viernes, 31 de marzo de 2017

Phonetics for linguists, Phonetics for teachers

(I am still pressed for time, but I got this post drafted some time ago, so here it goes!)

I have always been curious about how linguists get trained in Phonetics -as my initial training is in English Language Teaching-, and these two terms I got a "taste" of what it is like, in different ways. I have found this first period truly fascinating, and of course, it opened up a lot of questions as to the way we teach Phonetics in Argentina to our future teachers (and a lot of praise, you know I am very proud of the way many of us work in my country!). So today, I would like to make a brief comparison between the way I experienced Phonetics as both a student and a lecturer in my courses in Buenos Aires, and what I have been able to experience here as a "module auditor" (i.e. "oyente", in Spanish).

The usual disclaimers:
  • Any incomplete or inaccurate information is entirely my fault.
  • I am making this comparison for information purposes, but I do not intend to make any assessment of the choice and structuring of content/textbooks/modules of any of the institutions hereby mentioned. 
  • For the current comparison, I have decided to choose the ISP Dr Joaquín V González in Buenos Aires because this is the institution where I graduated, and where I developed my lecturing career most widely. I am aware other Training Colleges in Buenos Aires may have a similar or different structures of modules and choice of materials. (And, needless to say, I am soooooo grateful to all the other four institutions in Buenos Aires where I got the opportunity to lecture in Phonetics!)
  • I am not writing this post to advertise any of the programmes, nor do I get any money out of this. (Just in case!)
  • This is is just a sneak peek into two very different undergrad programmes in two very different institutions in two very different countries: one where I did my undergrad, the other where I am doing my PhD (though here I'll describe the BA programme). As I have audited a few modules but I have not been a BA student here, I will include info which is readily available on the Uni website, plus a few anecdotal comments of my own.

Degrees & Course duration
  • Instituto Superior del Profesorado "Dr Joaquín V González", Buenos Aires, Argentina. Degree: Profesorado en Inglés (Graduate degree in English Language Teaching).
    •  4 or 5-year course, if done full time. (minimum duration: 3,120 clock hours).  A considerable majority of students take this course part-time and graduate after 5-8 years.
    • Tertiary level degree (since 2005 the law establishes that tertiary-level, 4-year-course degree holders can access postgraduate studies. Thus, this is a Higher Education degree with graduate status). 
    • Cost: free (a minor yearly collaboration is suggested, but not compulsory). The college is state-run, though students need to pay for their own stationery, books, photocopies and commuting. 
    • Entry requirements: High School completed (if you are under 25), and a passing grade in the English entrance exam (the level is generally B2(+), and there is capping, so not all students who pass the exam make it)
    • The college facilities for students to study at are open during termtime and during the day only.
  • University of York, United Kingdom: BA in English Language and Linguistics  (Based on info available at UoY website. Any misinterpretation is my own)
    • 3 years full-time (around 40 hours of study a week). (No info in my power as to how long it takes to complete it part-time)
    • Cost: around £9,000 per year (UK and EU students).
    • Entry requirements: A-Level marks: two As, one B. (Other possibilities are available)
    • Many University spaces are available 24/7 for students to study, including the library, where students can get hold of a copy of their textbooks.
What follows is a comparative chart between the compulsory and elective modules available to students during their course of studies:

University of York – BA in English Language and Linguistics

(Based on 2016-2017 module offer)
(1 hour=60 minutes / 1 term= roughly 8 weeks)
(Note: there is a credit system, but I am not entirely familiar with it. Except for the 1st year subject, all other subjects can be opted out of if students decide to follow other paths)
ISP Dr Joaquín V González – Profesorado en Inglés

(Based on the 2015 curricula)
(1 period= 40 minutes / Annual module= around 32 weeks)
(Note: all the modules hereby listed are core modules)
1st year
Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology (2 hrs a week -3 terms)
Fonética y Fonología I (Phonetics and Phonology I) (Annual module - 4 periods a week)
Práctica en Laboratorio de Idiomas I (Pronunciation Practice at the Lab I) (Annual module - 3 periods a week)
2nd year
Intermediate Phonetics and Phonology (2 terms) (Elective: but it has to be taken if the other elective, Intermediate Syntax, is not chosen)
Fonética y Fonología II (Phonetics and Phonology II) (Annual module - 4 periods a week)
Práctica en Laboratorio de Idiomas II (Pronunciation Practice at the Lab I) (Annual module - 3 periods a week)
3rd year
Forensic Phonetics (1 term)
Phonological development (1 term)
The prosody of English (3 hours a week - 1 term)
Advanced topics in phonetics and phonology (2 terms)
Articulatory and impressionistic phonetics (2-3 hours a week-2 terms)
The phonetics of a modern language (2 terms)
The phonetics of talk-in-interaction (2 hs a week - 2 terms)
Fonología en Laboratorio y su Didáctica I (Pronunciation Practice at the Lab III and Phonology Teaching) (Annual module - 3 periods a week)
4th year
Fonología en Laboratorio y su Didáctica II (Pronunciation Practice at the Lab IV and Phonology Teaching (Annual module - 3 periods a week)

At York, the modules vary in terms of content, but in general (and very broadly speaking, of course!), the following content is covered: articulatory phonetics; phonological patterns and processes and phonotactics; phonological models and typologies; experimental phonetics; acoustic phonetics; interactional phonetics; phonological acquisition and development; phonetic profiling & speaker identification (forensics); sociophonetics; theories of prosodic analysis; description of prosody; prosody in interaction. Phonetics and Phonology of English and other languages and varieties around the globe.

