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When Margaret Klepacz emigrated from Poland to Canada as a teenager in 1981, she spoke no English. Although she now speaks fluently with only a slight accent, she knows that the patients in her dental practice must understand her perfectly.

"I have to be effective as a communicator," says Dr. Klepacz, of Acton, Mass. "When I speak, I would like people to listen to what I have to say, rather than to my accent."

That desire led her to an accent-modification course to work on difficult sounds and expressions. "The classes are a tremendous help, and it's fun," says an enthusiastic Klepacz.

As the United States becomes increasingly multi-cultural, instruction like this is growing in importance. "It's really catching on," says Doris Morgenstern, director of Communicative Health Care Associates in Waltham, Mass. Her clients have included a Belgian engineer, Chinese and Italian restaurant owners, an Armenian accountant, Romanian scientists, and Spanish health-care workers.

Like the so-called glass ceiling that limits some women's professional advancement, a "lingual ceiling" can stall the careers of nonnative English speakers - both men and women - if they cannot communicate well. More than 3 million immigrants entered the United States legally between 1995 and 1998.

"When you have unclear speech, misunderstandings are extremely stressful for both the listeners and the speakers," says Lois Cook, president of Speech and Communication Professionals in White Plains, N.Y. "The speakers lose confidence in their ability to communicate their ideas."

Some students enroll because of social needs. "Maybe family members were making fun of them, or someone is going into a dating situation and is not comfortable because of a heavy accent," says Patricia Wolf Gomola, a speech pathologist in Middletown, Conn. "The reasons are as varied as the people."

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