“What Did You Say?”

Communication the goal at Accent Reduction Institute

An Accent Reduction DVD shows a close-up of a speaker pronouncing the word "job." At the bottom of the screen, the word is spelled phonetically.

When Ann Arbor educator and entrepreneur Judy Ravin claims she can say, “What? What did you say?” in at least five different languages, she is not bragging about her multilingual prowess. She hears those phrases too often as she travels abroad. Just because she speaks the languages does not necessarily mean she is easily understood in all of them.

“And that doesn’t feel good,” she says. “None of us like that.”

It was mutual frustration (between speaker and the spoken-to) during her trips abroad that led her to think about how that must feel to immigrants in the United States as they attempt to set up their careers here.

And out of that frustration was the idea that eventually led to the Accent Reduction Institute, based in the Godfrey Building on North Fourth Avenue in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown district. With a faculty of 18 contractors and three full-time directors, Ravin’s institute has been smoothing out the rough spots for immigrant speakers for about four years. The innovation behind the business is what is officially trademarked as the “Ravin Method,” which Ravin humbly says she feels “kind of silly about.”

Accenting the Positive

But to understand what the Ravin Method is, it’s first important to answer one key question. “What is wrong with having accent?”

“There is nothing wrong with an accent,” Ravin says emphatically.

What is wrong, she says, are barriers to understanding one another. So, when does an accent – a badge of “unique cultural identity,” as Ravin says – become a true barrier? Well, there are tests potential clients can take involving the number of “critical errors” made when a sound or a word is pronounced in a way that differs from the standard pronunciation pattern to such an extent that the listener cannot really understand it. But the easier way to tell is more simple. Are they being asked to repeat themselves too many times?

Tomohisa Fujiwara, an intern with Menlo Innovations, gets pronunciation instruction from Barb Niemann, director of curriculum and training for the Accent Reduction Institute

Tomohisa Fujiwara, an intern with Menlo Innovations, gets pronunciation instruction from Barb Niemann, director of curriculum and training for the Accent Reduction Institute.

“People know when their accent, when their speech pattern, is a language barrier,” Ravin says. “The telltale sign is when people say over and over again, ‘What? What did you say? Can you repeat that?’”

The problem is one that adults of any culture would have a problem with. When you’re under the age of two? No problem. You’re born with the ability to make all sounds. After you’re about two years old, “we learn that this thing called language is really a system of rewards,” Ravin says. Make sounds in a way parents understand, and your needs are met. Other sounds aren’t needed, so we forget them. “So, actually, what accent reduction is,” Ravin says, “is a relearning process.”

Learning Language with Your Eyes

And, as it turns out, a big part of the learning process is visual and not only auditory. In fact, ears deceive. If a sound does not exist in a speaker’s native language, he or she may simply substitute a more familiar sound. Relearning how to hear and see a sound is key to the Ravin Method.

Hook a person up to electrodes and then ask them to either speak with an accent or listen to the accent, “the crazy thing is that the part of the brain that’s responsible for visual acuity starts firing up,” Ravin says. “So we know that there needs to be a visual input for learning articulation” after a certain age. So, the Ravin Method is not simply “listen, repeat; listen repeat,” but contains visual elements as well. Where do you put your lips, your tongue, your jaw when you make a sound in English that does not exist in your native language?

Ravin’s company is four years old, but she has been thinking about these issues for much longer.

She used to teach English pronunciation for an Ann Arbor company on Liberty Street called Access International. In 1998, she went on to teach at Eastern Michigan University. Ravin knew she was on to something when she started getting requests from folks in private industry – like Pfizer, Daewoo and Federal Mogul – to help some of the workers improve their English pronunciations. Requests came from employers and employees.

“People want to be brought into the inner circle,” Ravin says. “They want to be asked their opinions and their advice.”

Building a Business

So she set up an LLC shingle and “got lots of clients.” But, she says, she felt something was missing.

“I had this horrible, nagging feeling,” Ravin says. “You know, it’s kind of like teaching a musical instrument. What we’re doing when you teach a musical instrument is you change the motor memory, usually of the fingers. In English pronunciation, we’re changing the motor memory of the speech apparatus.”

If you meet with your teacher once a week, it’s very hard to practice unless you’re given an instrument. “I felt that people needed an instrument, so to speak, in order to progress from one session to the next, from one class to the next.”

Judy Ravin, founder and CEO of the Accent Reduction Institute.

Judy Ravin, founder and president of the Accent Reduction Institute, with a DVD she developed to help non-English speakers learn to pronounce words in an understandable way.

Ravin developed an interactive DVD that takes into account all the necessary requisites needed to make a new sound that does not exist in a speaker’s first language. The methodology includes listening discrimination between sounds and then a “how-to” section. This is what you need to do with your tongue, teeth, lips and jaw.

With her software as a jumping-off point, Menlo Innovations – an Ann Arbor software consulting firm – took notice of her method. After some wheeling and dealing, Menlo decided to snatch her up and the Accent Reduction Institute was born, as a unit of Menlo.

Ravin won’t say how much Menlo paid, nor will she reveal how much revenue the company has taken in. She did say that revenue grew by some 300% in the past two years.

Physical classes in Ann Arbor account for only about 3% of the revenue, Ravin says. The rest comes from Webcam-based classes, where the client can be in Detroit or Delhi. It doesn’t matter. About twice a month, the company gives an Ann Arbor seminar called “The Sound of Success” attended by a mixture of HR directors, students and workers.

The bottom line, she says, is that employees that are understood help raise, well, the bottom line. The idea is understanding, and not denigrating cultural difference.

“An accent equals a speech pattern, equals pronunciation and, therefore, who has an accent? Everyone has an accent,” Ravin says. “So the objective is not to eliminate an accent. Our objective – and this is really key for us and this is what we tell companies – our objective is to eliminate language barriers while helping people maintain their unique cultural identity.”

About the author: Veteran journalist Howard Lovy has focused his writing the last several years on science, technology and business. He was news editor at Small Times, a magazine focusing on nanotechnology and microsystems, when it first launched in Ann Arbor in 2001 as the media arm of Ardesta. His freelance work has appeared in Wired News, Salon.com, X-OLOGY Magazine and The Michigan Messenger. His current research focus includes the future of the auto industry and the U.S. criminal justice system.