Speaking without an accentby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
After studying the language for years, non-native English speakers often have another hurdle to overcome -- an accent. Many take advanced language classes to try to eliminate, or at least minimize, their accent. Often they're professionals who see an accent as a weakness in a competitive workforce.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Sourav Bhunia, a native of India who started studying English in grade school, considers himself fluent in the language.
He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, works as a scientist at a leading biomedical company and lives a cozy life in the suburbs. He leads a successful life by most accounts, but there's still one thing he would like to change.
"I realized long time ago, [that] my English is not at the point that I can really participate in life here fully," said Bhunia, 45.
Bhunia is among the many non-native English speakers who strive to be better understood. He decided to take a course at the University of Minnesota to improve his accent. His goal, to sound more American, and less Indian, when he speaks English.
"We as Americans tend to make some judgments and assumptions about people's credibility, their expertise and their education based on how we perceive them communicating," according to Linda Halliburton, director of the continuing education program at the university.
Classes for students who want to improve their pronunciation are relatively new around the Twin Cities, according to Halliburton.
While smaller language institutes offer similar courses, the university's program is the first to also help professionals overcome cultural barriers to communication, she said.
According to Halliburton, non-native speakers often don't speak up in their organization. "Whether it's in meetings or in interactions with their supervisors because they're not confident of their skills, or they don't understand how in America we really do sell ourselves in the workplace. Their culture might be a little more humble and might not necessarily think highly of people who sell themselves," she said.
At a recent class, Instructor Annie Marrin guides students through an exercise about stress syllables.
"You should tap your pen or pencil every time you hear a stress syllable," said Marrin, who's been teaching English as a Foreign Language for six years. "Ok. Alright, ready?"
Colombian-born Diana Bachmann and Vietnamese-born Tam Pham practice tapping along to a classic nursery rhyme, "Jack and Jill."
Poems and songs are a good way to practice English because they have consistent rhythm patterns, according to Marrin. She adds that rhythm tends to be difficult for most people who learn English, regardless of their native language.
"English is a stress-timed language, so the important information we convey it through stress and intonation," Marrin said. "That's not the case necessarily in other languages."
Most of the students in the class have full-time jobs, and many have their employers pay for the four-week class, which costs $750.
In the long run, experts say having clear pronunciation also helps improve a person's credibility, especially at work.
No one knows that better than 58-year-old Pham. He's a computer network specialist for the Metropolitan Council in St. Paul and has lived in the U.S. since 1975.
"I have been trying to learn English by myself for a long, long time all the time," Pham said. "Finally, my manager told me, 'Well, you better take some English classes, because people don't understand you'."
Halliburton, the program director, says most students who take these classes are professionals who, like Pham, see reducing their accent as a way to remain competitive in the workforce.
"They're really seeing polishing their English communication skills as a next step in their progress to reaching their personal and professional goals," she said.
Which brings us back to Buhnia.
One of his biggest challenges is thinking about how to move his face and jaw muscles when he speaks -- something most native speakers usually don't even think about.
"When you say sixtieth, you have to stick your tongue out," he said. "I know I can do it right by sticking my tongue out, except I think it'll look funny."
Marrin responds, "Try it with your tongue sticking out and we'll tell you if it looks funny."
Buhnia and the students laugh.
Depsite these challenges, Buhnia said he's never felt discrimination because of his accent.
And he agrees with the others -- the goal is not to lose the accent, but to adopt a more American way of speaking.
- Morning Edition, 10/28/2008, 6:50 a.m.