Armed with a tape recorder and endless patience, Sharon Heffley has spent the last 17 years unraveling the knot of mispronunciations and garbled syllables common to many international professionals.
Heffley operates the Accent Modification Center out of her home in northern Virginia, helping upwardly mobile professionals smooth accents that may be holding them back.
“Most of my clients do not come saying they want to assimilate so that nobody knows that they weren’t born here,” Heffley said during an interview. “They want to be more competitive with their American counterparts.”
Dean, a 40-something computer engineer, got the Heffley treatment during a recent lesson. He’d spent five minutes wrestling with a common household word and was getting nowhere.
“Bezz. Bezz. Bezzzzzz,” he said.
“You must feel the tongue go up,” chirped Heffley, a short, bespectacled woman with a firm nature and an unerring ear. “Do it again, 10 to 15 times!”
A dozen attempts later, success: The Chinese-American man correctly pronounced “beds.”
Studies suggest that in corporate America, an accent can mean missed promotions and more time spent behind desks instead of with clients, explained Oscar DeShields Jr., a professor of marketing at California State University, Northridge.
DeShields, who studies accents among salespeople, said customers often see an Irish brogue or a spicy Spanish accent as a cue that someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
“People look at you as being stupid. It’s one of those stereotypes,” he said. “If you can’t get your ideas across ... it’s of obvious repercussions.”
Heffley’s process begins with an individual assessment and a plan of attack.
Problems range from pacing — a timing issue, for example, is what causes that trademark Indian accent — to syllable emphasis, or the difference between saying com-PU-ter and COM-put-er.
Often entire ethnic groups share the same difficulties.
“There are a lot of problems with final consonants and that’s usually a problem with Chinese speakers,” she said. “In Japanese, they don’t have two distinct sounds 'r’ and ‘l’ they have something in between, which is why Japanese often confuse ‘r’ and ‘l’ in English.”
While Heffley doesn’t specialize in any one accent, she’s found a niche among Virginia’s growing Asian population.
As the number of international professionals rises, services like hers have grown as well. New York-based Accent Master, for example, promises to “increase your success at work” with its accent smoothing software, a $129 CD-ROM; it also offers video training via teleconference at $836 for an 8-week session or $1,136 for a 12-week session. Lose Your Accent CDs, selling for $50, guarantee to quash the toughest twang in 28 days.
And from coast to coast, companies like Heffley’s promise to reduce, soften or “neutralize” bothersome accents.
At Heffley’s weekly classes, students read winding passages into a table-mounted microphone as Heffley records. Afterward, they listen to the tape, Heffley stopping to offer blunt — but reassuring — criticism at each flub.
Between courses, students are urged to spend time speaking English in mirrors to observe how their mouths move and to chat more with their children, who may be better English speakers.
Costs for the courses, which are offered in group and private sessions, range from $1,200 to $1,800.
Kenny He, a Chinese-American who works in Reston, shuffled through a handful of software sales jobs when he first arrived 16 years ago, his accent stifling him at each stop.
His presentations baffled co-workers. Customers would drift while he made his sales pitch.
“I was afraid to pick up the phone ... people wouldn’t understand me,” said He, whose managers finally sent him to Heffley. “I would speak too fast and (on) some wordings my pronunciation wasn’t clear.”
Dean, who like many of Heffley’s students doesn’t want to be fully identified, found himself struggling to communicate even after nearly two decades in America.
“It’s kind of frustrating,” he said. “People get the wrong idea because I’m saying it wrong.”