Like so many recently arrived immigrants in South Florida, Nykoll Hernandez is proud of the college education she’s getting here – and just as proud to tell you what she’s studying at Broward College.
“I’m doing my major in hospitality and tourism management,” she says.
Except, “major” was not what came out of Hernandez’s mouth. What she said instead was “mayor.” In other words, she uttered one of the most common accent mistakes any native Spanish speaker makes in English: turning the j into a y.
Hernandez realizes it immediately. So she tries it again. And again – until Alice Wujciak, who’s sitting just inches away inside a study at her home in Hollywood, offers a simple but not always easy fix.
“To be able to say ‘major,’ " says Wujciak, “your tongue has to touch completely the top of your mouth.”
Wujciak watches the workings of the 19-year-old woman’s mouth the way a mechanic studies a running engine. And then, Hernandez nails it.
“Major. My major," she says with rich, jammy j's.
“That’s the whole trick,” says Wujciak.
But that’s hardly the only elocution trick Hernandez needs. When she arrived in South Florida from the Dominican Republic three years ago, Hernandez knew English. But her teachers back home had failed to mention something.
“In Spanish we just have five vowel sounds,” Hernandez points out. “In English we have…22 vowel sounds? Like, Oh my God. Very crazy.”
So Wujciak drills Hernandez on English’s crazy array of short and long vowel sounds. Hernandez focuses on placing her tongue and jaw just right so she says “lip” instead of “leap;” “hip” instead of “heap.” Then the tutor has her read out loud a Shel Silverstein poem called “Sick” – “’Sick,' not ‘Seek,’” Wujciak reminds her – which contains a minefield of all the English vowel sounds Spanish doesn’t have.
Hernandez sweeps all the mines in front of her – and she’s eager to clear more. That’s because she’s is part of a new generation of immigrants who speak English well – but not, they’ve decided, well enough. They’ve taken to heart that sardonic advice from a Puerto Rican character in “West Side Story”:
“Better get rid of your accent!”
Which is why so many more immigrants today are looking for private accent reduction services like Wujciak’s.
One big reason: In centuries past, new immigrants to the U.S. often didn’t do much business outside their own ethnic communities. But in this globalized century, newcomers like Hernandez know their career success depends on communication with a far broader universe.
“I think it’s going to be better for me because doing business they must understand what I’m speaking,” says Hernandez. “So your accent – very important.”
And she says at this moment there’s another, darker reason it’s important. In the xenophobic atmosphere of the Trump administration, even immigrants like her who are here legally worry their accents draw unwanted attention.
“I think people are worried because they think, like, if they don’t speak English with less accent they can be deported,” she says.
The resulting demand is creating an accent reduction industry of sorts, especially in places like South Florida with large immigrant populations.
“More and more people see great importance to the whole thing, but the pronunciation instruction is still not that available to them,” says Wujciak, who teaches English as a Second Language at Broward College and calls her private service Perfect Your American Accent.
“So I do unconventional things to help the person see the difference about what the mouth is really doing. Without that, you really can’t explain how you say it or how I improve it.”
Not surprisingly, accent reduction experts like Wujciak ares welcome guests these days at business-networking gatherings in heavily Latino communities like Weston. Farther north in Ormond Beach, Florida, Susan Ryan runs her accent reduction service – Confident Voice – from home on Skype. Her students are hotel workers from Puerto Rico, corporate executives from Argentina – and folks who Skype in from as far away as Singapore.
“They want to connect, they want to relate with customers in markets beyond their first language,” says Ryan, who also has experience teaching English as a second language.
“And if they can learn to speak in a more American way, they build those stronger relationships.”
Ryan too acknowledges she’s noticed more nervousness about accents since President Trump’s election.
“It has come up with clients,” she says. “They do want to blend in because of the political climate.”
Ryan points out that one of the best ways to help non-native English speakers blend in is to teach them what’s called the schwa.
The schwa is that dull, under-the-radar “uh” sound of English most Americans use a thousand times a day. They never notice it, but the schwa can be the difference between saying “Floh-REE-dah” and “Florida,” like a gringo.
In fact, says Lisa Jeffery: “The schwa will change people’s lives.”
Jeffery may be South Florida’s most enthusiastic accent reduction coach. At her Speech and Accent Academy in Miami Shores, the schwa is a linchpin of English elocution improvement for students like a Venezuelan named Jennifer who came here more than a decade ago.
“Sometimes I do say, ‘Flo-REE-dah,’” admits Jennifer (who asked that her last name not be used for privacy reasons) during a session at Jeffery’s office.
“Right, because you’re rolling your r the way they do in Spanish,” Jeffery tells her, exaggerating one of español’s phonetic trademarks to make the point: “Florrrr.”
Jeffery shows her instead to say, “FLO-ruh. Ruh, ruh, ruh, ruh.
“The tongue goes back,” she says, reaching for a large mouth model, the kind you might find in any dentist’s office. She shows Jennifer how her tongue and lips can put the brakes on that Spanish r so she can say the schwa in “Florida.”
For light-hearted emphasis, Jeffery also advises her to go on YouTube and watch Marilyn Monroe – one of the most famous gringas of all time – showcase her schwaed English r’s as she breathlessly sings, “Happy BIRTH-day, Mr. PRE-sident!”
Jeffery uses props like the mouth to get students to fix other accent issues such as dropping consonants in words – a big problem for native Spanish speakers learning English. To help Jennifer condition herself to avoid them, Jeffery brings out a small bone-shaped piece of plastic.
“The articulator!” Jeffery announces.
It’s not a torture device. But when placed in the mouth it forces the tongue forward to articulate those phantom consonants.
Jeffery tells Jennifer to repeat: “A tutor who tooted the flute…”
They both laugh as Jennifer at first says, “A tu-or who too-ed eh flu…”
Like Hernandez, Jennifer says she gladly goes through all this because, even though she has a degree from the University of Florida in Gainesville, she believes speaking more standardized English is a big way to get ahead.
“I work at a construction company,” she says, “and I felt my accent is a hindering for me to move up. We’re already different, right, the color of our skin. Adding the way we speak makes it harder.”
Jeffery has as a background in broadcasting and linguistics, among other language disciplines. But she says it’s important that accent reduction now becomes its own distinct field – and that it not be confused with speech therapy, which is meant to treat genuine conditions like speech impediments, not foreign accents.
A recent headline on the job-search website Monster.com says speech pathologists are finding “a profitable niche” in accent reduction, and that worries her.
“A president of a company who has a heavy accent and wants to move beyond his Spanish-speaking clientele in Miami, he doesn’t need speech therapy,” says Jeffery. “He needs articulation training in a new language. Accent reduction is more on the line of Hollywood dialect coaches.”
Jeffery, in fact, tries to bring that funner spirit to her monthly Meetup gatherings in Little Havana. To make immigrants lengthen their vowel sounds, they toss a ball around and have to hold words like “rose” while the ball’s in the air. It’s a way to convey – especially to native speakers of Romance tongues like Spanish whose vowel sounds are more clipped and tight – that English is a more loud-mouthed or at least more open-mouthed language.
As the Meetup students throw the ball high in the air while chanting “rooooooose,” Jeffery tells them they shouldn’t just speak as well as native-born Americans.
“You have to speak better than Americans!” she urges them.
One schwa at a time.
Turnabout is fair play. So next week we’ll look at how South Florida gringos like me need to improve our accents in Spanish.