Accent modification: the finishing touch

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Lai Xu had studied English since she was a teenager in China. She had a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard University. But as a medical student at the University of Pittsburgh, she realized many of her patients could not understand her.

So she enrolled in UPMC’s Foreign Accent Modification Program, a course aimed at students and professionals who are usually proficient in English, but have strong accents that make it hard for people to figure out what they’re saying.

Dr. Xu, 35, is now completing her residency at the University of Iowa, and said the lessons she learned in the UPMC course have significantly improved her ability to work with patients. As a Ph.D. student, she said, her accent was not a problem, but as she began practicing medicine, she realized she needed to speak more clearly. 

At the start of the course, students complete an evaluation that measures their pronunciation against a standard American accent. Sara Byers, one of the program’s three speech language pathologists, said lessons are then tailored to fix their mistakes. 

The course, which typically lasts 13 weeks, begins with a focus on individual sounds, building to words, phrases, and then full sentences and passages. 

“How many times a day do you use the word 'the’?” Ms. Byers asked, explaining that nailing down a single word can radically alter the way a person sounds.

She said one of the biggest challenges is convincing adults to change their habits and consciously think about muscle movements while speaking.

For Dr. Xu, pronouncing the “th” sound was particularly difficult, since there is no equivalent in Chinese. She said learning to shape her mouth differently and properly place her tongue between her teeth was “like discovering a new world.” 

One exercise that particularly helped her was listening to recordings of herself speaking English. She said hearing herself speak through headphones allowed her to pick up better on small errors and notice sounds that were hard to distinguish while she was talking. 

Ms. Byers said the goal is not to eliminate accents, but improve communication: “We do stress that we’re not undoing their accent. We’re almost teaching them a second accent.”

The program has grown since it started seven years ago. Each of the three certified instructors sees about 10 clients a year, and the program partners with the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business, teaching around 30 international students as part of the curriculum.

Though pricing varies and discounts are offered to people affiliated with Pitt and UPMC, an individualized 13-week course typically costs around $2,000. 

Judy Tobe, who has run a private accent modification business called Claro Accent since 2008, said she holds individual and group sessions that explore pronunciation and intonation patterns. 

Ms. Tobe, who declined to share her prices, said many of her clients work in business, so her lessons often emphasize presentation skills. She sends students mp3 recordings of American English so they can practice outside of class. 

Changing your accent is not as easy as some might think, Ms. Tobe said. It requires dedication, time and practice. 

Dr. Xu said that unlike her four-year-old daughter, who learns language by mimicking, she must make a conscious effort to pronounce words correctly every time she speaks. With diligence, though, she is improving.

“Communication is so important in patient-physician relationships,” she said. Since she completed the program, “the interactions between me and my patients have become a lot smoother.”

Stephanie McFeeters: or 412-263-2533. On Twitter: @mcfeeters.

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