You Talk Funny – Accent Reduction in New York City

On a recent Tuesday morning, Jamie Donovan, 22, was getting ready for a job interview with CBS News, where she hopes to find work in the broadcasting news department. For Donovan, a native Staten Islander, preparation means more than donning a pantsuit and straightening her hair – she must also ensure her strong Staten Island accent is in check.

“When you go on interviews, it just sounds more professional when you strip that accent,” said Donovan. “Because sometimes it does make you look unprofessional, if you’re talking the same way that you speak with your friends.”

Donovan didn’t learn to lose her accent overnight. She spent many hours a week last summer reading from workbooks. She practiced her vowels in front of a mirror. And she mimicked the pronunciations of Molly Goforth, an accent reduction specialist, who taught her how to sound like a different person.

While most linguists and speech pathologists no longer make value judgments about how people speak, prejudices about accents remain. The demand for accent reduction programs in New York has increased in recent years, many practitioners in the field have observed. Prices range from a few hundred dollars to over $2,000, depending on whether the class is online, in-person, and if the lessons are private. Some people do it to pursue job opportunities where an accent can be an inhibitor, like Donovan. Others have faced discrimination in everyday interactions and have come to loathe the way they sound.

Brian Loxley, a language coach and speech pathologist in Midtown who has taught accent reduction classes since the 1980s, said there are more teachers in the field of accent reduction, and more students too. “I have more competition,” he said.

Patricia Fletcher, a dialect, speech, voice and audition coach at the William Esper Studio for Acting on West 37th Street, said she has seen increased enrollment in her school’s classes.

“I certainly have a lot of inquires from business people, people that think if they sound a little bit more well-spoken, a bit more formal, that that would help their chances at work,” said Fletcher. “They feel as if they aren’t accurately representing themselves to other people.”

Alexandra Itskovich, 56, knows English well, and even teaches it as a second language. Still, she took accent reduction classes with Loxley after she emigrated here to try to banish her Russian accent.

When she learned with Loxley, she said she practiced neutral American speech by recording her voice and listening to it again and again.

“It’s a really disgusting experience,” she said, of listening to her accent, “but it really helps.”

Neutral American Speech is the most popular dialect to study, said Fletcher. It lacks the regional. social and class traits and nuances that identify a speaker.

The first lesson begins with testing and evaluation. Loxley describes his own technique, where he tells his clients to imagine themselves in different social interactions to gauge their native accent. He records these sessions, takes notes, and informs each client what needs to be changed in order for them to achieve neutral speech.

“We simply have an agenda for each session, and we work on certain things, such as training materials,” said Loxley. “I take key words that they mispronounce, and I write them on a card, and in the back I write them in phonetics, marking in red where the problem is.” Clients can then take these cards and practice on their own time.

Donovan is all too aware of the social stigmas that come with having a Staten Island accent.

“If I’m in this broadcasting community, I don’t want to speak the way that people from Staten Island speak,” Donovan said.

Still, she doesn’t speak in her broadcast voice when she is at home with family, or hanging out with her friends

“You feel different when you speak that way,” she explained.

For Daniel Fox, a 29-year-old actor who is originally from South Africa, the desire to change his speech is for his profession, but he also sees the value of speaking in his native accent, so he does what linguists call “code-switching.”

“I feel like if you drop the way you speak it’s like losing your original identity,” said Fox. “I think if you can hold on to them – hold on to your original way of speaking, and be able to change it when you want to – that would be the best-case scenario.”

Ivan Romero Fornes, an immigrant from Argentina, agrees. He feels that accent reduction is not necessary to survive and thrive in a new environment.

“It was a big problem when people didn’t understand what I was saying,” said Fornes, who emigrated about nine years ago. Though he’s fluent in English, he didn’t try to lose his thick accent.

“I just decided that I was sort trying to stop an identity that was me,” he said.

There’s no one right way to speak English, most linguists and speech pathologists nowadays agree. It is important to treat neutral American speech as just another dialect, rather than the “right” way to talk, said Fletcher.

“It’s very important to point out to people that one kind of speech is not better than another,” said Fletcher. “I think most teachers are now very careful to try to get that point across, and not be too judgmental about it. I think maybe in the past it was kind of presented in a kind of hard, ‘this-speech-is-better,’ and its been abandoned, thankfully.”

Name: Jamie Donovan
Lives in: Staten Island
From: Staten Island
“You feel lower.”

Name: Alexandra Istkovich
Lives in: Brighton Beach, Brooklyn
From: Russia
“It’s a really disgusting experience.”

Name: Daniel Fox
Lives in: Manhattan
From: South Africa
“I immediately switch to Neutral American.”

Ivan Fornes, on the other hand, is not trying to lose his Argentinian Spanish accent. He explains why below.

Name: Ivan Fornes
Lives in: Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn
From: Argentina
“It makes me who I am.”

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