Although Tom (not his real name) was more than qualified for his job as an accountant, he found himself continually passed up for promotions. It wasn't until he left the company for another position that a former colleague told Tom the problem.
"He said my Indian accent held me back," says Tom, who has since taken accent-reduction courses, joined Toastmasters and is now a CC. "I was difficult to under-stand, which explained why I wasn't where I should have been in my career. Since taking accent-reduction classes, I've advanced at work."
Lisa Mojsin, director and founder of Accurate English in Los Angeles (www.accurateenglish.com), sees plenty of students like Tom. "Many people who have an accent aren't understood and are often labeled as foreign and thought to have grammar problems. she says. The truth is they may have a strong grasp of English vocabulary and grammar, but their pronunciation isn't correct. Their accent is distracting and listeners focus on that rather than the content of their message."
Perhaps even more important than what you say is intonation, which Mojsin describes as the "music" of a language. "Each language has its own way of singing, which includes a distinct pitch and melody." she says. "Use the wrong intonation and people won't understand you, or they will misunderstand your intentions. The Indian language is very staccato; English can sound flat when spoken with this accent. Speak English with an Iranian accent and listeners may think you're being sarcastic or angry."
Mojsin's company helps non-native English speakers communicate with confidence, clarity and accuracy. Generally she does this with one-on-one lessons focusing on reducing or neutralizing accents. As part of accent-reduction therapy, she strongly suggests that students join Toastmasters.
"Accent reduction and Toastmasters go hand-in-hand," she says. "Many people come to me with a problem [related to] speaking up at work. We work on their accent and they rehearse and practice what they've learned in Toastmasters. Initially, they are often self-conscious about their accent and hold back, but their confidence gradually increases and they speak up more."
Having control of your speech is very liberating, says voice coach Arthur Samuel Josef, author of Vocal Power (www.vocalawareness.com). "Your voice is your identity, and the way you speak affects how others perceive you," he says. "It can tell people about who you are, how you feel about yourself and what you believe in. Because your voice is your identity, it's important to not be cavalier about it.
Unless you are an actor or actress who must wipe away all traces of an accent, Josef feels that eradicating an accent is often not the best course of action.
"When you deal with a person's voice, you are actually dealing with their persona," says Josef, who trained California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to soften his Austrian accent. "When I started working with Arnold, we made a deliberate choice not to change his accent because it was integral to his identity. Instead we modified and clarified his accent, strengthening the voice and affecting pitch and resonance. It's often a matter of cleaning up the accent through singing, drilling and reviewing certain words."
Study accents and you invariably touch on the human brain and its wiring. Have you ever wondered why some people lose their accent and others don't? It has to do with the formation of the brain's neural network at a young age.
"Whether you lose your accent has to do with the age at which you became exposed to the new language," says Mojsin. "Generally if you are exposed to a new language during or before puberty, you'll lose your old accent," she says.
Musically inclined individuals with a good ear often have an easier time at accent reduction. But there is no such thing as being tone deaf, says Josef. "It's simply poor pitch discrimination, and you can train your ear."
Some accents are more difficult to remove than others. "Swedish, for instance, has a lilting sound and a higher pitch, which makes it a little more complex than some other languages," says Josef.
Reducing an accent often involves using different facial muscles than a person is accustomed to. "As an example, in Spanish there are pure vowels and no diphthongs, but in English there are diphthongs and you must use your lips to speak well," says Josef.
Accent reduction is a matter of using new mouth muscles, agrees Mojsin. "You need the correct tongue position and lip movement to speak English correctly," she says. "Once we explain this to students, a light bulb goes on, and the more they practice, the more quickly they improve."
Josef, who is also a singer, uses singing extensively in therapy. "With singing, you hold notes, which intensifies the pressure flows," he says. "You have more time to think and coordinate, and diphthongs, vowels and consonants work differently in song. I've worked extensively with Pierce Brosnan, for instance, and we've used singing to enhance the color, range and expression of his voice."
As in singing, Josef suggests that his students put the stress and emphasis on the beginning of words. "When you put the accent on the beginning of the word, it sounds more fluent," he says. "I teach people how to see the punctuation in what they're saying, which encourages them to slow down."
Although accent reduction may be somewhat labor intensive, a clear speaking voice with an excellent vocal tone is worth the effort. "In any face-to-face spoken communication, only eight percent of the impact on the listener comes from the words that are used - 37 percent comes from the tone of the voice and the remaining 55 percent from body language," says Josef. "Voice is power - literally and figuratively."
It's possible to reduce any accent, as long as you're motivated, says Lisa Mojsin, director and founder of Accurate English in Los Angeles. She offers the following tips for accent reduction:
• When watching TV or listening to the radio in English, repeat the speech you hear. Observe the mouth movements and facial expressions of native speakers and try to imitate them. Repeat what they are saying, imitating the intonation and rhythm of their speech.
• Listen to the "music" of English. Don't use the music of your native language when you are speaking English. Each language has its own way of "singing".
• Make a list of frequently used words that are difficult for you to pronounce. Ask a native speaker to pronounce them for you. Record these words, listen to them and practice saying them.
• Pronounce the ending of each word. Pay special attention to "s" and "ed" endings.
• Record your own voice and listen for pronunciation mistakes. Many people hate to hear the sound of their voice and avoid having to listen to themselves speaking. However, this is an important exercise because it will help you become conscious of your mistakes. (Videotaping is also helpful).
• List high frequency vocabulary. Make a list of work terminology that you use frequently and make sure you know how to pronounce those words. Include the pronunciation of the names of your superiors and colleagues.
• Until you learn the correct intonation and rhythm of English, slow down your speech. If you speak too quickly with the wrong intonation and rhythm, native speakers will have a hard time understanding you. Don't worry about your listener getting impatient about your slow speech - it's more important that everything you say be understood. If you slow down, the intonation matters less because people hear each word in isolation. Think about famous people and how slowly they talk. Martin Luther King, for instance, paused after beginning with "I have a dream."
• Use your dictionary. Become familiar with the phonetic symbols of your dictionary and look up the correct punctuation of words that are hard for you to say.
• Buy a book on tape. Buy the same book in printed form. Listen to the tape and read at the same time, paying close attention to the pronunciation of words, the rhythm, and the pausing of the speaker. Then, record yourself reading some sections of the book. Compare the sound of your English with that of the speaker from the recording.
• Read aloud in English for 15 to 20 minutes each day. This will help you strengthen the mouth muscles you use when speaking English. Research has shown that it takes about three months of daily practice to develop strong mouth muscles for speaking a new language.
• Be patient. You can change the way you speak but it won't happen overnight. People often expect instant results and give up too soon. You can change the way you sound if you are willing to put some effort into it.