As a speech pathologist in the 1980s and 1990s, Judy Tobe worked closely with individuals suffering from neurological and facial disorders, and she provided diagnostic expertise about whether surgery would help or hinder communication skills.
When she became a professional mediator a decade ago, she handled many labor disputes that she believed resulted from a breakdown in communication in the workplace.
Two years ago, Tobe melded her two vocations into a business helping nonnative English speakers tone down their accents and improve their communication !SEmD especially on the job.
The result is Claro, a company in Monroeville, Pa., that provides accent-reduction services to business and medical professionals, students and others whose communication skills may be barriers to success.
Take the graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University's H. John Heinz III College for whom Tobe has held on-campus workshops. Like most of her clients, they've had a strong grasp of the English language, including the ability to read and write it fluently. But as natives of India, China or other countries, their pronunciation wasn't polished. The students might stress the wrong syllable of a word or speak at a staccato pace without intonation.
"They ... are incredibly talented, but they are hindered in some way in really reaching their potential in the workplace," Tobe said.
Lynda Stucky, a Pittsburgh speech pathologist, offers voice and presentation skills through her firm, Clearly Speaking. She said more than 50 percent of her business is generated by customers seeking accent reduction.
"It's not about making them more American or taking away their accent," she said. "If you can't make yourself clear, it's difficult to work and communicate with people."
Patti Adank, who teaches and researches speech communication at the University of Manchester, England, co-authored a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science that found if people imitate someone with a regional or foreign accent, they will better understand what the other person is saying.
Adank, who grew up near Amsterdam in The Netherlands, said she encounters barriers in her teaching because she has a Dutch accent and lectures to students primarily from northern England.
"We have prejudices and ideas based on people's accents," Adank said. "People open their mouths and other people have ideas about them and their personalities. The accent can get in the way."
In the study, Adank said, "We tried to get people interacting with people with accents they were not familiar with."
That's part of the one-on-one training that accent-reduction specialists like Tobe provide for clients such as Preetham Gowda, 29, a native of Bangalore, India. He moved to Virginia in 2003 to earn a master's degree in computer science from Old Dominion University and now works as a software development project manager.
Since April, the two have been meeting for one-hour sessions that start with 15 to 20 minutes of casual conversation, so Tobe can assess Gowda's progress from week to week.
"The number of times someone asks me to repeat myself has definitely come down," said Gowda, a product manager who works "with people from lots of other departments and customers. I think it's very, very important to have clear communication."