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Articles & Interviews: Judy Ravin on Accent-Reduction Apps and the Powerful Pronunciation® Alternative


Judy Ravin of Accents International was interviewed by Newsy about accent reduction applications and the Powerful Pronunciation® alternative. The Powerful Pronunciation® program offered by Accents International improves pronunciation through real-time coaching.


If you’ve had to call a customer service number recently, and actually managed to get through to a real human, you might have ended up speaking to somebody outside of the U.S about a domestic issue.

It’s no secret many companies outsource their customer service to call centers around the globe. Sometimes it’s the representative’s accent that lets the customer know they are not Stateside. But one startup has plans to hide foreign accents completely.

“So how can I help you today?” [Music] “I’m so sorry about that. I’ll be glad to help you…So how can I help you today? I’m so sorry about that. I’ll be glad to help you.”

It’s a controversial idea, creating a new debate around accents. On the one hand, this could help protect workers from discrimination. On the other hand, skeptics argue it could actually exacerbate existing problems with discrimination.

Let’s break it down. Accent training for call centers is already standard procedure. Workers are usually trained in a number of different English-speaking accents. The BBC reported on one company that trained workers both in their speaking accents and in understanding accents like New Yorker, Jamaican, and even medieval English accents, you know just in case.

So one of the apparent benefits to using tech that neutralizes accents means it could save companies from a rigorous training process. The other major goal is protecting workers from discrimination. One of the founders of Sanas, who is a former call center worker, told the Guardian, “I built this technology for the agents because I don’t want him or her to go through what I went through.”

Unsurprisingly, call centers are magnets for all kinds of accent discrimination. Callers’ accents are a huge factor in how we perceive identity and form prejudices. They can be associated with cultural background, nationality, or even class. In education, some research has shown accents can play an even more important role in how we judge someone than how they look. And we can see how we respond to non-native accents differently. In one study, native English speakers rated recordings of different accents saying statements like, “Ants don’t sleep” (they do by the way) but the results show the English speakers rated the statement said with the heaviest accents as the least true. In other words, they trusted them less.

It might be easy to point to studies like this as evidence that accent bias is just unavoidable. But experts say it seems more like the other way around. Stereotypes are what shape how we respond to certain accents in the first place. Some studies show that native U.S English speakers trust British accents more than Indian accents, regardless of how strong it is, or that Mexican and Greek accents were seen as less intelligent or professional than people using standard U.S English. And no, this isn’t just the US. Many countries in Europe, like Sweden or Denmark, have dialects referred to as Street language or Street dialects, but these are often used by immigrant communities and are seen as, quote, less refined.

Some language experts suggest exposure to more accents can actually help combat harmful stereotypes. Which brings us back to why some critics have raised eyebrows at the call center tech. It can seem like erasing accents and identity might be a step backwards to some, but for others we can’t dismiss how some call center workers might find relief in Tech like this. And folks, it’s not just call centers. International workers in any number of countries can face similar problems from accent bias.

So national correspondent Kat Sandoval reached out to a range of expats and non-native workers to learn more from their perspective. “I work in Media. I do like stories and corporate films are always trying to find positive things in the good and bad things. I’m Irish and I have an Irish accent.”

Accents are diverse and unique, but sometimes accents can get in the way of understanding people. So an app called Sanas looks to remove that barrier by using AI technology.

“Whether we’re in the Philippines or in a different country, rest assured that we’re trained in every detail to handle your accounts.” Dwayne Alveolar lives in the Philippines and has worked for U.S based companies for eight years. He previously worked in call centers and now works in customer service. “As soon as they figure out that we are located in the Philippines, that’s where racism takes place, and that’s where we’re judged.”

Alveolus says he and his co-workers face discrimination and racism on the other end of the call. “Different types of curses but since it’s our second language we don’t even mind it. But racism comes in even if we know that we’re not the one being blamed for their experience, it still hits us the most.”

Alveolus says they’re stuck. When he was working in call centers, they weren’t allowed to hang up and so they have to be on the call until the caller on the other line clicks off. He says accent altering apps can lead to smoother communication and less verbal abuse especially for new graduates who just entered training. “Then it would help them boost their confidence. That’s also one reason why I like the App. Because if it was developed just a few years ago when I was starting, I would have loved it.

Others find the Sanas app helpful especially when cops or hospitals are involved. “If there is a law… like with a discussion with the cop, or with the doctor, mainly you know there are a lot of problems when you communicate with the doctor if you don’t know proper English.”

On the flip side, others argue that apps that take away accents perpetuate racism and discrimination by masking the problem at hand. Accents International founder says there’s a way to do things differently.

“At the conclusion of our program, which is called Powerful Pronunciation®, people will still have an accent. We think that’s a good thing, An accent is a piece of our cultural and linguistic identity. What they won’t have is a communication barrier.”

Unlike the apps that filter voices, Accents International improves pronunciation through real-time coaching. For example, the vowel sound “aw” used in words like law or daughter can be tough for those not familiar with pronouncing it.

“So the way we teach it is both…what does it look like and what does it feel like? Well, it looks like someone’s popped an egg in their mouth. Aw looks like a perfect oval. Oh that’s perfect. And a person can feel the top of their tongue behind their lower teeth. So what does it look like what does it feel like? What does it look like and what does it feel like, now what does it sound like?”

Vincent Dixon had a thick Irish accent, but through years of teaching English in France he learned to communicate more effectively. “I think sometimes people feel that their accent makes them lesser or more, and really it doesn’t. Just make sure it’s just who you are. You know it’s like the color of my eyes or the color of my hair.”

In a world filled with more AI listening, trying to get machines to understand you despite your accent, can be especially frustrating.

“It’s very frustrating because I talked to my watch. I talked to my husband, who is a geek, I talked to my iPod, I talk to my phone, and I have to pass it to my daughter who was born here in Atlanta, and I asked her to say whatever word it is for Siri to understand me because sometimes she don’t even get me.”

But ultimately the goal of accent changing technology is to create better person-to-person communication in an ever increasing globalized world. For me, the key point is not their identity in communication. The important thing is the message that you send and the message that you get.

Cat Sandoval, Newsy, Chicago

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