In an ivy-covered building hidden in the depths of the medical campus, a big wooden table sits in the center of a small blue room. At the head of the table sits Senior Speech-Language Pathologist Gordon Krainen, who leads a workshop titled “Speaking American English: A Communication Skills Workshop for English Language Learners.” Surrounding him are five participants from across the world, and with Krainen’s help, they’re all trying to master the American accent.
This is the third week of the seminar, and they’re working on the differences between “s” and “z” sounds. It’s a difference that can seem obvious to a native English speaker.
“I didn’t know about these things until I started studying this,” Krainen assures the group.
But many non-English languages don’t distinguish between the two sounds. They have other sounds native English speakers might not pick up on at first, too. According to the Linguistic Society of America, this is part of the reason speakers of different languages have different accents. While humans are born with the capability to produce and perceive all the sounds available in the world, they learn early on which ones are used in their own languages and which ones not to worry about.
“The older you get, the harder it becomes to learn the sounds that are part of a different language,” the Society’s website reads.
This is exactly the task the six registered course participants — Krainen shies away from using the word “students” because he sees them as his equals — are trying to accomplish through this 10-week course. Each participant has been learning English for at least a decade, so they all have a strong command of the language, but none of them previously practiced speaking much until they came to the United States. And while every participant has their own reason for taking the course, all are centered around the same theme: building confidence.
Zoey, an LSA sophomore from China studying computer science, asked not to have her last name printed—she hasn’t brought up the fact that she’s taking the class with her friends yet. Smiling from the moment she hurries into the room with a bulging backpack and headphones around her neck, it’s difficult to imagine her classifying herself as shy. But she came to the workshop because she found herself too nervous to speak in history discussions. She worried her professor wouldn’t be able to understand her accent.
“I’m afraid of speaking out because they cannot understand what I’m saying,” she said. “And I have the idea that my pronunciation is somewhat different from the standard American accent, but I cannot tell where I should improve, so I took this class to see what’s wrong with my pronunciation.”
Next to her sits Sandra, a Spanish language lecturer in the Residential College from Peru who also didn’t want her last name printed. Because she speaks Spanish at work and at home, she hasn’t had much time to practice her American accent. When she has to clarify a word for her students in English, she worries they can’t tell what she’s saying.
“If I need to clarify a word, I need to be speaking english and the student is clueless!” Sandra said. “Sometimes they’re like what? So I have to repeat the same thing.”
On the other side of the table is Laurent Burlion, a quiet visiting aerospace engineering scholar from France with a friendly face. He says his wife suggested he take the class so he would feel more comfortable speaking up— in English or in his native French.
“I’m here to learn to open my mouth,” Burlion said. “But I think it’s also useful for my French because my wife also thinks that I don’t open my mouth… And also I have remarked that here in the U.S., often people ask me to repeat. So I’m here to improve my speech so I don’t have to repeat all the time.”
Krainen is a mild-mannered guy who readily doles out positive reinforcements to his clients. He’s a trained speech pathologist and became interested in accent modification about 25 years ago. While speech pathologists often treat people who have communication or neurological disorders that affect their speech, Krainen found himself drawn to helping people who had a social desire to alter their speech. After noticing a need for an accent modification workshop on the University of Michigan’s campus two years ago, Krainen decided to started the workshop.
Most of the workshop’s participants find out about it through word-of-mouth recommendations or some limited advertising around the University and online. According to Jennifer Corey, Clinic Manager for the University Center for Language and Literacy, the department in which the workshop is housed, some of the online advertising caused the workshop to come under fire this past winter for being potentially “insensitive.” While the UCLL did not disclose much information about the pushback, Corey said she remembered it having to do with an angry Facebook comment.
“A person may have thought that we’re trying to change something that’s part of someone, and why do you want to change this person when you’re perfectly fine the way they are?” Corey said.
Indeed, it’s easy to imagine why some might question the motives of this workshop. What’s wrong with an accent? But Corey explained goal of the workshop is not to paint any accent as “incorrect” or to minimize anyone’s culture. It’s a self-selecting course that seeks to help interested people communicate with their peers.
“We’re not trying to change someone,” Corey explained. “That person is coming to us, because they’re having difficulty in whatever situation they’re in… we’re not going to get rid of their accent. We value everybody’s accent.”
Despite some pushback, the workshop continues to grow in popularity. Krainen still wants to keep it small, though—it’s more impactful that way, he says.
The small size also makes sense considering how labor-intensive the class is for Krainen. During the first hour-long class of the seminar, he has each participant complete a small video-taped assessment so he can analyze their speech patterns. He guides them through what an accent is, how they acquired their accent and the reason their languages’ sound systems are different from the one English employs.
The next week, after he’s analyzed the tapes, Krainen makes a list of goals for each person, complete with all the sounds he thinks they need to work on. Sometimes the modifications are more grammar-based, like making sure to tack an “s” sound on the end of a plural noun, and other times they’re specific vowels or consonants he thinks could be improved. Sometimes the group has similar things to work on; sometimes each person has a totally different curriculum.
Krainen doesn’t mind the work, though. He says the real challenge is keeping up with the progress his participants make.
