Tough economic times have prompted many Britons to seek out some unusual help in order to get ahead: elocution lessons.
Calls to companies offering speech tutors have soared in recent years as job seekers worry their accents are holding them back and parents fret their children will miss out on places at elite private schools unless they speak "posh." Some tutors are working with children as young as two years old, often charging up to $90 an hour for their services.
Private speech tutors have popped up by the dozens, offering a range of courses for children and adults. These modern-day versions of Professor Henry Higgins, the fictional linguist who taught Eliza Doolittle an upper-crust accent in My Fair Lady, belie the notion that Britain is moving away from its class system or that accents are fading away. If anything, today's economic slowdown has proven that both remain entrenched.
"It is a class statement, I suppose, in many ways," said Nathaniel McCullagh, who runs Simply Learning Tuition, which works on speaking techniques with young children in London, including many who come from wealthy immigrant families.
Mr. McCullagh said the company's tutors often act as "role models" for children aged 3 or 4, giving them a chance to hear a proper English accent and learn to speak with confidence. The tutors "are not super-middle or upper-class or anything, they've just got nice neutral accents. That's a major part of the job," he said.
Speaking properly can be critical to getting into top London preschools, he added. Like schools sought out by ambitious parents in New York and other big global cities, they often informally assess a child's speaking during the admission process.
These schools will put a child in an interview situation and ask his or her name and age. "They expect a level of response and they are able to pick from the very brightest kids in the country," Mr. McCullagh said. "And the parents know this. The parents are paying tutors to go in and just socialize with their children to bring up their confidence levels, to get them used to talking to adult who aren't the parents."
Teenagers, too, are being put into elocution lessons by their parents to help stamp out slang and improve their accents. One primary school in Essex is offering regular elocution lessons, hoping to teach students to say "computer" instead of "computa" and "aren't" instead of "ain't." Teachers say it has helped improve spelling, reading and writing and given children confidence they'll need to face a tough job market.
For many adults, too, toning down a regional accent can make all the difference in getting a job or advancing in a career. In a study last year, thetutorpages.com, a private tutoring company based in London, said it received more requests for tutors teaching correct speech than for any other subject. And many of those asking for help said "they wanted to modify or lose their accents because they feared being ridiculed or held back in their careers," the company found.
Robin Woolridge deals with many of those people all the time in his speech practice in Birmingham. The surrounding area is home to a particular "black country" accent, a dialect that originated in the West Midlands where gritty industry thickened the air with black smoke. Mr. Wooldridge said it is among the most difficult to understand in Britain and many who have it are eager to lose it.
"They want to soften it or make it more neutral," he said.
While many of his clients have stunning qualifications on paper, and a number are professionals such as doctors and lawyers, they believe their accents are holding them back.
Many critics argue starting tutoring toddlers in speech goes too far and that children should be left to learn on their own at that age. But others, like Matt Simandl, a part-time actor who also gives elocution lessons, say the reality is that people are judged on their accents.
"People at the top speak with a kind of posh accent and so others want to speak like that," he said.