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A Speech Coach to the Stars

Sam Chwat helped Julia Roberts and Robert De Niro. He also neutralizes unfortunate accents.

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“Stop right there,” Sam Chwat says, cutting me short.

“This is where you were given away.” He rolls up his sleeves. “Not ‘dat.’ We say ‘that.’ “
He opens his mouth wide, his teeth biting his tongue.

I attempt to imitate him, sticking half my tongue out and moving my face as if I were about to burst into laughter.

I am being assimilated. Chwat, 55, a stocky man with a beard and protruding round eyes, is nitpicking.

“You tend to shorten your vowels too. That’s common among Chinese people. But don’t worry. It can be easily unlearned.”

I wonder how much an accent can affect a person’s life. Can’t New York, given its diversity, appreciate my accent, as it might this wooden Chinese antique chair I am sitting in?

But since Chwat is a leading speech coach to the stars, I defer to him. The Williamsburg, Brooklyn-born grandson of Russian Jews helped Julia Roberts shed a southern Georgia accent. He coached Andie McDowell, and Shakira.

Sixty percent of the clients at his company, New York Speech Improvement Services, are actors and professionals trying to change their accents, or improve their speech. Chawat has coached actors on the TV show “Law & Order.” He helped Robert De Niro prepare for “Cape Fear.”

The other 40 percent are foreigners, trying to sound more American.

“A strong accent can stop you from getting ahead,” Chwat argued. “Americans want to work with people who sound the same.”

That’s particularly true for me, since I’m working in journalism and broadcasting.

Growing up in Williamsburg, Chwat was a quiet kid with a knack for “imitability,” and in his multilingual neighborhood, there were lots of accents to pick from. After receiving a master’s degree in speech pathology from Columbia University in 1977, he worked at Manhattan’s Terence Cardinal Cooke hospital, treating patients with cleft lips, stutters and hearing impairments. One day in 1982 a businessman called the hospital, looking for help in softening his Spanish accent, the better to fit in with his new colleagues. Chwat turned speech coaching into a business the same year.

He says he’s been prospering for the past 10 years, with revenues rising 10 percent each year.

“People [in New York] are used to different cultures,” he said. “But if you don’t sound the same, we are afraid that you might not understand us or understand the culture.”

He and the seven speech therapists who work for him see 150 clients every week, down from a pre-financial crisis average of 230 last year.

“We suffer from the economy like everyone else, but it also creates new opportunities,” Chwat said. Within the last year, the number of individual clients increased as corporate clients turned away. The worsening unemployment rate has heightened job competition.

“People realize this. My clients are paying $300 an hour out of their own pockets to see me,” Chwat said.

Rose Pagan, a native Spanish speaker who works in the New York office of Belgian-owned KBC Bank, said New York Speech Improvement helped her a great deal. “I used to fail in my annual evaluation on communication,” she said. “My company recommended it. I’ve gone two ranks up in communication this year.”

People rely heavily on accents to judge others, agreed University of California, Santa Barbara communications professor Howard Giles. “It’s a social disease,” he said.
“People make hasty judgments by how a person sounds, and decide who to hire or hang out with.”

Yet many immigrants resist changing their accents, he added. Asians and Hispanics hold on to them to preserve their identities, while those blessed with the British, Italian or French accents Americans like realize their speech can give them an edge.

“Guys with these accents would keep the accents just to get women,” Giles said.

And some experts insist accents can never be eliminated, anyway.

“Anyone who learns a language after six years old will have an accent no matter what, and you will never lose it,” contended Steven Weinberger, director of linguistics at the Department of English at George Mason University.

“Listen to Henry Kissinger,” Weinberger said. “He is a beautiful English writer, but his accent is abysmal.”

Motivation makes an enormous difference, Chawt countered. “It is mainly psychological. You know what I mean? I have seen hundreds walking out of this office with zero accents.”

So I ask him:

“How did you do dat?”

“What did you just say?”

I clear my throat and ask again, slowly: “How did you do that?”

Chwat smiles and says: “Just like that.”

Photo courtesy of New York Speech Improvement Services