07/28/2011 11:41 am ET | Updated Sep 27, 2011

Accent in America

My first client in school -- as a shiny undergraduate speech therapy student -- was an accent modification client. We'll call him Mr. Wei. Mr. Wei was a professor of mathematics at the university I attended, and he'd been sent to our on-site speech clinic for accent modification because of the complaints received from his students that they couldn't understand his lectures.

I, I am heartbroken to say, did not do well by Mr. Wei.

Principally to blame was my inexperience as a clinician and the fact that I applied the same clinical approach to his broad Mandarin accent that I would have to a child who could not say the letter R. Fine in the most basic of theory -- they are both principally articulation problems -- but horrible, desperately horrible, in execution.

But even had I been strong enough on my feet to apply far more sophisticated clinical reasoning, I would have shorted the gentleman. Because I had not yet experienced Corporate America.

Corporate America is an entity like no other, and without having plumbed some of its depths, in the murky waters of EEOC compliance, and navigated its dizzying heights, in the spiderweb maze of business hierarchy, it was impossible for me to understand either the scope of what I was asking Mr. Wei to do or the multiple pressures he felt sitting across a table from me.

I made him read aloud paragraphs from Reader's Digest. I should have been smacked.

Once licensed and working, I ended up in positions of management. And it seemed I had a magic touch in meetings, with patients and their families navigating a labyrinthine insurance system, with trouble employees. But what I had was not magic -- it was an awareness that much of what goes wrong in the interaction between two people is a communication breakdown, and, well, that's what I had learned in many years of school to fix.

But a new language was spoken in this place. Where I had learned medical terms and neuroanatomy in school, now I was learning about profit, about hiring practices, about anti-discrimination policies and margins. I was learning about offshore recruitment -- an aggressive practice in the strapped healthcare system. I was learning about personnel management and compliance. And I was doing all these things against the backdrop of a California demographic so diverse it would have made Lady Liberty drop her melting pot on her own sandaled foot.

America, despite scattered attempts to unwrite history, remains one of the most eagerly sought after immigration destinations in the world. The US accepts 1.3 million immigrants onto its shores every year. There are 112 languages spoken in San Francisco County. Yet despite being a nation built on welcoming those from afar, bias taints our interactions and the media perpetuates ideas of infamy, villainy or pathetic comedy at the expense of those who look or sound differently than "we" do.

A 2010 study by the University of Chicago shows that speakers with foreign accents are judged less credible. In hearing the exact same statement read aloud by speakers with progressively stronger accents, listeners routinely assessed those with the accented speech as less believable. Multiply this bias by 1.3 million people, then imagine the weight of each telephone call, each job interview, each parent-teacher conference.

In a work environment teetering on panic with unemployment rates at their highest in decades and the news full of reports of jobs moving overseas, prejudice becomes an embittered rationalization for the bad economy. We complain about immigrants and off-shore call centers stealing our jobs, when the truth is most immigrants perform jobs that the typical American doesn't want, and many outsourced jobs are going to countries who are graduating more science and technology degree candidates per year than we ever have. If we focus our anger at those who seek jobs that Americans won't or can't do, there will be no solutions, only the continuation of hostility toward people who are dehumanized by overly vocal fear-mongers.

Our American identity now suffers from bipolar disorder. We fight to ensure we are not engaging in discriminatory practices at the same time that "reverse discrimination" gains national attention. We celebrate the third-generation Latino valedictorian who is the first in his family to graduate from college while states legislate detainment practices based on brown skin. We actively recruit foreign talent to fill critical holes in our workforce then complain that we can't understand them in meetings.

These were all the things I did not know or understand when I made Mr. Wei read paragraphs out loud to me so I could point to where he said 'r' instead of 'l.'

I did not appreciate how frustrated he must have been that the university asked him to come teach, then perfunctorily sent him to a first year speech therapy student to "fix" his accent. I did not understand what it must feel like to worry that his tenure and his future hinged on changing something as integral to his identity as his voice. Until I was a manager in the world of Corporate America, I could not have seen -- or possibly even believed -- the magnitude of those things. I was just an undergraduate communication disorders student who knew that my client didn't really want to be there, with no tools yet at my disposal to convince him that I could help.

I believe in the power of communication. In fact, I believe that communication is the path to basically everything. I also believe that if you are going to live in and ask for the protection and benefits a nation affords, that you have an obligation to commit to the capacity to communicate with those who live around you. Not simply for anyone's convenience, but to listen to what policy makers say and decide if they are right or wrong. To hear the words spoken by a candidate and decide if they are worthy of support or a vote.

Certainly I am human, and if I'm trying to check into my doctor's office I will experience stress if the Laotian-speaking receptionist and I are struggling through our exchange. But I, despite many years of effort, could get neither Spanish nor French through my American-speaking skull. It is unbelievably difficult, as an adult. So when someone has worked their way here, fought to get English fluency into their repertoire and happily puts him or herself into a workplace where a public may judge them harshly for nothing more than the bleeding of their native sound-system into their new language, I will find my way to compassion and sensitivity.

Because I remember a determined immigrant from China who was a brilliant mathematician and how I focused with naïve tunnel-vision on only his speech, fundamentally setting us both up for failure. Even though I was an accent specialist -- perhaps even because I was an accent specialist -- I had an obligation to bring us to the perspective where we could both see that his accent in no way defined his humanity.