When Jihad Allan, a past board member of the Islamic Association of Greater Detroit, books a speaker for an Association event, he looks for high-caliber people who are experts in their field. He also looks for American-born speakers. Allan knows all too well that when it comes to getting your message across, it's all in the delivery.
"The accent sometimes turns off American people," said Allan, a General Motors engineer who is a native of Palestine. "They won't listen as much as they do if the person is speaking perfectly."
A native Arabic speaker, Allan has been on the other side of those exchanges as well. Living in the U.S. for more than 17 years, he's repeated himself countless times only to have the conversation end with, "forget about it."
"What happens when you're asked 'What? What? What?'" asked Judy Ravin, president of the Accent Reduction Institute in Ann Arbor. "Eventually the person stops asking, you stop contributing and then nobody wins.
"You can't thrive in a global workforce without understanding each other."
That's the simple truth behind the rapid growth of Ravin's Accent Reduction Institute(ARI), a company that breaks down communication barriers by teaching non-native English speakers how to articulate American English sounds. Ravin has developed a program called "Building Bridges: Tuning Your Ear to Accents," which helps native English speakers understand colleagues, customers and patients who speak English with an accent.
Considering southeast Michigan's increasingly international population and workforce, ARI seems to be in the right place at the right time. According to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) 2007 diversity report, the region's most prevalent immigrant groups –-Hispanics and Arabs and Chaldeans-- each grew by nearly 50 percent between 1990-2000. The number of Asians, dominated by people from India and China, has nearly doubled in that span.
Two years ago, Ravin's accent reduction business brought in about $70,000. Since 2005, working with software engineers from sister company Menlo Innovations, ARI has added 50-75 corporate clients. In 2006 it made $175,000 working with clients like General Motors, Cisco Systems, and Compuware as well as Cornell University and St. John Health.
"The most powerful thing in the sales (pitch) is talking to Judy," said Bob Simms, CFO of both ARI and its parent company, Menlo Associates. "You can't help but pick up on her excitement and want to change the world."
People nationwide are starting to take notice, too. Since June, ARI has been the subject of stories in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. NBC Nightly News spent three days taping a segment that's scheduled to air this month (see the video here), and the phone just keeps ringing. Ravin, who's been doing this work for 15 years, shrugs and says, "It's just accent reduction."
Yet she recognizes that, to a non-native English speaker with an advanced degree, an inability to communicate clearly can cost them a job or a promotion. Same goes for the first responder who has to gather critical information quickly from people with broken English.
"I think people know there's a problem," Ravin said. "They didn't know there was a solution – hence the attention."
If Ravin sounds cavalier it's because she's walked in her clients' shoes. As an accomplished 20-year-old French major she spent her junior year studying in Paris. When she got off the plane at Charles de Gaulle International Airport and asked how to take the subway into the city her grammar was perfect, but no one understood her. It was her accent.
"I remember it took several attempts, and after each one my self confidence was just knocked down one more peg. I thought, Oh no, I'm starting my junior year abroad program and I thought I could speak French. I guess I can't. It was really eye-opening, and I think it was pivotal for me in terms of this career."
The same thing happens every day in this country to foreign-born citizens and foreign nationals.
"These are often the best and the brightest," says Simms. "They're here, they've mastered English, but the sounds are so difficult, they're hard to understand. Then they're ignored. That's very frustrating. You can tell when someone's not taking you seriously."
Language touches every aspect of life, and people take ARI's courses for all kinds of reasons, but the vast majority do it because they feel it will help advance their careers, whether they're educators, doctors, engineers or MBAs.
Ravin developed her computer-based rapid accent reduction method in 1998. The "Ravin Method" uses an audiovisual CD to demonstrate what the lips, tongue, jaw and teeth are doing to create the sounds in American English. Students can learn in a few hours to make sounds that may have stymied them for years. Most can completely re-train themselves to physically vocalize American English in about a month.
Ravin and her staff still teach and give seminars in person, but what sets ARI apart from other accent reduction classes is the software developed by Menlo and the global virtual classroom it creates. Students need nothing more than a webcam and an internet connection.
Webinars connect instructors with groups of up to 1,000 via a live video or audio feed. Groups of up to 20 can use two-way interactive video in grid setup that Ravin calls the Brady Bunch format. Each student appears in a square; the instructor can see each of them and they can all see each other. Individual costs range from a $20 webinar to a $150 in-person private lesson.
"Greg, when you make the "v" sound, really press your teeth into your lip."
Gurinder Pal (Paul) Singh came to the United States from India as a student 15 years ago. He'd studied English formally for about eight years, but his early education had a distinctly British flavor, which meant his Punjabi accent was laced with British pronunciations. Singh, 38 and a former Ford Motor Company engineer, earned an MBA in April from the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. Now a strategy consultant with a company in Chicago, he took a half-day workshop at the institute in June and says the techniques he brought home, along with Ravin's book and CD, "Lose Your Accent in 28 Days" have helped him speak with more poise and precise pronunciation.
"Writing technical papers is one thing," said Singh, in diction precise enough to make you wonder how he could have ever been hard to understand. "Presenting in front of others takes an entirely different skill set."
Through its diversity initiative, GM has hired ARI to do both accent reduction and "Tuning Your Ear" workshops.
"Having the balance of non native speakers learning to reduce their accent and then meeting that with native speakers learning to understand accents is just really cutting edge as companies go global," said GM diversity initiative manager Karen DeCuir-Dinicola.
For Jihad Allan, who lives in Rochester Hills, the trip to ARI in Ann Arbor was well worth the effort. With just a few hours of instruction he learned how to move his tongue and lips to make the "r" sound that had eluded him for 17 years. Back at work, he recommended to his director that the class be offered to all of GM's international employees.
Since August 2006 more than 200 GM employees have taken the class through the diversity initiative. Every class has had a waiting list, and 93 percent of attendees later said they felt the class would help them in their job.
"People are always critical of non-native English speakers," DeCuir-Dinicola said "Here's the deal: They're speaking a second language and a lot of native English speakers don't."
It's not an easy topic to address. Communication problems are, maybe not surprisingly, hard for people to talk about. Employees sometimes take offense to what they perceive as the company's attempt to Americanize them or change who they are. Both Ravin and DeCuir-Dinicola stress that the classes are about enhancing communication, not changing people.
"That's why the second class ["Tuning Your Ear"] is important," DeCuir-Dinicola said. "It says we all have a responsibility. We're appreciating who they are but helping them be more effective."
Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Ann Arbor News, the Detroit News and Seattle Times. Her prevoius article for metromode was Green Urbanism.
Photos:Judy Ravin of Accent Reduction Institute
Tools of the classroom at ARI
Gurinder Pal (Paul) Singh
Karen DeCuir-Dinicola of General Motors (photograph by Dave Krieger)
Photographs by Alex Dziadosz - All Rights Reserved