Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

ACCENT MODIFICATION: THE FINISHING TOUCH CLASSES IMPROVE THE SPEAKERS' PRONUNCIATION Series: PITTSBURGH'S NEW IMMIGRANTS

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

ACCENT MODIFICATION: THE FINISHING TOUCH CLASSES IMPROVE THE SPEAKERS' PRONUNCIATION Series: PITTSBURGH'S NEW IMMIGRANTS

Article excerpt

Lai Xu had studied English since she was a teenager in China. She had a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard University. But as a medical student at the University of Pittsburgh, she realized many of her patients could not understand her.

So she enrolled in UPMC's Foreign Accent Modification Program, a course aimed at students and professionals who are usually proficient in English, but have strong accents that make it hard for people to figure out what they're saying.

Dr. Xu, 35, is now completing her residency at the University of Iowa, and said the lessons she learned in the UPMC course have significantly improved her ability to work with patients. As a Ph.D. student, she said, her accent was not a problem, but as she began practicing medicine, she realized she needed to speak more clearly.

At the start of the course, students complete an evaluation that measures their pronunciation against a standard American accent. Sara Byers, one of the program's three speech language pathologists, said lessons are then tailored to fix their mistakes.

The course, which typically lasts 13 weeks, begins with a focus on individual sounds, building to words, phrases, and then full sentences and passages.

"How many times a day do you use the word 'the'" Ms. Byers asked, explaining that nailing down a single word can radically alter the way a person sounds.

She said one of the biggest challenges is persuading adults to change their habits and consciously think about muscle movements while speaking.

For Dr. Xu, pronouncing the "th" sound was particularly difficult, since there is no equivalent in Chinese. She said learning to shape her mouth differently and properly place her tongue between her teeth was "like discovering a new world."

One exercise that particularly helped her was listening to recordings of herself speaking English. …

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