Bingqing Fang, who is deaf, demonstrates how the NativeAccent software program teaches her to speak English at the Tomlinson Adult Learning Center, where she takes classes.
ST. PETERSBURG – Since she was a little girl, communication has been a struggle for Bingqing Fang – but it’s a challenge she’s tackled head on.
Fang, who lives in Lealman, grew up in Shanghai, China. When she was 10, she got sick and was overdosed with the antibiotic drug streptomycin.
She lost her hearing overnight and never recovered it.
“My parents were so confused that I became deaf, and they never lost hope that someday, with new medicine, my hearing could come back,” Fang explained. “So they (didn’t) want me to learn sign languages, they wanted me to be a normal person.
“This was (the) hard part for me,” she said.
Fang learned to read lips, but it was five years before she found her voice again.
“It was really hard to (speak) up ... because my world was so silent,” she said.
Fortunately, Fang’s grandmother was a college professor and began giving her granddaughter special lessons at home to teach her to pronounce Chinese letters, words and phrases. Lots of repetition and practice paid off.
“I did find my voice after many years,” Fang said. “Now I can speak Mandarin Chinese very well, and just a few people ... remember that I am deaf. This success has given me unbelievable confidence to try to learn other languages.”
That confidence became useful as Fang moved to the Czech Republic.
“My parents believed that opportunities would be better there for me,” Fang explained.
Fang described the China of her youth as a country in political upheaval. Even though her grandparents and parents were well educated – with bachelors and master’s degrees that were a rare accomplishment at the time – they were paid low wages and treated very badly, Fang said.
Fang had trained as a chef in China and worked for five years at a Czech restaurant, where she met her husband, Zdenek Sofr. She learned to read lips in Czech.
Ten years ago, the Fangs – who have two children Dennis, 10 and David, 8 – moved to the United States. Bingqing’s pursuit of language started all over again. Again, it was hard for her to not only learn the language, but also learn to lip read and speak the foreign language.
“Nobody would understand what I’m talking about, so I don’t want to talk,” Fang said, recalling the experience.
Last fall, Fang started taking classes at the Tomlinson Adult Learning Center in downtown St. Petersburg. About five months ago, the classes gave her use of software called NativeAccent, which proved to be particularly useful to her language acquisition.
“The beauty of the software in this situation is when she talks, you can understand exactly what she’s saying,” said Paul Musselman, CEO of Carnegie Speech, which produces NativeAccent. “It’s easy to forget that she’s deaf.”
Musselman and representatives from Carnegie Speech traveled to Pinellas County to meet Fang on July 16. They said Fang is an excellent example of how the software can help nonnative speakers – and in Fang’s case, even deaf speakers – to speak English so they can be understood.
“We call it an intelligent language learning solution,” Musselman said. “Once we’ve diagnosed what a person’s individual challenge is, our lessons are developed in real time for that person specifically.”
Fang demonstrated how the program shows in pictures where to place her tongue, lips and mouth to make specific sounds. A headset she wears recorded her spoken sentence and gave Fang feedback on how she sounded. Other students can hear the phrase or words that they’re supposed to repeat in the headset.
“But I don’t hear it,” Fang said with one of her broad smiles.
“When the person repeats the sentence, we can then analyze the consonant and vowel … and how the person actually makes the certain sounds,” Musselman said.
Fang said the fact that she can practice over and over with a computer is helpful. Before she was nervous to speak up to a person who might laugh at the way she sounded.
“But now I know my sound. People will understand. So I start to talk,” she said. “I make friends with people. I go to parties. I don’t worry about conversations.
“I think these programs make me feel more confident.”
Even Fang’s teachers are impressed with what she has accomplished since enrolling at the learning center.
“She is really a prodigy, just what she can do,” Tomlinson Principal Debby VanderWoude said.
Fang finished the English programs at the school and transitioned to the GED program. She will now start preparing for college certification exams. She said she wants to study to become an accountant.
“I don’t need to talk too much just do computer type work,” Fang said of her career choice.
For now, Fang maintains her own cooking website, bingcookingsecrets.com, with more than a 100 recipes from all three countries she’s lived in, written in three languages, English, Mandarin and Czech.
“I love cooking but it was hard for me to find a chef job here with two young kids home,” Fang explained. “I found out that many of my friends have problems (with) what to cook for dinner. So I would like to share my passion for high-quality, easy-to-prepare traditional foods with them.”