Friday, September 25, 2020

Lessons in language for American life

International students, professionals take classes to strengthen spoken English

June 21, 2005
Okemos High School student Ji Hye Seong, 13, reads aloud to her instructor Leslie Eubank during an accent reduction class while her brother Slki Seong, 15, watches on. Ji Hye Seong, who goes by Jinny, recently finished her classes. Slki Seong, who goes by Shawn, is now taking the course. Eubank teaches the course from her home at 1632 Burcham Drive. —

Leslie Eubank sat at a desk in her home with 15-year-old Sean Seong on Thursday afternoon as an audio sentence played from the computer in front of them.

Seong spoke the sentence into a microphone with the right tone and pitch, and the pair high-fived each other after he correctly repeated the sentences.

This process is part of a class taught by Eubank to help the international community reduce their foreign accents so they can be more clearly understood by others.

Speaking with the correct American English accent has become such a critical issue among international community members that some members are resorting to taking accent-reduction classes to improve the way they speak, Eubank said.

Jinny, Seong's 13-year-old sister who took the class, sat watching in a nearby armchair as her brother recited the day's lesson.

"I like to speak English," Jinny said. "It is difficult to live in America unless you speak better English."

Seong's and Jinny's real names are Slki and Ji Hye, respectively, but they said they had to give themselves new names when they came to the United States - names that English-speaking people could pronounce.

Even though accent reduction might seem like the solution to international students who wish to be understood, some question the purpose of taking these classes and whether it signifies cultural assimilation of international students.

Peter Briggs, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars, said he finds the term "accent reduction" controversial and is uncomfortable with it.

"Effective communication should be both ways and sometimes it's not the issue of accent reduction, but rather American students' willingness to listen to other people of different accents," Briggs said.

But Mary Bresnahan, a communication professor who specializes in cultural differences in communication styles, said international students should speak better English if they want to get a job or teach classes at MSU.

"It's going to be a barrier if you don't assimilate linguistically," Bresnahan said. "There is a small portion (of students) who avoid classes taught by international TAs. They'd rather have classes by native speakers."

MSU uses the same program Eubank does for international teaching assistants under the Teaching Assistant Program.

Kevin Johnston, director of the MSU Teaching Assistant Program, said the class is free for international assistants.

"Language is an integral part of the training program for international TAs," he said.

Eubank said the class she offers has been going well. She has three years of experience teaching accent reduction classes but started holding the class out of her home six months ago.

Eubank said her clients do not only include students who don't speak English as a first language. She said her students can be professors or post-doctoral students who are experts in the English language but are having trouble being understood here because of their thick accent.

Chidambaram Ramanathan, a client of Eubank, said the program is very useful to him.

"Now I'm so happy because strangers can come up to me and understand what I say," said Ramanathan, who is a visiting professor.

Eubank said Seong has made tremendous improvements and seems happy with his own performance so far.

"I told him he's gonna be a broadcaster someday," said Eubank.

Jinny said the accent-reduction classes will help her fulfill one of her dreams.

"I intend to come back to have college here," she said.

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