Speech therapist Mary Wagner has one piece of advice for the hundreds of foreign-born residents getting established in area neighborhoods and companies.
"No accent is right or wrong," she said. "The big thing is having a general American dialect that people can understand."
Ms. Wagner, who started Howard County General Hospital's speech and language department in February, will begin an accent-reduction program later this month. She doesn't promise wonders, but she can teach exercises to help reduce and control accents, she said.
"For business or professional people or even students, having yourself understood is important," she said.
Howard is as good as any county to start the program. The number of foreign-born residents -- 13,000 to 14,000 -- is one of the highest in the state, and since 1980 the Asian population has grown by 254 percent and the Hispanic population has increased by 149 percent, according to the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network (FIRN). FIRN predicts the Asian population will double again in the next eight years, and the Hispanic population will more than triple. Already, 8 percent of Columbia's households speak a language other than English.
Ms. Wagner became interested in starting an accent-reduction program when she came to Maryland six years ago and noticed the different dialects in the state. And then numerous people -- mostly salesmen -- approached her to teach them about acquiring the standard American dialect, which she describes as Midwestern.
Salesmen want to better their speech to better their sales pitch. Professionals want to improve their speaking abilities to improve their chances of moving up the corporate ladder. And they're not the only ones.
Doctors who were born in another country and came here to study and practice medicine often have a hard time communicating with their patients, she said. At other hospitals where she worked, Ms. Wagner said, patients complained about the language barrier.
"I've had patients who've switched their doctors because they were too embarrassed to say they couldn't understand what the doctor was saying," she said.
Ms. Wagner, who earned a master's degree in speech pathology from Columbia University, will use computer programs, tapes and workbooks to teach people how to control their accents.
She will discuss the new accent-reduction program at an Oct. 27 meeting at the hospital's Health Education Center.
She works individually with students in a 14-week program. She offers two programs, one hour a week at $945 and two hours a week at $1,715.
"We can customize a program to meet people's needs," she said. "We can do groups if people have the same accents. Certain dialects use certain muscle groups.
"You don't have to lose your accent," she says. "You're learning a new one."
But it won't be easy. "I don't have a magic wand that I can say, 'You will now speak English.' They have to do a certain amount of work. It's as successful as they want it to be. It's like going to school."