” Although it is expensive, many may foot part of the bill for accent reduction.

South Asian professionals are used to a different variety of English. This is the British-derived colonial English that is dotted with Urdu or Hindi words like desi, holi, and paans.

Vocabulary is also different; ground floor in colonial English translates to first floor in American usage. Similarly, coriander is called cilantro; lifts are called elevators. Also, American English is not picky about vowels, so words like merry, Mary, and marry sound the same. British pronunciation focuses on vowels.

In workplaces, promotions that require presentations, public speaking, and traveling can cause problems for South Asian professionals. The give-away Indian accent means talking at speed, dropping the end of words, and stressing the wrong syllables.
Sharon Heffley, a Virginia-based speech pathologist who has been softening accents for 19 years, said, “It’s a lot about melody and stress. We have to teach speakers to slow down,” she said.

Nishat Kazi, an occupational therapist from India, said, “I speak in a different way with my American co-workers than at home. Americans pronounce Wednesday as ‘Wensday,’ I would call it ‘Wed-nes-day.’ ”

Indira Nair, the vice provost of education at Carnegie Mellon, came to the United States more than 20 years ago. “I have changed my pronunciation so people in the U.S., especially students, will understand me better. I stress the second syllable in words like lab-o-ra-tory or cir-cum-ference,” she said.

South Asians stumble over the rules of stress, which vary between American and British pronunciation. Rhotic speech deals with the pronunciation of the “r” sound after a vowel. Generally, Americans are rhotic speakers — they will pronounce the “r” sound after the vowel as in “world.”

The British are non-rhotic and drop the “r” after a vowel all together. American dialects also differ; people in southern United States are non-rhotic.
Research from The Journal of Memory and Language suggests that accents are learned early in life and that simply hearing a language during childhood will help a person keep that accent into adulthood.

Some say that accents go beyond stereotyping and result in discrimination. Studies done by John Baugh of Stanford University indicate Latino and African-American speakers may find it harder to get apartments in upscale neighborhoods. In an article on, Baugh calls this “linguistic profiling.” In the article, Baugh further says that linguistic profiling is a bigger issue than envisioned and could affect other ethnic minorities who don’t speak standard English. Problems can occur even when the vocal differences are in pronunciation and not in grammar.

Others feel awareness about ethnic accents is growing. Paul Hopper, a well-known linguist from Carnegie Mellon University, in his book, A Short Course in Grammar, explains that everyone has an accent; the only neutral American accent is network or TV English. Thus, variations from network English will result in an accent.

Some South Asians, like Nair, feel ethnic accents are becoming more understandable over time. Nair, who often wears saris to work and dresses her hair in the traditional Indian plait, is comfortable with her accent. She said, “I do think comprehension is increasing with the rising international presence on campus.”

Kazi wears long Indian tunics to work and is also at ease with her pronunciation. She says her older patients may have some trouble. “They may pronounce my name as Michele as they can’t say Nishat. One of my co-workers came up with a unique pronunciation technique; she calls me ‘Knee-shot.’ ”