Breaking the Sound Barrier

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Breaking the Sound Barrier 2017-01-24T23:22:14+00:00
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Breaking the Sound Barrier

by Mireya Navarro
Published: July 23, 2006

Accent-reduction teachers say their foreign-born clients constantly complain of how they are made to feel like an “other.”

“A lot of them are tired of being asked where they’re from,” said Lisa Mojsin, the director of Accurate English, an accent-reduction school in West Los Angeles.

One of Ms. Mojsin’s students, Colette Fournier, weary of having to repeat herself, is working to reduce her French accent. “I don’t want to feel like I speak like a 6-year-old,” she said.

Another client, Guillermo Harpoutlian, who is from Argentina, deals with clients from all over the world as director of planning for a financial institution. He worries that his thick accent could torpedo his ambitions to become a chief executive.

“In a senior position you can’t have an accent,” he said. “You open your mouth and they say, ‘Oh, you have a beautiful accent.’ What they’re saying is: ‘You don’t know how to speak English.’ ”

Accents still do matter in this country. Sounding foreign can hinder careers and has led to accent-discrimination lawsuits. People with accents say they are often ridiculed or not taken seriously outside of their social circle.

Some accents, of course, have been more acceptable than others — English accents, for instance, which many think of as sophisticated. But until very recently, television was a tough sell for a Spanish accent outside the sitcom. It was only five years ago that Claudia Trejos, a Colombian sportscaster, anchored the weekend sports report at the WB Network affiliate in Los Angeles, and the complaints poured in. Viewers’ letters and voice mail messages suggested that she “go back to Mexico.” And her peers made fun of her accent on the radio and some local sports columnists wrote that she should be closed-captioned.

But speakers of accented English must still contend with the often intolerant American ear. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says the increase in the immigrant population has led to a rise in job-related accent discrimination charges filed with the agency, from 48 in 1996 to 161 last year. (Regional American accents are not federally protected, only those related to national origin.) In a study five years ago, researchers at the University of North Texas found that employers gave those with neutral speech high-profile jobs, while steering those with regional accents to jobs requiring little technical expertise or customer contact.