Aventura, Fla. – Stella Santana, a native of Uruguay who has taken English classes for six years, considers her grammar and reading skills in English as advanced. But as an administrative assistant for the luxury W Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, she tires when potential customers ask her to repeat herself.
Once, one said: “Can I speak with someone who speaks English?
“I felt horrible,” Santana said. “I have excellent grammar skills. Maybe I have to smooth out my pronunciation when I try to say something fast, but I know how to speak English.”
Santana is among the growing number of non-native English speakers around South Florida who strive to be understood better. They’ve taken English classes for years and largely consider themselves fluent. But they can’t seem to ditch the accent.
“Frustration is the common word,” said Carlos Quintana, who teaches an accent reduction class at Miami Dade College’s Aventura outreach center.
Classes geared for people who already speak English and want to improve their pronunciation have steadily increased in demand in recent years. Many are now offered at community colleges and private language institutes around South Florida periodically throughout the year.
Quintana, who has taught “English as a Second Language” around South Florida for 11 years, said many of his students are professionals who aim to improve their pronunciation and remain competitive in the workforce. They include doctors, architects, real estate agents and teachers who don’t want to embarrass themselves or risk losing career opportunities.
Jose “Pepe” Diaz, who heads the Broward Latin Chamber of Commerce, said the stiffest competition in the workforce often comes from U.S.-born Hispanics who are reared bilingually and have near-perfect pronunciation in both languages.
“Today the competition is fierce,” said Diaz, 59, a Pembroke Pines resident who moved to South Florida from Cuba in 1961. “If you are coming from Latin America [to Florida] and you have a degree, you have to compete with the kids who are raised here, and it’s hard.”
The hot-button issue of immigration also is sending many non-native English speakers to classes to improve their pronunciation, said Ana Roca, a linguistics expert and language professor at Florida International University.
“Many people are showing anti-immigrant attitudes very openly,” Roca said. “There always are chances that people are going to discriminate because of somebody’s accent.”
How accented English is perceived also varies depending on a person’s native language, Roca said. People often associate a French accent with perfume and sophistication and a British accent with Shakespeare and literature. A Spanish accent has different connotations.
“They associate Spanish with the person who may be cutting your lawn or illegal immigrants,” Roca said. “There definitely are more stereotypes for people with a Spanish accent.”
Quintana, who was tapped by the college to start teaching the accent reduction class last year, said most native Spanish speakers find it hard to differentiate between certain vowel sounds, like a long “e,” as in keys, and the short “i” sound in kiss.
The simple past tense of verbs ending in “-ed” and words that begin in “s” are especially troublesome for Spanish speakers because of a combination of intonation, facial expression and tongue placement, Quintana said. It’s also difficult for many to understand why certain vowel combinations – like “ee” in “sheep” and “ea” in “cheap” – sound the same. For Santana, who moved to South Florida from Uruguay 10 years ago, contractions pose the biggest challenge. “Instead of saying ‘could have been,’ people say ‘could’ve been,’ Santana. “That’s very confusing.”
Quintana insists students can improve their pronunciation as long as they follow a few tips, like watching English-language television and choosing the English option on automated phone messages.
“Accent is part of culture,” he said. “You’re not going to loose your accent. You can improve your pronunciation, but the accent is part of you.”