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Social Issues

Losing the Accent to get the Job

By Zara McAlister

Jennifer Karen Mortimer spends most of her time with her clients making funny faces, wagging their tongues and drawing pictures of the insides of their mouths.

It may sound like she’s a clown hired to entertain children at a birthday party. But in reality, the speech trainer and owner of the new London, Ont. based business, Lose the Accent, is helping immigrants with their English vowel pronunciation.

Following in the footsteps of South African actress Charlize Theron and Australian actress Portia de Rossi who can modify their regional dialects with a conventional American one to boost their film careers, immigrants across the world are working with professional speech trainers, such as Mortimer, to increase job prospects.

Speech Software
Photo by Zara McAlister
Jennifer Karen Mortimer uses speech acoustic software on her iPad.

With the boom in accent reduction and modification technology software readily available on the Internet, Mortimer–who started advertising her business on local classified websites Kijiji and Craigslist a couple of months ago—has taken advantage of these services to help her clients. Her clients, who mostly come from southeast Asian and eastern European backgrounds, see her because they’re embarrassed by their heavy accents or were told in the past that their lack of clear communication proved a barrier to being hired, she said.

“Some of these individuals are even shy speaking with me, so we work on their confidence,” she added. None of her clients were available to be interviewed for this story. Since Mortimer is learning Mandarin and is already fluent in English, French and Japanese, she can sympathize with adults who are expected to pick up languages quickly, even though it’s a long, arduous process. This is why she teaches one-on-one sessions tailored specifically to a client’s individual needs. Sessions can take as many weeks as the client deems necessary, she said.

If some of the goals aren’t met in a one-hour session with Mortimer, her trainees can opt out of the $30/hour lesson fee.

“This keeps me on my toes,” said Mortimer, explaining her business provides an opportunity to explore theories about speech modification.
Although speech pathologists are in high demand for a number of different reasons, modifying an accent isn’t a common one, said Mortimer.

But Jim Mullenix, a counsellor at the London Training Centre sees a lot of immigrants—a group which makes up 20 per cent of all London residents–who have difficulty finding jobs in their field, despite having the appropriate credentials. Their strong accents or fast-paced talking are holding them back, he said. He’s backed up by a 2010 U.S. General Accounting Office survey, which found 10 per cent or 461,000 employers from the random sample admitted they discriminated on the basis of a person’s foreign accent.

Jim Mullenix
Photo by Zara McAlister
Jim Mullenix, London Training Centre, works with immigrants to improve their English language skills.

Mullenix regularly communicates with a job developer at the facility, who frequently reports to employers around the city. They all come back with the same response—they had to turn down potential job candidates because their accents were too difficult to understand.

“When someone has a language barrier, the person is perceived as not being good enough,” said Mullenix.

Professionals who are proficient with their English can also benefit from accent modification services. Sylvia Whiteside, a registered speech pathologist in Toronto with another modification service, Accent Clear, sees individuals who want to work their way up the corporate ladder.

In cases when hard-working employees could benefit from refining their accents, employers will search for professional services to help them. But employers often don’t know where to look, said Whiteside. They end up sending employees to English as a second language (ESL) classes and workshops, but Whiteside said these teachers aren’t trained speech pathologists.

Although many immigrants are competent in their fields, their accents have prevented them from being taken seriously, she said. She recalls a well-respected doctor from India who one day became the subject of laughter at a conference when he said the word “buttocks” in conversation. He was actually referring to the cosmetic surgical procedure “botox.”

But once immigrants have worked hard to improve their English language clarity, they can reap long-term rewards. Whiteside swears the strong accent will not return after it’s been modified.

“Some people can even have the ability to turn it on when they are in a business meeting and off when they go home. They might not want their friends and family to think they are stuck up.”

How can immigrants they get to this stage?

“Practice,” said Whiteside. “Until it becomes automatic.”

Speech services and job training can only go so far, said Mullenix, who will only work with immigrants who have ESL proficiency level of seven or higher, with 12 as the highest level.

Although he encourages immigrants to keep their original languages, they must exercise some responsibility to accomplish their English-speaking goals if they want to fare well in their careers.

“Actions speak louder than words and that’s really the best language.”

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About Western Journalism

We're members of the University of Western Ontario's master of arts in journalism program. Our blog represents a common theme in stories through our third term.

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