Learning harmonic nuances of English

MARC CABRERA, July 21, 2008
Monterey County Herald
Section: Living

Stefani Mistretta is conducting an orchestra of mispronunciation with students in her accent reduction class at the Monterey Youth Center in Monterey. There are only three students today — two Asian and one Latino — but all stumble to varying degrees with one alliterated phrase, revealing layers of ethnic stereotyping. Stefani teaching a class

"He yelled the joke from the jail at Yale," Mistretta repeats, as her students respond in chorus. Rosana Diaz, a regional occupational program (ROP) instructor at Seaside High School, has a hard time separating the 'y' from the 'j' sounds, turning "yell" into "jell."

"That's the worst for me," she said between lessons.

Meanwhile, Taeyoung Park, of South Korea, can't turn the numerous L's. His sentence comes out sounding like "He yayo the joke form the jayo at yayo."

Mistretta calmly leads the pack with a wave of her hand. In her own way, Mistretta is trying to teach music to immigrants struggling with their pronunciation of the English language.

A trained musician who favors folk music, Mistretta is as much a rhythm instructor as accent reduction specialist. Music being a universal language, that makes sense.

It's her further hope that learning the harmonic nuances of the language will help local immigrants and nonnative speakers to improve not only their grasp of the word, but also their standing at work and in society.

"It is the music of English," said Mistretta one day before her latest class was set to begin. "The intonation and rhythm of English is something not always taught."

Mistretta has been teaching accent reduction in Monterey for a few months now. Classes are offered at both the Monterey Youth Center and the Monterey Senior Center. A new session of classes begins at each location in September.

Mistretta's lessons are based on methods first introduced by Swedish doctor and linguist Olle Kjellin, who emphasizes phrase repetition to help nonnative speakers pick up on word and speech patterns.

Mistretta quotes Kjellin — "Exercise the brain with the ears and let the neural reflexes do the job."

"There is no perfect accent. There is no standard, one way to speak English. You can't make it perfect." said Mistretta.

For some students in the class, the motivation to advance professionally is what led them to class.

Diaz teaches students work skills, such as how to prepare for an interview and other details. Since coming to the United States, Diaz has worked hard to master the language.

She has taken English as a Second Language courses, but never saw anything like Mistretta's class before. She jumped at the opportunity.

For Diaz, communicating with her students is tough enough without worrying whether they understand her clearly.

"Confidence is the most difficult thing when you're in front of (students)" said Diaz. "You have the ideas in your head, but you wonder 'Do they understand what I'm saying? Are they making fun of me behind my back when I speak?'"

She continued: "Sometimes when I explain something, and I can't make someone understand it, they just say 'We understand you Ms. Diaz.' So that let's me know they understand it, but it wasn't very clear (to them)," she said.

Mark Weller, projects coordinator with Unite Here Local 483, said employers might be reluctant to promote someone to a public job if they don't have a good grasp of the language.

"I don't agree that it should be a problem," said Weller, "but I think a number of employers are concerned about hiring people who don't have a Midwestern, American-sounding, English-style (accent) into positions that tend to be the higher-paying positions, where you're dealing with customers, rather than the back-of-the-house jobs."

The union recently enlisted Mistretta to conduct accent reduction classes with its members. Weller hopes that the classes will at least give union members "that option" to seek a job that might pay more.

The union represents 1,600 members in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. While there are no hard figures, Weller estimated that as many as two-thirds of the membership is from Mexico. Other immigrants from Fiji and the Philippines also belong to the union.

"A number of our organizers, their first language is Spanish. They have to serve workers who speak a number of languages, not just English as their first language," he said.

Weller said union president Sergio Rangel is a supporter of the accent reduction classes. Rangel's his first union job on the Peninsula was as a dishwasher at The Lodge at Pebble Beach. Rangel wants to keep improving his skills as well as those of union members.

"This is one way to do that," said Weller.

One of the main reasons nonnative English speakers have a tough time dropping their accent is that certain sounds in the English language are not represented in other languages.

For Asians, the problems stem from the lack of an "R" or "L" sound in their native tongue. Latinos have trouble with "Th" and "Sh" sounds.

"The way we use our vocal chords, tongue, mouth and jaw is different in each language, and creates different sounds," Mistretta said. "So if you don't have that sound in your native language, you can't make that sound."

Repetition of sentences helps each student identify certain sounds that they normally wouldn't catch. In a mixed group, those differences can reveal themselves in several unique ways.

During her first session, Mistretta had six different people from five different countries — Korea, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines and Russia.

"We'd do one sentence and there would be five different problem areas for each language," she said.

Mistretta helps them by introducing the different inflections and tones that can jam up nonnative English speakers. Just the way a person says something can make all the difference.

While the class is called Accent Reduction, the lessons revolve around improving their English accent, Mistretta said, and not trying to completely erase their native accent.

"It's not a politically incorrect thing to do. It's not that you're trying to get rid of their accent," she said. "It's more like adding a clear American accent (on top of their regular accent), just for the purpose of people understanding them. The point is to have options."

Mistretta said it's a sign of progress that nonnative speakers are seeking her class.

"Especially in California," she said. "It's really important when you're trying to live and work in a country and people are trying to understand you and you're trying to understand other people."

Marc Cabrera can be reached at 646-4345 or mcabrera@montereyherald.com.

If you're interested:
New sessions for the accent reduction class begin Sept. 2 at the Monterey Youth Center, 777 Pearl St., Monterey.
Classes begin Sept. 4 at the Monterey Senior Center, 280 Dickman Ave., Monterey.
Call 646-3866 or online at www.monterey.org/rec/online.

Copyright © 2008 The Monterey County Herald
Reprinted with permission