At ISP JVG, students are introduced to applied or practical English phonetics and phonology: articulatory phonetics; English rhythm; processes of connected speech: assimilation, elision, linking, weak and strong forms; spelling-to-sound rules. Intonation: components, systems, functions: tonality/chunking, tonicity (nucleus placement rules and word stress), tone (functions), key and termination, intonation in discourse and speech styles in English. Broad characteristics of different accents of English. Pronunciation teaching: techniques, approaches, principles.

Reference accents
The first-year introductory courses on English Phonetics and the Prosody of English modules at York use SSBE/RP as a reference and starting point, but there is a lot of comparative work on features of other accents and languages.

The English Phonetics and Phonology courses at ISP JVG generally work on SSBE/General British. Some professors do some introductory work on General American in the first year courses. The fourth-year module includes an introduction to accents of English around the world.

As I do not have all the relevant information available, I will just list the most widely consulted textbooks for the courses in both programmes, without specifying what courses they are used in:

BA in English Language and Linguistics
Profesorado de Inglés
  • Ogden, Richard (2009) An introduction to English phonetics. Edinburgh University Press.
  • Catford, J C. (2001). A practical introduction to phonetics. Oxford University Press.
  • Ladefoged, Peter and Keith Johnson. (2015). A course in Phonetics. Seventh Edition. Cengage Learning
  • Nathan, G. (2008). Phonology: a cognitive grammar introduction.Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Hayward, Katrina. (2000). Experimental phonetics. Longman.
3rd year modules generally have as part of their bibliography a vast collections of chapters and papers. I cannot include a full biblio here, but it is pretty varied, as you can imagine!

Cruttenden, A. (2014). Gimson's Pronunciation of English. 7th ed. United Kingdom: Routledge.
Mott, B. (2011). English Phonetics and Phonology for Spanish Speakers. 2nd ed. Barcelona: Publicacions i Edicions Universitat de Barcelona.
Mees, I. and Collins, B. (2008). Practical Phonetics and Phonology: A Resource Book for Students. 2nd ed. United Kingdom: Routledge.
Roach, P. (2015). English phonetics and phonology. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brazil, D., Coulthard, M. and Johns, C. (1981). Discourse intonation and language teaching. 1st ed. Harlow, Essex: Longman.
Brazil, D. (1997). The Communicative Value of Intonation in English. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
Wells, J. (2006). English Intonation: An Introduction. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
Tench, P. (1996). The intonation systems of English. London: Cassell.

Most courses supplement these textbooks with papers and chapters from other sources.

Goals, approaches, and other comments
  • As a postgrad at Uni of York, I have audited three of the Phonetics modules and worked as an exam marker for another. What I can include here is merely anecdotal, but I think it is interesting to share: 
    • Lectures and Seminars: students here are trained as linguists and future researchers, so even though there are content-ful lectures, the focus is on developing bibliographical, reflective and field research. So even though the lecturers present information in their classes, the focus is on research and analytical procedures. Students are expected to get the knowledge out of extensive bibliography reading, and to make the most of the seminars and practicals to ask questions and to learn the know hows. Students can use the Virtual Learning Environment to test their knowledge with some self-assessment quizzes, if they want, but summative assessments are formatted as research or analytical papers or essays.
    • Oral and Aural practice: Students are not asked to produce the sounds of any particular language (except for those who choose to take The Phonetics of a Modern Language), but they are expected to produce and be able to recognise and decode all the sounds represented by the symbols and diacritics in the IPA chart.Resultado de imagen para ipa chart 2015 As for intonation, I have found it interesting to see how hard it was generally for students to learn to decode their own intonation, or that of other native speakers of English. This is an ability that goes beyond your L1, I guess. A big difference with my own training is that students here decode real-life interaction (telephone calls, radio shows) during the practicals and do so pretty much on the spot, and because they work at their own computers, they can work on the material many times as long as they comply with the time limit (something I would have loved to be able to do for my Phonetics II final exams).
  • As a lecturer at ISP JVG, I was supposed to train my students to produce, as naturally as possible, the sound and intonation systems of General British English. 
    • Lectures are really heavy on content, because not all students comply with weekly reading (the truth is that the vast majority of students work full-time and study part-time) and because in a way that is the way lectures are conceived of, and mainly because at times we are not entirely happy with some of the materials, and we develop our own ways of making the content "teachable" and gradable. 
    • Oral and Aural training consists in getting students to perceive, produce and transcribe the sounds and intonation of (mostly General British) English (which is most cases is our students' second or foreign language), in very controlled settings in the first years, based on the professor's own production, or on a graded set of materials. Approximate decoding and production of more authentic material is generally an expectation for 3rd or 4th year students. 
    • We also train students in pronunciation teaching as they work in their own production and perception as, after all, we are expected to help them develop their teaching skills (though secretly, I think we are training them to be linguists of English as well...and I sort of like it!)
Some final remarks
This "information sheet", as it were, presents some differences in terms of how Phonetics as a discipline is presented to future BAs in English Linguistics and to future graduate teachers of English in training. 
At first glance, you can see how thorough Phonetics training is in both programmes. Students are trained in the use of phonetic and phonological jargon, and they need to consult specialised bibliography. They have to develop precise transcription skills, and enhance their perception of segmental and suprasegmental phenomena. Future BAs and teachers are equally assessed in their analytical skills and in their ability to identify, explain, and apply phonetic and phonological phenomena. The main difference, perhaps, lies in terms of what abilities and reference accents and languages are foregrounded.

