Rebecca Linquist helps Eugen Roman, lose his Romanian accent at her Campbell office as reported to Patrick Tehan of the San Jose Mercury News/MCT
SAN JOSE, Calif.—Two decades after emigrating from Taiwan, Sean Chang’s accent was a barrier to friendships with Americans. Native English-speakers found it too much work when conversation went beyond small talk, said the electrical engineer from San Jose.
Luis Ramirez, a home inspector born in El Salvador, developed a case of the mumbles when speaking English because of the insecurity he felt during inspections for Anglos. But when he spoke to Asian real estate agents with strong accents, the Fremont, Calif., man would catch himself wondering, “Did they pass the licensing test?” before feeling a pang of guilt about stereotyping someone else.
Doug Fong, on a business trip to New York, realized his angry clients were blaming him for a problem product because they couldn’t understand his Hong Kong accent. “From that time on,” said Fong of Alameda, Calif., “I knew that I needed some help.”
Fong, Ramirez, Chang and other immigrants are keenly aware that accent is one way people judge one another. But linguists who study the interplay of language and society say most Americans believe there is an objective, dominant standard How accents define us a right and a wrong, a better and a worse How accents define us for language and accent.
Coping with accents is part of everyday life in Silicon Valley. The South Bay has one of the nation’s largest populations of Vietnamese, Hindi, Farsi and Chinese speakers How accents define us not to mention that one-in-five people speak Spanish as a first language. In a way that no longer fully applies to race, accent endures as a marker of social identity, an audible flag for who is a native, and who is not. Accents can make us see someone as alluring or suave (“Bond. James Bond.”) How accents define us or as unqualified. Accents can turn a simple home repair job into a confrontation, or a vulnerable request for directions into smoldering resentment.
For one Silicon Valley woman, accent reduction is a successful business opportunity. Accents can both unnerve native English-speakers, and become barriers to career advancement for highly educated immigrants.
This is especially true in Santa Clara County, where 2005 census data shows that English is not the native language for 50 percent of adults. Which suggests that roughly half the county’s adults speak with what native-speakers hear as an accent.
Americans categorize people by how their speech measures up to a dominant standard, say linguists, even though often the listener is really applying beliefs about race, gender, class, and culture How accents define us even religion.
“You don’t have to have a foreign accent. If a blond woman comes up to you and starts talking to you in a strong Southern accent, tell me you don’t have preconceptions,” said Rosina Lippi, a linguist and the author of “English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States.” “We all have these ideas of `good’ and `bad’ language, which are all wrong.”
Linguists say objective English pronunciation is a myth. A person from Peoria, they say, does not speak better English than someone from Australia, Ireland, Alabama, Jamaica How accents define us or, perhaps, Taiwan.
But almost everyone stereotypes by accent.
“If somebody speaks with a heavy Mexican accent, that’s viewed as a negative,” said Carmen Fought, a sociolinguist at Pitzer College. “But if someone speaks with a heavy French accent because they are from Paris, it’s not viewed the same way.”
What’s really in play, Fought said, are stereotyped beliefs about France (the Louvre) and Mexico (illegal immigrants).
Still, there are immigrants who want to change their accents. Rebecca Linquist says her “English By The Hour” accent reduction classes are so busy she hasn’t taken a vacation since last year.
That everybody’s accent is OK “is a beautiful message, but in reality it doesn’t work,” says Linquist. Her clients tell her: “I want to speak clearly and effectively in American English. I don’t want people to accept my accent.”
Many in the South Bay can tell a story about how language or accent complicated some simple function of everyday life. Not long ago, Helen Moore got lost in San Jose and asked for directions.
“Everyone I asked didn’t speak English,” said Moore, “and the ones that did spoke very poorly, so I got lost more.”
Accents weren’t a problem when she moved to California 35 years ago, said Moore. But the lack of a common, comprehensible speech, she said, undermines Americans’ sense of collective belonging.
“That’s what makes us who we are. I remember years ago How accents define us I’m Irish, and the Italians were living in my neighborhood. And people would say, `You …, they’re this and they’re that.’ Nobody wanted to bother with them. I married an Italian, so I know how it feels,” she said. “But, see, everybody was willing to merge and that’s what made this country great. And these people are not willing to merge.”
Santa Clara County led California in four of the past five years in discrimination complaints based on accent filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Santa Clara County had one-quarter of all accent discrimination complaints filed in California since 2000 How accents define us more than Los Angeles and San Francisco counties, where cultural clashes seem closer to the surface.
While accents do cause daily complications, people also learn to deal with them.
“It’s not a huge hindrance in my life,” said Serena LoConte, a facilitator for a nonprofit agency who recalled several situations in the past year where accent caused her trouble. “I grew up in San Jose, so you grow up with all that. But for people who have moved here later in life, I think they’re less tolerant.”
Federal law says employers may base a hiring decision on accent only if job duties require effective oral communication and a person’s accent “materially interferes” with that communication, according to EEOC guidelines on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination due to national origin.
But accent is often overrated as a source of communication problems, Lippi said. Often, what people perceive to be an accent problem is really due to other biases.
In one experiment cited in Lippi’s book, university students listened to taped lectures by a white woman from central Ohio. Half the students were shown her photo and told she was the lecturer. The others were shown a picture of an Asian woman, with identical dress and hairstyle. They were told she was the lecturer, and heard the same tape. In comprehension tests, those who thought they heard an Asian lecturer “scored considerably lower than the kids who thought they heard someone who looked like them,” Lippi said. Fought calls the phenomenon “accent hallucination.”
“People are discriminated against on the basis of language,” Lippi said, “because that is a stand-in for something else.”
One recent Tuesday afternoon, Linquist pushed through the doors at eBay for an accent reduction class with Frank Guo, a manager born in Hong Kong.
With a motto of “Lose Your Accent & Change Your Life,” Linquist’s accent coaching attract clients who range from Italian trial attorneys to Farsi-speaking oil executives.
In an eBay conference room, Linquist listens intently as Guo reads Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty, or Give me Death” speech, stopping Guo and modeling how to position tongue on teeth for some sounds — even singing certain syllables — to help Guo hear how they sound.
“Your `R’ is still a little short,” she says. To help Guo concentrate on stretching his syllables to the appropriate length, Linquist has him tug a rubber band as he speaks his vowels and consonants.
When Guo struggles to say the “gill” in guilty and to untangle the “l’s” and “y’s” in disloyalty, Linquist sings the syllables to help him hear their pronunciation.
“You’re just going to have to stick your tongue out when you say that,” she tells him.
Former students said Linquist improved their communication skills, but the biggest result was in ho”I feel more confident,” said Ramirez, 30, who years earlier in grade school, saw his grades go from A’s to D’s when he moved to Fremont and was thrust into an English-only environment that he said caused him to withdraw from other kids. “You feel isolated,” he said.
Some linguists say accent reduction is demeaning.
“Sometimes people will be able to change their accents, but the bigger question is why is this necessary,” Lippi said. “It’s people that come from stigmatized language communities — Vietnamese accents, Sudanese accents — those are the people they market for.”
Linquist said most of her students — the most successful — are professionals, many with post-graduate degrees. The educational system has failed immigrants by not stressing accent and pronunciation enough, said Linquist, who has a master’s degree in linguistics. “Accent reduction is kind of a taboo subject in the language community,” she said. “The idea of having an accent and working to reduce it is swept under the rug.”
Find out more about Accent Reduction services offered by Fripp & Associates.