The Accent-cutioner | Our Town | Chicago Reader

The Accent-cutioner 

An English teacher gives recent arrivals a little understanding.

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George Savino was trying to teach Kinga Plonka to talk like an American. So he asked the Polish bookkeeper to read aloud from a Reader article about Velveeta and pornography.

"Local onderground cartoonist Stuart Helm picked op de phone one day lazt wintur and found a Kraft Foods attorney on de line--on the line, I'm sorry," Plonka recited in a brooding, singsong Slavic accent that clamped down hard on every consonant. "'I'm an admirer ov your work,' the lawyer said, 'but we think you should change your professional name.' It waazn't Helm that had Kraft curdling, it was the cartoonist's alias, King Vel-vay-da..."

"OK." A few sentences later Savino leaned across the coffee table in his living room and spread out his blue note cards. "You had a couple mispronunciations. This is Vel-vee-ta."

"Velveeta," she repeated.

"It's not an important word, but you should say it right anyway. This is--what is this word?"

"Pornography."

"OK. I don't remember what you said, but you didn't say pornography. Remember, words that end in g-r-a-p-h-y, the stress goes before the g. So it's por-nog-raphy, ge-og-raphy, pho-tog-raphy."

Vel-vee-ta. Por-nog-ra-phy. Plonka must learn these words so she can achieve her ambition in this country: becoming a real estate agent. When she came to America three years ago, she knew a little English from college lessons in Poland but was embarrassed to speak it. She barely needed to. Plonka and her construction worker husband, Wojtek, settled on the northwest side, and she took a job at an insurance agency where all the bookkeepers speak Polish. But she didn't want to be like some of her neighbors, who have lived in Chicago for 20 years and still shop at Polish grocery stores so they won't have to speak English. The Americans she met looked down on Poles. In this land of immigrants, no one could tell by looking at her that she was from another country, but once she opened her mouth...

"I don't want to be recognized," she says. "I never put some sign that I'm from Poland on my car. I don't want to speak with a Polish accent. I just have to work on conversation and I have to take more conversation. I know I am more interesting. I know a lot of stuff and I have knowledge of a lot of things. I think for English people I am very stupid because I am using very simple words."

A friend told her about Savino. He teaches English as a second language at National-Louis University, but four years ago he began giving accent lessons in his Edgewater apartment. His former students include an Austrian stage actor who was tired of being typecast in Teutonic roles and a Vietnamese computer programmer who wanted to be understood by his colleagues.

"When I went to earn my master's in teaching English as a second language, there was very little focus on pronunciation," Savino says. "People impose the pronunciation rules of their own language on a foreign language. That's an accent."

Savino is not Henry Higgins. After puberty, it is "virtually impossible" to lose an accent, he tells his students. But they can improve their pronunciation. In June Plonka signed up for 20 lessons. Where else could she practice her English? Once a week she did some bookkeeping for a Russian-Jewish businessman whose accent was even worse than hers. That was it.

"It's a lot like learning a musical instrument," Savino told her. "You're creating new patterns in your brain. It's new motor skills you're creating."

In one of their first lessons, Savino taught Plonka to say "th," a sound that exists only in English and a handful of other languages, including Greek and Arabic. Foreigners are bashful about sticking out their tongues, the essential lingual maneuver for "th." Three generations after the immigrant trains arrived, they still won't do it on Throop Street in Bridgeport.

"You put your tongue between your teeth and blow hard," Savino lectured. "Make sure you've got air over your tongue, or you're going to say 'dere.'"

He pointed to a word written on one of his note cards. "What's this word?"

"Modder," Plonka said.

"Mothhhh-er," he corrected. "If you touch your teeth, you're going to say 'mudder.'"

A bookkeeper must know her numbers, so Savino had his student recite the ordinals, from first to fiftieth. When she reached "twenteeth," Savino made a buzzing noise--"Bzzzt"--and told her to repeat "twen-ti-eth" five times. Then he had her read a profile of Kirk Cameron that she had cut out of her favorite magazine, People. His name came out as "Keerk Cameroon."

For the next month, Plonka had a lesson with Savino once a week and studied her English at home. Her long work hours and frequent migraine headaches made it difficult to concentrate on the exercises in her notebook, but she found other ways to practice: she and Wojtek saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and when Ameritech sent her an erroneous bill, she called the company to complain. An immigrant unsure of her English might have paid, but, Plonka explained, "they charge me twice, and this piss me off." She also read Accident by Danielle Steel, a book she'd once enjoyed in Polish.

When she returned to Savino's apartment for a lesson in late August, he decided she was ready for English prose finer than Danielle Steel or People. He had her try a Joan Didion essay on migraines. Although she pronounced "migraine" like "migrant" without the t, Savino gave her a high mark.

"The best thing about your reading is your intonation is near perfect," he said. "You have a good sense of when your voice should rise and fall. That's very hard to learn."

"I bought a booook," Plonka told him at the end of the lesson.

"Bzzzt."

"Book. Book, book, book, book. I bought a book. Quo Vadis. That is the title in Polish. I don't know what the title is in English. It is by a Polish author--Sinkiewicz."

"Shin-kay-vich." Savino repeated the name five times. "Have you read it before in Polish?" he asked. She had. "Is it easy?"

"It's pretty easy."

"I'll read it with you." He jotted the title on one of his blue note cards. "I want you to read all of chapter one, and write a review."

Plonka had even bigger news. At the insurance agency she had, for the first time ever, spoken in English.

"Right now, I can call for the company, talking about statements, and when I have a question," she said. "I just started this two weeks ago. I am doing this very early in the morning, when no one can hear me. Before, I had someone else do that. I told my boss I made the phone calls. He didn't say nothing to me, but he is surprised a little bit."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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