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International Story Accent on Communication

Pat Willis (center) working with CSD student, Terri Kulakow (right) and client, Hannah Baik (left)
Pat Willis (center) working with CSD student, Terri Kulakow (right) and client, Hannah Baik (left)

When English, the world’s most common language, is accented, it can be misunderstood. Accents are a natural part of language and reflect unique characteristics and background of the speaker. In fall 2009, an agreement was initiated between the UWM Sheldon B. Lubar School of Business and the CHS Communication Sciences and Disorders Department (CSD) to develop an accent modification class for selected International Teaching Assistants (ITAs) in the Lubar School.

Patricia Willis, M.S.T., CCC-SLP, clinical assistant professor, CSD, together with CSD graduate clinicians, Tara Duquaine, Kelly Lynett, Trisha Meyer, Auburn Niemela, Nerissa Seabrook, Megan Steadman, Leah Strash and Erin Weaver, developed an intensive instructional program designed to enhance communication effectiveness of the ITAs.

Clinicians enjoyed the opportunity to learn about the rich cultural heritage and native language nuances of the ITA participants whose language backgrounds included Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Thai.

The program focused on pronunciation, word formation, prosodic features of stress, intonation and rhythm, grammatical structure and vocabulary, allowing the ITAs to more effectively manage their classroom teaching responsibilities.

The participants, often fluent in several languages, had typically learned to read and write English before speaking it. This encouraged them to pronounce words as they are spelled, rather than as they sound. In languages, which have one sound for each letter, this may result in reasonable success. But English has many ways to spell each sound, so this is not the best way to learn to speak. People who learn English this way rely on their native language sounds, rather than the American English sounds, and therefore sound more accented.

Willis said, “The purpose in improving our ability to speak a language is enhanced communicative effectiveness…whether it is in the office, the laboratory, the classroom or at social gatherings.”

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International Communication Sciences & Disorders