The Talking Cure


Beneath the chandelier, in a pile atop the tapestry rug, is a headshot of Jon Bon Jovi, looking predictably postcoital, giving love a bad name. He seems to leer just as the word “style” unravels my diction and shudders my inner y’all inside Sam Chwat’s Chelsea office. “It’s ‘sty-el’ not ‘stahl,’ ” corrects Chwat. “Do you hear how the i plus l sounds combine in ‘style’? Well, you’re making them into an ‘ahl’ sound.”

This is my first 45-minute consultation with Chwat (pronounced schwah), founder of New York Speech Improvement Services, the nation’s largest company specializing in accent reduction and dialect training. Possibly he is feeling impish, because Chwat—who knows “dozens and dozens” of dialects—skips the “quick test” he usually presses on new clients. “I have them read the headlines of the first 10 pages of the New York Post because they’re written on the level for an eight-year-old,” he says. “It tells you about their everyday expertise in American English—idioms, expressions, vocabulary in general.”

Here, Julia Roberts dropped her sticky Georgia drawl, and Robert De Niro picked up his Cape Fear twang. Framed testimonials from Elle Macpherson (“For Sam the Man!!”) and New Kid Joe McIntyre (“Thank you for gettin’ rid of my ‘Dese, ‘Dems, & Dats”) crowd the walls. I am simply here for the vicarious celebrity—and to pose a few queries.

“So, where do you think I’m from?” I ask.

“I don’t do that kind of detective work,” he replies. “But if I had to guess, I’d say you might have some kind of regional accent from down South.”

Close enough. Three years ago, I moved to New York City from Virginia. I winnowed out the aforementioned y’all from my antiseptic new urban patois only after several job interviews had veered into impromptu commentaries on my accent. The mashing together of vowels and consonants (witness above “style” debacle) rarely afflicts me anymore, though I still trot out “ah” instead of “I” or pick “toll” over “told” when I’m ranting, nervous, or addled from libations. So it’s gratifying to learn I’m not alone in tweaking my speech patterns.

Miwa Sbinowitz also felt the need to retool. Two years ago, she signed up for accent-reduction classes at the Manhattan-based Olsen Speech & Language Improvement Center. “I’m originally from Japan,” she says, “but after 17 years in Long Island, my accent was a mix of the two. It was awful.” Twenty sessions later, Sbinowitz recalls, the speech she gave at her best friend’s wedding reception was the moment she began to master articulation: “One woman blamed me for smearing her makeup, she was crying so hard.”

Standard American English, or Broadcaster’s English, is the template that accent reductionists favor, according to Chwat. Utterly neutral, it’s a sound pattern strung together with 44 consonants and vowels and taught through drills, two to three times weekly for one to three months. “It’s identifiably American, nondistracting. It’s not particular to any geographical area,” explains Chwat. “Like Tom Hanks or Diane Sawyer. You wouldn’t immediately know where they’re from. They’re not typecast by voice. But you would know they’re American.”

Actors who replace their accents with Standard American English tend to fling wider nets during the casting process. But most people pay to dismantle native-speech protocols because they promote stereotypes about intelligence, education, credibility, and social status.

Corporations are louder about their expectations. Speaking skills distinguish who will be hired or promoted, particularly within the elastic boundaries of a high-tech economy. Immigrants totaled 8 percent of Microsoft’s national workforce in 2000 and were sponsored for special three-year visas by the company. Most came from India, nudging up job competition within that community, as this ad last year in India Abroad by Speech Remodelers, Inc., of New Jersey suggests: “Have you come to America to be successful, but feel like a second-rate citizen because of your accent?”

Accent bias is leveled all over corporate America, according to Multi Language Consultant’s Nelson Leon, who counts Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley as clients. Leon, who moved here 10 years ago from Spain, became privy to this discrimination firsthand when a former senior vice president of human resources at a Wall Street investment bank hired him to train employees in “sensitivity issues” and diversity programs. “Then this same person told me, ‘Your English is OK, but I don’t think it’s at the level to interact with me,’ ” Leon says.

Business types who enroll in accent-reduction classes are generally lodged in middle- and upper-management, where “mannerisms and idiosyncratic quirks are penalized,” according to Chwat. Body language, eye contact, and pleasantries count. “There are ways to modify cultural behavior, even for executives,” explains Leon. “Like in China, there’s no ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’ It’s ‘Call my client,’ ‘Bring me those papers.’ People just need to be retrained.” Ita Olsen, who worked with Sbinowitz, identifies another encumbrance. Foreign-born employees have often been schooled in the Queen’s English, veddy proper and clipped; immersion in American slang is thus a revelation.

Paring down accents could be perceived as irrelevant in New York, where 40 percent of the population is foreign-born. So it’s intriguing that both Chwat and Olsen identify 20 percent of their cases as regional. “The New York accent gets a bad rap,” Olsen admits. “It suggests less education or intelligence, which certainly isn’t true.” Keeping gs at the ends of words or censoring the deletion of rs after vowels (nevuh for never) are a few ways to erase the country’s perception. A University of North Texas study reported last year that heavy New Jersey accents are most loathed, while California and Midwestern accents, if subdued, scored highest.

Bidialectism, the selective switching of accents on and off, is something Yale grad student Will Tims unconsciously lapsed into when he visited his parents in the Mississippi Delta last month. “I saw my old piano teacher and she said I sounded exactly the same,” says Tims. “Then a friend in Manhattan got a message from me and said he couldn’t believe how thick my accent had gotten down there.”

Although Tims confesses he “almost always filters” his articulations, he considers his accent a point of pride and says he would never quash it on purpose.

It’s dubious that Tims would pass muster with G.B. Tennyson, professor emeritus of English at UCLA, who has proposed that in the interest of “language decorum,” immigrants be required to read poetry aloud to native speakers as part of their citizenship tests.

Tennyson also scolded Latino broadcasters for slipping into “disturbingly dissonant” Spanish when pronouncing their own names on air. “This they do with frightening gusto, as if they were matadors taunting the bull,” he wrote in a 1999 California Political Review.

Back at Sam Chwat’s office, we are recovering the th in that, a mouth exercise more appropriate to a bordello. “Stick your tongue out, sit it against the surface of your top front teeth, touch your tongue to your teeth,” Chwat instructs. “It’s th, not d. Lose the economy with the th.”

I contort my tongue, dash it against my teeth, and sputter out a th. “Hat, back, happy,” Chwat says. “Hat, back, happy,” I parrot. We settle in. I need a glass of water.

Check out the other stories in the Winter 2001 Voice Education Supplement.