Speech coach helps locals ‘paahk’ their accents

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/12/21/speech-coach-helps-locals-paahk-their-accents/

BOSTON – This city so full of history, culture, distinctive neighborhoods, champion sports teams and nationally ranked universities, breeds what is quite possibly one of the most notable regional accents in the nation, one that can be regarded as either a trademark or a curse, depending on perspective.

The speech inflections known as a Boston accent – most prominently the dropped Rs – can be picked up through meticulous training, often by actors for roles in films set in the city or the region, like “Gone Girl,” “Goodwill Hunting” and “Black Mass.” More often, training helps people erase the traces of their regional roots.

Truth be told, those locals whose speech is thick with Southie flavor can often find themselves the butt of jokes in other parts of the country. What Hub native hasn’t been asked to say: ‘Park the car in Harvard Yard’ at least once when visiting Manhattan or Los Angeles, for instance?

The accent, which has spread far in New England, from Maine and New Hampshire to Rhode Island, can be a revered piece of regional identity or the subject of none-too-sympathetic segments from the likes of national television’s “The Daily Show “ or “The Today Show.” So it may come as scant surprise that some area natives have dropped some serious dollars to drop their Boston accents, faster than they drop their Rs in any given conversation.

For one local speaking coach, it provides a steady source of clients. Marjorie Whittaker, a speech pathologist and founder of The Whittaker Group in Brookline who has many specialties in the art of communication, helps people learn how to “switch off” regional accents.

“There is nothing wrong with a Boston accent or any accent,” she said in a recent interview “We’re all from somewhere. But the problem is, there tends to be some stereotypic reactions to it that people often have that you can’t control.”

“Most clients who do a lot of public speaking or are seeking high-level business positions deal with people who may question their credibility due to their accent, which can develop a bit of a confidence problem,” Whittaker said.

People who aren’t from the U.S. Northeast may associate a Boston accent with a lack of intelligence or education, she said. Popular media can fuel such stereotypes, she added.

Rather than suggest to clients that an accent is something bad, she tries to help them learn how to switch it off when they want, if they worry that it may get in the way of professional advancement.

“So many people come to me and say, ‘I keep getting passed over for a promotion, and I don’t think my boss takes me seriously enough,” she said. “Or, ‘I have to speak in front of all these people, and I don’t think I sound as polished as I’d like.’”

Whittaker also helps people deal with what she refers to as speech disfluency, or the repetition of words, parts of words or expressions such as “um” and “you know.” She recalled once hearing a speaker on a radio broadcast with a significant disfluency problem.

“This person inserted an ‘um’ every other word in his sentence!” Whittaker said with a laugh. “I was so distracted from the content, I started only paying attention to the ‘ums’ and couldn’t get past it.”

A heavy accent can produce the same effect.

“That’s what I think sometimes happens with the Boston accent,” Whittaker said. When a speaker’s pronunciations differ distinctly form what an audience is used to hearing, listeners get distracted and focus on how something is being said rather than what is said.

There’s enough demand in the Hub for accent-erasing help that Whittaker regularly collaborates with Boston Casting and the Boston Center for Adult Education to hold speech diction workshops. The most recent took place Dec. 12.

Whittaker usually works one-on-one with those seeking help. Clients have ranged from non-native English speakers to business executives, doctors, teachers and on-air broadcast personalities.

“Sometimes it’s a student who wants to make the best impression for interviews,” Whittaker said, adding there’s wide gamut of issues that can arise based on speaking ability. “I spoke with a woman in the medical field. She was told if she didn’t fix her accent, they wouldn’t license her. It was really critical for her because it’s a matter of life or death – did you say 15 milligrams or 50? Did you say ‘bleeding’ or ‘breathing’? It’s not about prejudice – someone’s life can be at stake.”

John Rossi, who spent most of his youth in Brighton and Allston neighborhoods, didn’t realize how many words he didn’t pronounce or enunciate properly until he went off to college in Connecticut, then landed in New York and began unintentionally entertaining coworkers.

“Leaving Boston made me become more aware of my accent,” Rossi said. “‘Hey, how are you?’ sounds like ‘howaya.’”

Rossi began working with Whittaker in 2011 to help him switch it off when needed.

But that’s not all the time. Working as a promoter and marketer for Def Jam Records in New York, Rossi said his accent makes him popular around the office. Coworkers “get a kick out of it,” he said. “It never gets old to them. They think it’s hilarious.”

“I don’t mind, because that’s who I am and how I talk,” he said. While Rossi hasn’t worked with Whittaker in years, he still goes back to her lesson books when he feels the need to tone it down.

Broadcast reporter Angela Cristoforos, who grew up in Salem, first reached out to Whittaker after graduating from Boston’s Suffolk University in 2012. As the child of Greek immigrants, her first language growing up was Greek – she was enrolled in English as a second language classes in grade school. So her Boston accent only multiplied the issues she confronted trying to break into broadcasting.

Now an on-air news reporter, Cristoforos said she can control her accent, especially when appearing on camera.

“It’s important that viewers can understand me, and depending on the region you come from, the Boston accent may sound confusing,” she said. “Speaking professionally is an absolute necessity.”

It can also be a key to landing a job in the first place, she added.

“A lot of times when a news director is hiring a reporter, they look at your newsreels, they observe your appearance, your delivery and especially how you speak,” Cristoforos said. “It can really dictate whether they’ll hire you or not.”

She still works on ridding her diction of traces of her Boston-area roots.

“Friends tell me they barely hear it on TV,” she said. “You may hear a bit more on a Friday night, after a drink or two,” she added with a laugh. “There are still some words I struggle with.”

However, Cristoforos doesn’t want to lose her Boston voice completely. It’s part of who she is, after all.

“I don’t want my accent to go away, because that’s what makes me, me,” Cristoforos said. “I’m proud of where I’m from.”