“They’re so bright, so motivated,” he said. “I’ve got to stay somewhat ahead of them just to say well, ‘Oh OK, you guys are challenging me now.’ But it’s a real fun experience and I’m hoping to see it keep on going.”
It seems like one would have to be bright and motivated to commit themselves to the accent modification process. Krainen recommends 15-20 minutes of practice outside of class every day.
To him, it’s like playing the piano.
“I play piano, and you have to learn some basic chords, basic scales to learn the tune and then to get really good you’ve got to do it for a long time and really go over these things,” he said. “You could take lessons for almost forever and keep on improving… it’s the same idea of fine tuning.”
Burlion agrees constant practice is the only way he would actually be able to develop a more American accent. Even if he does that, though, he knows it could take him a long time to get to where he’d like to be.
“I feel mistakes, but it’s step by step,” Burlion said. “I think I need to practice a lot. But I have realized that I can do it. I can practice, and step by step it’ll come.”
Sometimes, though, practicing itself is a daunting task for Burlion. He says he’s finding the class valuable, but now instead of feeling more able to open his mouth, his new knowledge of American pronunciation makes him want to keep it shut all the more. In class, Gordon stresses the importance of exaggerating certain vowels, but Burlion worries about overdoing it.
“I’m afraid to exaggerate and make people laugh, you know? If I say I need to SOOOOlve the PROOOOOBlem, people will laugh,” he said.
Even if he doesn’t practice his own accent much at work, Burlion finds himself paying close attention to how his colleagues speak.
“Now every time I go to a seminar, I understand the math or something like that — it’s very interesting — but I’m focused on the accent! I’m like ‘Oh wow, they speak so well!,’” he said. “I could not do any seminar! Not because of the math or engineering stuff, but because of my accent. I find everybody — they speak so well!”
Of course, the intricacies of an American accent can’t be learned in just 10 weeks. Jason, a Chinese engineer who isn’t affiliated with the University, found out about the workshop through his boss at Chrysler. He found the course so helpful that he’s currently taking it for the third time.
“I think the first purpose (of taking the class) is to improve (my) work relationship with my co-workers, because they are all Americans,” Jason said. “I think the second purpose is also life, because I’m living in the U.S., and it’s an English-speaking country. When I watch TV or read the news or read books, I have to speak English. So it’s much better for me to improve my English.”
Chan Jong Na, an enthusiastic and talkative LSA sophomore who goes by CJ, is on his second time through the workshop. Originally from Korea, he spent two years of high school in Michigan but came to Krainen because he felt like he could only improve so much on his own. Na is so dedicated to modifying his accent that he also pursued other avenues of working on it.
“I took an Intro to Acting class last semester,” Na said. “I think it helped me speak better English. It’s more vibrant, acting— it’s lively English.”
Na and Zoey, who are taking this class on top of their regular academic schedule, say finding the time to practice is almost an impossible task. While Zoey hopes to continue working on her accent next year, she thinks it’ll be easier for her to practice on her own from the textbook all course participants get for the workshop.
“For the next year, I think I’ll have more difficult courses, and (it’ll be) hard for me to make time for this course,” she said. “But I think I may follow the book and practice following the recording and try to speak more English.”
Na agrees it can be overwhelming to work on his accent at the same time as his schoolwork, but he says it helps to remember why he’s taking the class in the first place.
“(In the past) my friends would point out, ‘Hey, you said that again,’” he said. “But now I don’t hear that that much, so I have more confidence.”
It’s the last session of the class, a cold and dreary Michigan day at the end of March. The class started with six participants, but attendance has dwindled. Only Na, Zoey and Sandra could make it this week. According to Krainen, past workshops have had more consistent attendance, but he understands it can be difficult to find time.
Krainen begins the session by recording each person saying a list of words. With a small handheld camera and a little black tripod, he video-tapes each person reciting their list. Just like at the beginning of the workshop, he plans on analyzing the recording and emailing everyone a list of sounds they could continue to improve on if they choose to keep practicing.
“I want to say, I’m really impressed with all of you and the work you’ve done,” he tells them at the end of the class. Krainen is always quick to chime in with positive reinforcement, and this is no exception.”
“You’ve showed progress. It’s not an overnight process, it’s a gradual process, and you’ve got to immerse yourself. Congratulations, you guys, you did a great job.”
The class is over, but the participants want to keep improving. Sandra says she feels like she still struggles with many parts of the American accent, but she’s beginning to recognize her mistakes. Na says he knows he’s getting better but isn’t ready to stop working at it. He might come back for a third go at the class next fall.
“I’m definitely getting my points across, but the thing is, whenever I make a mistake I know it, and it’s kind of embarrassing,” he said. “So I’m trying to make that happen less often.”
Zoey feels more confident now, though speaking up in her history discussion is still scary.
“I’m still scared, even today!” she said. “I think basically it’s the information, and I’m not quite sure how the American students can speak up so quickly, and how they can organize their sentences in such a short time.”
“Oh, but if we were to learn Chinese we would be kind of slow too, to respond,” Krainen assures her.