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When language is no barrier, but accent presents a hurdle

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Since he came to the U.S. from India six years ago, Sudhi Chada has struggled with some of the trickier consonants in American English, particularly the “th” in, say, “thousand.”

Native English speakers may not notice much of a difference, but it takes different mouth movements to form the word “thousand” as compared to “they.” In Chada’s native tongue, an Indian language called Telugu, there are no consonants that sound like the “th” in “thousand.” As he started to move up the corporate ladder at Ericsson, in Piscataway, he realized he wanted to refine his speech and learn how to say everything, including “thousand,” just like an American.

Executives at Ericsson “believe I have the potential to be a leader, and they want to make sure they support me with all the necessary training and knowledge,” Chada said. “So as part of that, they believe — and I also believe — that communication is the key to being an effective leader.”

So the HR department at Ericsson connected Chada with a company called Foreign Accent Reduction of New Jersey, founded 17 years ago by Ruth Joselson.

Joselson said she has worked with employees from many of the top companies in the state, from Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, to AT&T and Novo Nordisk.

“There’s nothing wrong with having an accent. It can be very charming and makes your speech unique,” said Joselson, who has a master’s in speech-language pathology from the University of Florida. “The problem arises when the accent is interfering with intelligibility, (and) information gets lost or misinterpreted.”

Joselson said that most of her clients are like Chada — “highly motivated, hard-working, ambitious men and women who don’t want anything to hold them back professionally.”

She charges $1,350 for 15 weekly one-hour sessions, and her instruction varies based on the native language of each particular client. But overall, she focuses on the sounds of the American language, many of which don’t exist in other languages, and on intonation, helping clients learn where to put the emphasis in their phrasing and sentences.

“The foreign speaker has to learn the American intonation pattern,” Joselson said. “Good intonation gives their speech meaning and effectiveness.”

Although Joselson said her business has remained relatively steady over the years, the Cultural Center for Language Studies, in Newark, said requests for accent reduction services are more of a recent trend over the past three or four years.

“Every month, we have three or four students looking for accent reduction,” said Petronio Romero, pedagogical director at the center.

Because of that, Romero said the center is starting to include accent reduction in the courses for intermediate English language learners so they can learn to communicate more effectively.

Chada said he has already received positive feedback from executives at Ericsson who have noticed changes in his use of American English. The changes are subtle, but he said he notices a difference, too. And he still has two accent reduction sessions remaining.

“Being in a global company, it’s important to be able to get my thoughts across in a very effective way, so that people get it on the first go around,” Chada said. “That purpose will certainly be fulfilled.”

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