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Immigrants Learn to Lose Their Accents

Marta Greenlaw, third from left, with some of her former students who have learned to lose some of their accent to be better understood in English.
Marta Greenlaw, third from left, with some of her former students who have learned to lose some of their accent to be better understood in English.
Immigrants Learn to Lose Their Accents
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Some immigrants in the northeastern state of Maine are learning to lose their accents.

Some of the immigrants speak English fluently, but have a difficult time being understood because they have heavy accents, reported the Portland Press-Herald newspaper.

Assouma Nyirabahizi says she left her home and job in Rwanda two years ago, coming to America on a green card “in hopes of a brighter future.”

Nyirabahizi has a master’s degree in computer science and speaks English fluently. She says all of her classes in Rwanda were taught in English, “but here I have to learn again because of (my) accent.”

She attends a free class to reduce her accent with seven other students. The city of Portland conducts the class.

Marta Greenlaw is the teacher. She is also a speech therapist. She says immigrants who reduce their accent have better success at work. And they can communicate more easily with store workers, teachers, doctors and neighbors.

“It’s a basic need to be understood,” Greenlaw told the newspaper. “It affects every part of their lives.”

Greenlaw begins the class by telling students the 44 sounds of the English language. Those sounds include vowels, consonants and other sounds that give American English its unique sound.

Later, students speak about the food in their home countries. Sometimes, Greenlaw corrects their pronunciation. She tells them to pronounce the word “onion” as “unnnn-yunnnnn,” and the word “potato” as “poe-TAY-toe.” She tells the students “how the lips and jaw work to form the word.”

Greenlaw tells the students that some American English pronunciation rules “don’t make a lot of sense.” But she says they are important to learn if immigrants are to be understood by Americans.

Losing one’s accent is especially important for immigrants who live in Maine, which is one of the least diverse states in the country. More than 90 percent of the population of Maine is white. Many people who live in Maine have not heard foreign accents except in movies or on television.

Greenlaw says some Mainers are impatient with people who speak English with a heavy accent. Her students say some Mainers ignore them or are unfriendly toward them because of their accent. They say this makes them less likely to speak.

“Imagine waking up every day knowing you are going to have that struggle,” she says.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

Noel K. Gallagher reported on this story for the Portland (Maine) Press Herald newspaper. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the story for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

accent – n. a way of pronouncing words that occurs among the people in a particular region or country

fluent – adj. able to speak a language easily and very well

green card – n. a document that shows a person from a foreign country can live and work in the United States (it is not green, but once was, so it continues to be called a “green card”)

conduct – v. to plan and do (something, such as an activity)

speech therapist – n. a person who gives treatment or therapy to people who have speech problems to help them learn to pronounce words correctly

vowel – n. a speech sound made with your mouth open and your tongue in the middle of your mouth not touching your teeth, lips, etc.; a letter (such as a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y in English) that represents a vowel

consonant – n. a speech sound (such as /p/, /d/, or /s/) that is made by partly or completely stopping the flow of air breathed out from the mouth; a letter that represents a consonant especially any letter of the English alphabet except a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y

diverse – adj. different from each other; made up of people or things that are different from each other