Irina Kreshuk came here from Russia 20 years ago, looking for a better life. Ailenid Alfonzo Landeta, a Puerto Rico native, fell in love with Austin on a visit, then moved here three years ago and met her husband.
Ha Pham, who is Vietnamese, has lived in the U.S. for 10 years but just arrived here a year ago for her high tech job. Michael Froehlsis a management consultant, author, former radio host and world traveler who speaks four languages and now calls Austin home.
Their paths crossed at Voices of the World Speech Therapy with a common purpose: To be better understood — literally.
Austin is hardly a Tower of Babel, but its growing international attraction — whether because of the University of Texas, Dell Inc., Formula One or its cultural magnets — makes it a city of many accents.
Jane Rupp, a licensed speech-language pathologist and owner of Voices of the World, caters to people who want to reduce or soften their native accents so they can better communicate with their customers, students or colleagues.
“We’re not really trying to eliminate their accents,” Rupp said. “We’re just trying to get themselves understood. They are always having to repeat themselves.”
Most of Rupp’s clients come either from word of mouth or through her website — accentreductionaustin.com. She charges $2,500 for an evaluation, 25 hours of one-on-one instruction and copies of the teaching materials.
Her clients include people from all walks of life, including actors or native Texans who want to speak with a standard American accent. Most though are foreigners who moved here without command of conversational English.
“A lot of people think of it as learning an American accent,” Rupp said. “A lot of people use their American accent at work, then go home and use their native accent.”
Kreshuk arrived in Austin with her sister at age 18, began learning English in high school and eventually became a CPA. She married a professor from South America and her sister, who is a programmer that works with colleagues from India and China, still lives here.
“I have all these people around me with accents,” she said, laughing. “It’s a mess.”
Kreshuk said her accent made it difficult to talk to clients over the phone.
“Jane taught me sounds I didn’t know existed in the English language,” she said. “I wish I had done this 20 years ago.”
Pham is a software architect who said she chose Rupp with the help of her manager.
“I need to interact with business and IT managers of clients,” Pham said. “I feel I was not effective in communication, especially in online meetings which became common in my career.”
Ironically, Landeta is a speech pathologist. She learned English in Puerto Rico, but she said there wasn’t much emphasis on conversational English.
Landeta first heard of accent reduction when she attended graduate school in Boston.
At the time, Lendeta wasn’t pleased at the thought of it.
“I thought that going through a training like that would mean to reject my culture,” she said. “My thinking was that if you would know that my first language was Spanish because of my accent, then so be it.”
Her accent wasn’t an issue when she returned to Puerto Rico to start her career, but she changed her mind about accent reduction when she began working in Texas.
“I wanted to start the training to increase my confidence working with parents of monolingual English speaking kids,” she said. “I wanted to keep growing in the field and I felt that the accent was one of the things that was keeping me back.”
Froehls, a graduate student at the University of Texas in the 1990s, returned to Austin five years ago after losing a New York-based consulting job during the recession. He wrote, “The Gift of Job Loss - A Practical Guide to Realizing the Most Rewarding Time of Your Life.” and started his own management consulting firm.
Originally from Germany, Froehls also speaks French, Spanish and English. He has traveled to more than 50 countries in his work and for pleasure.
Listeners to KOOP 91.7 FM might remember his talk show, “The Global Wanderer,” from 2013.
It was during his stint on the radio that Froehls said he decided to hire Rupp.
“When you learn a language late, you make up your own sounds,” Froehls said. “I thought it was good to invest in myself.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Ha Pham is male.