- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006

Equipped with little more than a tape recorder and endless patience, Sharon Heffley has spent the past 17 years in Northern Virginia helping professionals from foreign countries fix their mispronunciations and other verbal mistakes so they can advance their careers.

“Most of my clients do not come saying they want to assimilate so that nobody knows that they weren’t born here,” said Mrs. Heffley, who runs the Accent Modification Center from her home in Great Falls. “They want to be more competitive with their American counterparts.”

Dean, a 40-something computer engineer, got the Heffley treatment during a recent lesson. He had spent five minutes wrestling with a common household word and was getting nowhere.

“Bezz. Bezz. Bezzzzzz,” he said.

“You must feel the tongue go up,” chirped Mrs. Heffley, a short, bespectacled woman with a firm nature and an unerring ear. “Do it again, 10 to 15 times.”

A dozen attempts later Dean, a Chinese-American, correctly pronounced “beds.”

Studies suggest that in corporate America, an accent can mean missed promotions and more time spent behind desks instead of with clients, says Oscar DeShields Jr., a professor of marketing at California State University at Northridge.

“People look at you as being stupid,” he said. “It’s one of those stereotypes.”

Mrs. Heffley’s process begins with an individual assessment and a plan of attack.

Problems range from pacing to syllable emphasis, as in the difference between saying com-PU-ter and COM-put-er.

Entire ethnic groups often share the same difficulties.

“In Japanese, they don’t have two distinct sounds ‘r’ and ‘l’, they have something in between, which is why Japanese often confuse ‘r’ and ‘l’ in English,” Mrs. Heffley said.

Although Mrs. Heffley doesn’t specialize in one accent, she has found a niche among Virginia’s growing Asian population.

As the number of international professionals increases, services such as hers also have grown.

New York-based Accent Master, for example, promises to “increase your success at work” with its accent-smoothing software, a $129 CD-ROM. It also offers video training via teleconference at $836 for an eight-week session or $1,136 for a 12-week session.

At Mrs. Heffley’s weekly classes, students read winding passages into a microphone. Then she and the student listen to the tape, with Mrs. Heffley stopping to offer blunt but reassuring criticism at each flub.

Between courses, students are urged to spend time speaking English in mirrors to observe how their mouths move and to chat more with their children, who may be better English speakers.

Costs for the courses, which are offered in group and private sessions, range from $1,200 to $1,800.

Kenny He, a Chinese-American who works in Reston, shuffled through a few software sales jobs when he arrived 16 years ago, his accent stifling him at each stop.

Mr. He’s managers then sent him to Mrs. Heffley.

“I was afraid to pick up the phone,” Mr. He said.

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