I awoke out of my blogging lethargy today as I was catching up on my social media and read a few interesting things, like Mark Hancock's "Models in Pronunciation" post here. Since I have been reviewing some pron teaching ELT materials and websites lately, I thought I wanted to make a brief comment on some of the things raised in Mark's post and in other materials I've looked at, which are also related to the complexities I discussed in terms of the whole pronunciation goals issue here. Even though I agree with many of the points being raised in that post, and in the work of other pronunciation teachers that attempt to teach for intelligibility (oh, how to define such a thing! I think it is as difficult as to define what an "English accent" is!), I thought I could comment on things that have to do specifically with my (past) reality in Buenos Aires.
My usual disclaimer: this is a reflection in passing, written in one sitting and in a colloquial style, and not meant to be scientific or academic in tone.
When I think of pronunciation teaching in the whole diversity of Latin American classrooms (well, to be fair: Argentinian, actually? Ciudad de Buenos Aires-based, more precisely? --> soooo different from what you see described in European and North American papers and videos, mind you!) , I see a continuum of things that goes from the macro to the micro.
I see macro-aspects as I see phonemes: ideal and abstract. Macro aspects, to my mind, include: governmental policies, institutional requirements, departamental agreements, textbooks, and your syllabus. At these levels, you have a number of instructions to follow, methods to apply, and contents to teach. Whether internally imposed or designed by you, based on expectations or on your past experience, these generally still reflect an abstract idea of what teaching a certain course should be like.
But then, you have the real thing, the actual "instantiation", the allophones of it all: your students. And this is what I call the micro. This is what the real deal is, and this is where you do all your real work. Now, if you do pronunciation work in your lessons, and you try to do it as well as you can, you will know that no matter how many plans and guidelines and tips and tricks you may have, what each student produces is fantastically unique. You may predict what type of difficulties they may encounter because of their L1, or because of the material, but you will always end up with a fabulous array of different allophonic variants of people and productions, and in order to do a good job, you need to address those individually. To what extent, to what aim, towards where, specifically, that is your own decision.
We teachers make decisions at the micro level. No matter how many macro frames of rules we may be imposed on, the moment we close the classroom door, we are in charge of our allophones.
So where does the target accent thing fit in? I would say that the choice of a so-called "model", a target accent, is always at the macro level. Pretty much as it is when you see policies, textbooks and syllabi that claim to teach standard grammar, or spelling. They also use an idealised target which may, or may not, in reality, be a target, and may, or may not, reflect what happens "out there" (Quick detour: have you ever seen an exercise on how to use "ain't" and "innit"?)
Now, to my mind, a "target accent" has always been like a Cardinal Vowel chart. You know when you learn the cardinal vowel chart you are told that the vowels there are reference points, and they do not really belong to any language in particular? Well, that is how I have always seen what has been described as "General British". A variety which was once based in what people now see as "posh RP" which is used as a reference in dictionaries and instructional materials, a proto- (or perhaps hyper- or perhaps archi-?) variety that may or may not have a large number of "native" speakers but which is seen as some as the prestige variety for education, and politics and which, presumably, hides your geographical origin. At least, that is what GB is by definition. To my mind, and very humbly so, "General British" is an amalgalm of features from which many other real varieties can be obtained, or fine-tuned into, even non-native varieties, and that is why it is, to me, a reference accent, rather than a target accent, in much the same way we have "reference" rules for grammar or vocabulary or spelling. I know some colleagues may feel similarly about "General American".
I think we need a reference accent, something that may sound English to our ears and something that, as non-native speakers of the language, makes us aware of how our speech organs work in other languages. I think this works pretty much in the same way as our need to have a reference grammar, or a spelling guide, or a dictionary. I think that is why we train teachers to produce a certain proto/hyper/archi variety (and some of us perhaps have tried to make it a bit more real by smoothing out of this reference accent some of the "posh" or "Victorian" bits).
But then, at the micro level, we make decisions. We know our students, we know what they can produce, we know what they struggle with, we (hopefully) know what they want to produce, and we want them to find some form of English voice that will make them feel comfortable with who they are when they speak another language. We work on our students' accents on an individual basis.
As I sit here, 12.000 km away from home at 8 in the morning, I have to admit that as an EFL teacher at secondary school I have felt freer in my pron teaching practices than perhaps as a teacher trainer, where there were expectations as to what I had to help my students achieve, but I hope I have been able to exercise my micro-decision powers in the best possible way. I hope I have, over the years, improved on my ways of helping my allophones reach something based on the reference variety that they can later fine-tune into the best version of what they want to sound like.
(PS at 10 am: Of course, all of this does not mean or imply that you can't deal (you must, I think!) with other varieties of English and "non-native" varieties of English, especially, though not exclusively, for perception purposes. Just saying.)