Doolittle Don't

Amid criticism from employees, Oak Ridge National Laboratory calls off voluntary Southern accent "reduction" class.

July 31, 2014

The rain in Spain won’t be falling mainly on the plain after all, at least not at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The Tennessee-based research facility canceled what it had billed as a “Southern accent reduction” class amid employee backlash; for some staff, it came off as a little too “My Fair Lady: Appalachia."

“Feel confident in a meeting when you need to speak with a more neu­tral Amer­i­can accent, and be remembered for what you say and not how you say it,” reads an email sent to thousands of staff members last week, advertising the new course. “In this course you will learn to recognize the pronunciation and grammar differences that make your speech sound Southern, and learn what to do so you can neutralize it through a technique called code-switching.”

The weekly course, set to run through mid-September, was offered on a voluntary basis only (with an $850 price tag). But some employees were insulted by the premise of the course and wording of the email, and complained. The lab subsequently called off the class.

David Keim, spokesman for Oak Ridge, which is the Energy Department’s biggest research facility and home to the Titan supercomputer, said the lab regularly offers accent modification classes for its many employees who are non-native English speakers. The lab employs some 4,400 people from 90 countries, as well as from across the U.S., and their work is highly technical. That makes professional development designed to help international researchers communicate more clearly and efficiently in high demand, he said.

But recently, a native English speaker requested such professional development to deal with a Southern accent, Keim said. So human resources staff arranged for the course in regional accent reduction and drafted an email to all employees to drum up additional students. It backfired.

Keim said he didn’t know the exact nature of the complaints, but said that the email “was perceived by a lot of folks, due to the label, as us having a problem with Southern accents, but that was not at all the intent. We have been in Tennessee for 70 years – we do not have a problem with Southern accents.”

Still, Keim said he admitted that the email was poorly worded, and should not have singled out any regional accent for "neutralization."

“We wanted to make it say that we want to give employees the tools to communicate effectively,” he said. “It was not at all a judgment about the validity of any particular accent.”

Bethany Dumas, a professor emerita of linguistics at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, with which Oak Ridge is affiliated, said courses such as the one proposed hold some value. There’s a bit of pressure in the professional world – including in academe – to suppress regional accents associated with negative stereotypes, such as the “redneck” Southerner, she said. So some choose to learn another, more “standard” dialect (Dumas prefers the term “network” American English).

But Oak Ridge’s was approach misguided, she said.

“You shouldn’t teach a course on how to change dialects, but rather teach a course on the nature and function of dialects in the U.S.,” she said. “Have people understand that you shouldn’t change your accent because it’s wrong, but learn a new one that may serve you better in some situations.” (But Dumas, who has studied Southern dialects and speaks with a slight drawl, noted that many Southerners are "proud" of their accents.)

In linguistics speak, Dumas said, the right approach is “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive.” Referring to the course title, she added, “ 'Reduce’ is a terrible word.”

Many colleges and universities have clinics or centers that offer coaching in American English to international students.

Nadine Whiteman is a clinical supervisor at Ohio State University’s Speech-Language-Hearing clinic and frequently works with non-native English speakers who want to reduce their accents, as well as native speakers who want to be better presenters and speakers. Whiteman said she’d never worked with a native English speaker on regional accent issues, but said that many people do desire to display a kind of “neutral” American accent, as advertised in the email. Lots of newscasters and businesspeople strive for that kind of speaking “style,” for example, she said, adding that she didn't think it was problematic to offer a course such as the one proposed at the lab -- as long as it's totally voluntary.

At Oak Ridge, the course has been canceled, not just postponed. But Keim said human resources staff members are left with the native speaker’s unfulfilled request for accent modification training.

“This is complicated material and part of having an effective presentation is considering how your audience is going to be listening to what you say,” he said.

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