Sounding American? --- Foreign Accent Modification

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QINGPING YAO: I began to learn English in high school, in China.

Cleveland Clinic Rheumatologist Qingping Yao came to the U.S from Bejing in 1997. As a highly educated medical professional, he was befuddled by the fact that some of his patients and colleagues had a hard time understanding him. For someone who has published many professional articles in English, it's a blow to your pride and self-esteem when you get that… quizzical stare.

QINGPING YAO: I will ask them a question, and they will say, "What?" I spoke the words, I pronounced the words right --- I did that always. Why you don't understand?

The fact that they didn’t understand prompted Yao to sign-up for the Clinic's "accent modification program", which is the brainchild of Cleveland State University speech pathologist, Amee Shah. Shah has a personal interest in this subject.

AMEE SHAH: I, for example, came here from India speaking perfectly understandable English --- but it was Indian English.

…which Shah describes as a British tinged English, laced with the rhythmic patterns of her native dialect, and filled with slang many Americans don’t get. Shah says it took her several years to navigate the American way of speaking.

AMEE SHAH: Some of the consonants were different. We don't have something called the "hard P". When we say "Pat", it almost sounds like "Bat" to Americans. Those kinds of things would cause confusions to people, and I wasn't aware of why it's not working.

Shah developed a program that combines the basics of speech pathology, language studies and interpersonal communication. It starts with running a client through a series of tests.

AMEE SHAH TO STUDENT: Just read aloud these sentences in a conversational way.

STUDENT: "When a man looks for something beyond his reach, his friends say he is looking for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow…"

These sample sentences are full of consonants, vowels and rhythmic patterns that help identify the areas where a person's speech clarity can be improved. In all, 22 speech characteristics are measured, followed-up by one-on-one therapy sessions, and some take-home practice assignments. Shah's accent modification expertise has been tapped by a number of international students, professors and lawyers, as well as organizations like Key Bank and the Cleveland Clinic. Andres Gonzalez heads Diversity and Community Outreach for the Clinic.

ANDRES GONZALEZ: For many of us who come from other countries, even if you learn proper English, you will always have an accent when you speak. I have the accent, clearly, and I work at it every single day. What this program does is allows you to reduce that accent, while you actually increase your fluency in English.

And while improving communication between doctor and patient can improve the quality of a healthcare experience, Gonzalez says hospitals are also facing some bottom line realities.

ANDRES GONZALEZ: It's about quality, it's also about liability. If you provide the information, but the patient doesn't understand, and they take the medication more often than they should, you're clearly putting the patient at risk, and also, ultimately, the hospital system in a potential liability situation.

Amee Shah has conducted workshops on accent modification across the country, but she emphasizes that "modification" does not mean "elimination". She's proud of the accent that identifies her homeland, and she has no intention of changing because it makes some listeners uncomfortable.

AMEE SHAH: Some people just shut down anytime someone sounds different. Kind of like watching a movie with subtitles --- people say, "Oh, I can't deal with that. That's too foreign, too much work."

Shah's focus goes beyond teaching the foreigner to speak more clearly. She thinks it's also important for Americans to develop some…listening skills.

AMEE SHAH: Communication is a two-way street. All the emphasis in this country has always been on the person who comes from somewhere else.

Shah's next project is to work on the other end of the conversation. She's developing a pilot program at CSU aimed at helping incoming freshmen understand the speech patterns of international professors. It's another step toward breaking down some of the communication barriers between people who supposedly speak the same language.

And, lest you think that it's just other people who have accents, there is actually a "Cleveland accent". Take a listen by clicking here.

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