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Foreign Accents May Depend As Much On Your Eyes As Your Ears

HOST INTRO: New Yorkers are famous for their accents. Half of New York City’s residents speak a language other than English at home, and many have foreign accents, even if they’ve spent years in the United States. In this era of cracking down on immigration – an accent can make people a target. For decades, Accent Reduction Classes have promised to make clients sound more “American.” But as Sarah Gibson finds, critics say there are better solutions.

GIBSON1: The Brian Loxley Speech Studio is in a high-rise just a couple blocks from Grand Central Station. Spend a day here, and you get a sense of what it’s like to try to learn the American way of speaking. Loxley is a speech coach. Around noon, he’s sitting across from Faustine Badrichani, a client from France. They have a small mirror on the desk so that Badrichani can see how her lips move in English.

((SOUND: FADE IN: LOXLEY1:  January. BADRICHANI1: January.))

LOXLEY2: Say: Jan, you be wary of him!

BADRICHANI2: You be wary of him!

LOXLEY3: January.


LOXLEY4: Beautiful. (0:12)

GIBSON2: The “r” in january tends to be tricky for French speakers. Badrichani is nearly fluent in English but she’s trying to minimize her accent. She’s a fashion designer and getting a lot of press, and she wants to sound good on TV. A couple hours later, Dillon Christopher arrives. He grew up in the Caribbean and moved here to work as a network engineer. Coworkers don’t always understand him in meeting, which makes him nervous, and quiet, not how he wants to be:

CHRISTOPHER1: And I realize in this country, the one with the bigger mouth gets the job, always gets the job you know

GIBSON3: The one with the bigger mouth always gets the job – or in Christopher’s case, the promotion. So today, instead of pronouncing the word “say” the Caribbean way, like:

CHRISTOPHER2: “Say. That’s an amazing thing to say. (0:02)

GIBSON4: Christopher is trying to lengthen “a” into “a-ee”(overlay Christopher)


CHRISTOPHER and LOXLEY: That’s an amazing thing to sa-aee”.

LOXLEY4: So hit “maze” and “say.”

(fade continue and Christoper under narration)

GIBSON5: Using your mouth to make the right sounds is called oral posture. For non-native speakers, learning new sounds can feel mystifying and frustrating – just try it: seh as opposed to say-ee.

But it can pay off. Loxley has been doing this for over thirty years and he says his clients who succeed feel more confident and rise up the ranks at work. New York City has dozens of accent reduction businesses, charging between between 100-300 dollars for private classes. But critics worry that trying to get rid of an accent misses the mark. Melissa Baese-Berk is a linguist:

BAESE-BERK1: I think at some point we have to ask as a broader population when we’re going to be willing to do the work to understand people who are trying really hard! (0:20)

GIBSON6: Baese-Berk says communication is a two-way street. There’s a speaker and then there’s the listener. And listeners’ ability to understand can depend on their eyes as much as their ears, which means racial bias plays a role:

BAESE-BERK2: When you pair a voice to a face, people are more likely to perceive that voice as being accented if it’s paired with, for example an Asian face, than if it’s paired with a white face.

GIBSON7: Baese-Berk is describing a study where participants listened to a recording of a native english speaker while looking at a photo of a Caucasian face, and rated how easy it was to understand. Then, they listened to the exact same recording, this time with a photo of an Asian face. Participants said – the Asian has an accent. And that’s not all.

BEASE-BERK3: People are also less likely to understand that voice even if it’s saying the exact same thing.

GIBSON8: That’s right. People said the Asian speaker was harder to understand. Which Baese-Berk says, raises a critical question:

BAESE-BERK4: How much is actually a person not being able to understand, and how much is a person seeing a face that they think they’re not going to be able to understand? (0:12)

GIBSON 9: Linguists say this prejudice is especially strong in the United States and Europe. In many other countries, multilingualism and accents are the norm, but here, the fear of accents can match political trends. Andy Molinsky teaches at Brandeis University’s International School of Business. 

MOLINSKY1: — So in the United States there was a time when it seemed that all the villains in Hollywood movies had German accents; now I guess there’s more conflict with Russia. Perhaps a Russian accent would be seen more negatively. (0:20)

GIBSON10: The way accents can be perceived— changes. It’s hard to lose an accent. So, instead of changing the way they speak, Molinsky says non-native talkers should make their accents work for them.

MOLINSKY2: Instead of accent reduction it’s sort of like accent leveraging. (0:05)

GIBSON11: Molinsky teaches his business students American cultural skills so that their accents helps them stand out in a good way:

MOLINSKY2: People are trying to figure out what’s your brand, what’s unique that they can bring so if you happen to come from other culture interesting background you could chose to suppress it but that’s probably going to ultimately be less effective than trying to find creative ways to leverage it. (0:20)

GIBSON12: He says speakers can’t fully overcome listeners’ bias. But here’s how someone from india could use their accent as an icebreaker. Say a potential employer asks:

MOLINSKY3: Oh, where are you from? I hear that accent. (0:03)

GIBSON13: At that moment, speakers often can feel ashamed or nervous, which takes up cognative energy, making it harder to think and harder to talk. So Molinsky recommends an American strategy: making small-talk.

MOLINSKY4: Oh I’m from India — have you ever been there? No, I’ve never been there. Oh I’m actually from the eastern side of India. Oh really?  (0:06)

GIBSON14: Speakers with accents can work on communication skills in a lot of ways, but it turns out, so can native English speakers. Melissa Baese-Berk just did a study that showed: learning how to better understand accents is much easier than a lifetime of trying to get rid of an accent.

BAESE-BERK5: We have people come into the lab and just listen to non-native speech and practice writing it down.

TAPE: Chinese

TAPE: Korean

TAPE: Hindi

GIBSON15: Those were native speakers of Mandarin, Korean, and Hindi.

BAESE_BERK: And we find that after just a couple days if you train people on 5 different non-native accents, people get better at understanding not only those accents that they haven’t heard before.

GIBSON16: But even if listener training becomes popular, Loxley says studios like his will always serve a purpose. His clients are never going to lose their accents entirely— instead the goal is to be conversational and charismatic. Which is why he dedicates part of his class to the voice.

LOXLEY: So even as we do drills and grammar and all kinds of stuff, you can be using your God-given voice and letting it ring out. (0:10)

GIBSON17: It’s now late in the afternoon at Loxley’s studio. He’s working with Javier Villareal, a snazzily-dressed entrepreneur from Colombia. They put their hands on their stomachs, take in deep breaths, and practice what Villanueva will say when he has his dream job, as a bilingual radio host.

LOXLEY: Good morning roger

Villanueva: Good morning roger!

LOXLEY: Good morning roger!

VILLANUEVA: Good morning roger!

LOXLEY: Doesn’t that sound good? (0:12) GIBSON18: After that, they return to pronunciation. The hard “g” sound of “Roger” is going to take some more work. Sarah Gibson, Columbia Radio News.


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