Heinz College Partners with American Accent Specialist to Provide International Students with Edge in Workplace

Dec 03, 2010

As the workplace becomes more global and job competition intensifies, communication skills are more critical than ever. For non-native speakers of English, the challenge is compounded. In order to address this emerging reality, Carnegie Mellon University’s H. John Heinz III College has partnered with pronunciation expert Judy Tobe to help give international students a competitive advantage when seeking employment.

“We attract the best and brightest from around the world,” says Andy Wasser, associate dean for Heinz College’s School of Information Systems and Management. “They have strong English comprehension skills, but they aren’t always easy to understand. If others are less likely to interact with them in workplace or academia, it becomes a real hindrance to their career success.”

This summer, the college piloted a four-week pronunciation skills workshop, hiring Tobe to first assess each student’s skill level and then lead the sessions. Based on the success of the summer workshop, a fall session was expanded to six weeks. Enrollment was voluntary -- and popular, with more students interested than there were slots available for the fall session. Those with the greatest assessed need were enrolled.

“The goal in holding the workshops was to allow others to easily and effortlessly understand what the non-native students are saying,” Wasser says. “This is especially important when they enter the interview room, so they can shine with the strong analytical and technical skills they develop here at Heinz College.”

Shi “Shirley” Weiru, who moved from Shanghai to Shadyside in August to start a master’s degree in Public Policy and Management, attended the fall workshop with nine other Heinz College students -- eight from China, one from India. Shi had studied English since childhood.

“However, in China, most of us practice reading, writing and listening, but we do not practice speaking,” Weiru says. 

Shi learned to vary her pitch when speaking, practicing words and sentences that Tobe provided during class exercises, and paid close attention to her patterns during daily conversations. Students also presented a brief speech at the close of the workshop.

“It helped me to know how to do the pitch in the sentence. I gained confidence,” says Weiru, echoing survey feedback given by many of the attendees.

Wasser says it will be important for an evidence-based institution like Heinz College to quantify the impact of these workshops in the future. For now, though, he is confident in using student satisfaction as a measure of success.

“We believe in the value of the workshops and feel that providing this training is one way Heinz College is leading the way for the entire university,” he says.

Through Claro, her Pittsburgh-based consultancy, Judy Tobe blends in-person and internet-based programs to help non-native speakers to improve their “American accent.” They learn to master attributes of the accent such as linking words, appropriate stressing of syllables, varied pitch within a sentence and slower speaking pace.

“Ultimately, my clients want to have more confidence to share their ideas and to prevent breakdowns in communication,” Tobe says. 

Tobe launched Claro in 2008, leveraging 28 years of experience as a speech pathologist. Since then, she has worked not only with universities but also with business organizations and individuals. More information about Claro can be found at http://claroaccent.com/

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