Tucson, Arizona | Published:

 By Rachel Uranga

LOS ANGELES - Every so often - with her girlfriends, or after one too many glasses of wine - Mercedes Woodward has a slip of the tongue. But for the most part she sounds "American."
While some people find accents sexy, sophisticated or endearing, the Guatemalan-born Woodward said hers was inhibiting her career.
So she did what thousands of other immigrants have done: enrolled in pricey accent-reduction classes.
Six months of tongue-twisting diction drills and strenuous mouth exercises paid off for the 39-year-old Agoura Hills executive. With her enunciation more Americanized, Woodward was promoted. She now earns three times the salary she made before the classes.
"Even though we are a melting pot, people don't tolerate people having an accent that sometimes is hard to understand," Woodward said. "People get frustrated when they have a lack of communication."
A way into the mainstream
Seizing on the ambitions of many immigrants to fast-track their careers - and the demand from private companies to improve their employees' conversation skills - speech pathologists and dialect coaches charge about $100 a lesson to deliver what has become known as "accent reduction."
"Accent reduction" - which teaches Brits to enunciate their "r's" after vowels and Spanish speakers not to roll theirs at the beginning of a word - helps many immigrants enter the American mainstream where they can earn a better living.
Moreover, speaking like an "American" can also protect them from subtle and overt forms of discrimination in the workplace, officials say.
Services promising to do away with heavy accents have flourished in cities like Los Angeles, where a third of the population is foreign-born, speaking upward of 100 languages.
Companies like Chicago-based Executive Language Training, which serves high-tech firms nationally, have done very well. Local colleges regularly fill their "accent reduction" classes. And across the region, in heavily immigrant neighborhoods, "accent reduction" classes are advertised on cardboard signs posted on utility polls and near bus stops.
Business big and growing
Though nobody tracks the number of these courses - also known as "pronunciation classes" - speech pathologists and others say business is booming.
Gina Grantis, director of training at Executive Language Training, has watched her company grow tenfold in the past decade.
"The demand has increased because there has been a larger influx of immigrants," she said. "There are people of Indian descent in the technology center, Chinese in the science and pharmaceuticals, Russians in energy-type companies and there are a lot of attorneys of Asian descent that need accent-reduction training. In Los Angeles, you see a lot of Hispanics in all types of manufacturing."
About half of her clients have lived in the United States for years and rose through company ranks. Others are newly arrived, many on foreign work visas. And though they have landed coveted positions, many say that their accents make it difficult for them to be understood and even trusted by their colleagues.