sábado, 18 de octubre de 2014

"Non-Native" Accents and Chastisement: Reflection in passing

These last two weeks, I have been engaged in conversation with friends and with colleagues from different parts of the world who, for some reason or other, ended up discussing pronunciation issues with me. This is a post which will only take me twenty minutes to write, but I did not want these thoughts to "fly by".

I could not help noticing that in each and every of these weeks' exchanges with these colleagues, there was common feeling, a shared assessment of the whole "non-native accents" experience, which I dare call "chastisement". These are some of the situations I have witnessed to or been told about:

  • At one of the places where I work, a teacher trainee was "chastised" for using a glottal stop instead of a final /t/. I myself have been "chastised" for producing a glottal stop intervocalically.
  • A friend was in the United States and was "chastised" for attempting a "native like" accent (and a British one at that!) and not going for an "Argentinian Espanglish" instead. Another friend had a similar questioning look by someone from Israel, who was also a teacher trainer.
  • A student was "chastised" at work for not attempting a "native like" accent in his communication with North American customers and going for a "more global variety" of English, (if such a thing actually exists, beyond Jenkins' ELF Core, I mean).
  • A teacher trainer was "chastised" for upholding RP as a model. Another teacher trainer I know was "chastised" for attempting an Estuary English-like accent (no time for a debate on the "existence" of this accent here!) as a model. A group of students have "chastised" these two teacher trainers for not upholding a General American accent instead.
  • A methods teacher "chastised" a phonetics teacher trainer for not expecting an "international English" approach for her trainees. The phonetics teacher "chastised" the methods teacher for downplaying the expectations teacher trainees had for their own accents, and language proficiency in general. The teacher trainees "chastised" both teachers for not considering their expectations of a more modern variety of standard British English or American English accents for themselves.
I was wondering, having been "chastised" myself , whether the "chastisers"(myself included) had cared to ask the objects of their criticism:
  •  What type of accent they wanted, what model speakers they have got in mind. I know what accent I want, at least! and I ask my first year trainees what model speakers they have in mind (I have received answers to this question with models from Harry Potter movies, American series, even a Nigerian poet, the accents their previous teachers of English proudly "sported", and one student who said she wanted to have her mum's accent...sweet!)
  • The reasons behind their personal choice of accent: preference? imposition? didactic concerns? identity? 
I guess that in any side of the scale, we can all be "chastisers" and "chastisees" (!?). At times we read the newspapers, and we see how the British appear to react to RP as an  acrolect and to certain basilects as well, and I wonder whether we are not doing the same, whether we uphold General British, or RP, or General American, or an Australian variety of English, or even English as Lingua Franca as an approach to pronunciation. I can't help feeling a certain "guilt", given that what I do is, in a way, "accent reduction" (awful as it sounds!), but at least I try to be empowering in my teaching of Phonetics, so that in any moment of their careers, my teacher trainees can end up selecting any accent of their choice by knowing the basics of articulation and transcription (my knowledge of Phonetics, for example, has allowed me to learn French phonetics even knowing very little French!).  I introduce my teacher trainees to the complexities behind pronunciation teaching and the factors involved, and we consider in the last courses during their training what the different "accent needs" of our English learners in different scenarios might be, and what learner expectations they may encounter.

I won't stop feeling guilty, but what makes me feel a little bit better is the fact that I know my context, I know my trainees want to have a great command of the language, and I know about the limitations we may have in our teaching contexts as well when it comes to trying to cater for the linguistic needs and wants of 20-35 students per class. Which does not mean there is a lot of thinking to be done. And I've got another 30 years of teaching ahead of me, so surely a lot will change, a lot of new voices will be heard, and I hope, plenty of updates will be introduced.

I guess that just asking questions and recognising oneself both in the role of "chastiser" and "chastisee" is a great starting point for change, or at least, for some common sense.

An afterthought. I have edited this post for linguistic "horrors" (just a turn of phrase) a couple of times today, as I initially typed it in a rush at 4 in the morning.
I am currently doing in--service pronunciation training, and I am working with graduate teachers who need to improve on their accents, and being able to help a teacher who wants an American accent after being exposed to a British variety during her training has been a great challenge, and a great joy. 
As I was re-reading this post, I couldn't help thinking about my ideal Laboratory Practice classroom, one with no time concerns or technical limitations where I could have training materials for different accents and cater for different individual interests.

I would like to enter the Lab on day 1 and say, "what English accent  would you like to have as a future teacher or translator?". And then have parallel syllabi, parallel sets of training materials, time to teach a general class AND to give individual feedback....If you ask me, that is what I would like to do! 

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