By Julissa Catalan
Staff at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) were up in arms last week after the lab’s human-resources department offered a “Southern Accent Reduction” course.
The class description read: “Feel confident in a meeting when you need to speak with a more neutral American accent, and be remembered for what you say and not how you say it.”
It continued: “In this course you will learn to recognize the pronunciation and grammar differences that make your speech sound Southern, and learn what to do so you can neutralize it through a technique called code-switching.”
The six-week course was scheduled to be taught by Lisa Scott, “a nationally certified speech pathologist and accent-reduction trainer,” at the Tennessee-based research facility and was set to run through mid-September.
The class was offered on a voluntary basis with a price tag of $850.
Following complaints from employees deeming the course offensive, insulting and discriminatory, the laboratory quickly cancelled the offering.
David Keim, a spokesperson for ORNL, said managers cancelled the course immediately following the negative response from employees.
“Given the way that it came across, they decided to cancel it,” Keim told the Knoxville News Sentinel. “It probably wasn’t presented in the right way and made it look like [the laboratory] had some problem with having a Southern accent, which of course we don’t. That was not the intent at all.
“We’ve offered accent reduction training to foreign nationals for years,” he added. “But this one obviously surprised some folks.”
In fact, Keim says this all came about because a Southern employee requested the course in order to communicate more effectively with international partners. Human resources then decided to make this option available to all Oak Ridge workers.
ORNL employs more than 4,400 people from 90 countries, including all parts of the United States.
Still, Keim does agree that the message was poorly conveyed.
“We wanted to make it say that we want to give employees the tools to communicate effectively,” he said. “It was not at all a judgment about the validity of any particular accent.”
Bethany Dumas, a Professor Emerita in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee—an Oak Ridge affiliate—agrees, saying that using words such as reduction in the course description carries a negative and off-putting connotation.
“You shouldn’t teach a course on how to change dialects, but rather teach a course on the nature and function of dialects in the U.S.,” she said. “Have people understand that you shouldn’t change your accent because it’s wrong, but learn a new one that may serve you better in some situations.”