If they choose to follow a Phonetics-based path, BA students get a wider view of accents and languages, and they get a taste of different phonetic sciences and contexts where phonetics has a role. They are not expected to produce the sounds or intonation of any language or accent in particular (except in The Phonetics of a Modern Language that prepares students for their year abroad), though they need to be able to reproduce the sounds and sound+diacritic combinations in the IPA chart, irrespective of language.

Teacher trainees have their own production as perhaps one of the most important skills to attain, and they are trained in also decoding class materials and some authentic audio as well. However, they are obviously trained in English phonetics and phonology, and not in other languages (though, to be honest, I wish I could have done more work on a lot more varieties of English). As teacher trainees work on their own process, they are also exposed to different pronunciation teaching techniques and approaches, apart from getting specific lessons in pron teaching. 

As an EFL teacher, I have to admit I am really grateful for my linguistic and phonetic training. Of course, when I see the type of training students get here, I often wish I had had a full-fledged training in phonetics, all aspects of it, as these students are lucky enough to get here (which, obviously, I can appreciate because I'm 15 years older than they are and I know how hard it was for me to get the basics of English phonetics!). However, as a researcher in linguistics, I can confirm I would not be here if it had not been for my initial training, even if my undergrad was not (explicitly) meant to be a degree in linguistic research. And as both a teacher and a researcher, I need to say that having been taught to teach, and having been trained in how to explain things to students, is definitely an invaluable skill that both linguists and teachers alike should develop if they want an academic career that involves communicating knowledge to others.

PS to this post: After publication, I got some really interesting comments and suggestions, so I would like to make the following additions:

  • I obviously love the training imparted in both institutions - I would not have engaged in a public post otherwise-. I have been, and I am shaped in my learning and in my past -and hopefully future- teaching by the professors and colleagues I have encountered here and at home. I also find it fascinating to have the best of both worlds, so to speak, and to be able to audit modules as a student and a former teacher makes me value my professors' efforts here even more.
  • It is clear that the organisation of Higher Education in Argentina and in the UK is totally different. The issue of fees is obviously something someone might want to pick on, but I would not like to discuss this here. The systems are very different, the politics are different, and my mentioning the fact that one is (partly) free, and the other is not, is not really something I want to make something of in my blog. And since some of my readers are not aware of how things work in Argentina, I thought I would mention the fees aspect. 
  • Related to this last point is also my mentioning of the fact that it takes students longer to complete their degrees in Argentina. And this is, to a certain degree, a result of the need that all adults in education have of making a living, which forces many students to decide to devote more hours to work than to study. I wish governments would be more sympathetic to and supportive of students in this respect.
  • Also in connection to this point, I wish to clarify the point I made on lectures and bibliography. As a lecturer, I have always seen the need to help teachers make language content "graspable". Our content-ful lectures are meant to be attempts to help students approach the bibliographical materials from some solid ground. Furthermore, I also wanted to show my trainees ways in which these contents can then be made "teachable" for their own students. I know I gave my students a wealth of material to read, and I knew that even though I would have loved them to read it all, I had to be realistic (most of my students worked full-time) and act as a sort of "bridge" between the books and the content I wanted them to learn and I needed to assess them on.
  • Plus, I am aware that I compared a tertiary level college with a university course, and perhaps many of those points I raised would work differently if I had described the course of studies of one of the National Universities in Argentina. Still, from what I have seen in conferences, there are quite a few similarities between what we do at JVG and what many professors in National Unis do.
  • There is, clearly, a separation in my title between teachers and linguists, and perhaps it was not the happiest of divisions, I agree!. I certainly think that teachers are linguists in the traditional sense (the Oxford Learner's Dictionary defines it as 1. A person skilled in languages 2. A person who studies linguistics). Teachers do a lot of linguistics in their everyday teaching: they teach syntax, semantics, pragmatics, phonology; they do psycholinguistics when they ponder on or experiment on reading /listening / speaking processes and processing and learning; they do sociolinguistics when they discuss different varieties. And I am happy to see that recently there have been some research teams and conferences set up at Teacher Training Colleges in Buenos Aires that encourage linguistic investigation. Perhaps the separation I tried to make lies in that in the BA here, the training  is inclined mostly towards research (though the career path that opens up after graduation is really wide) , whereas at Teacher Training College the priority is training teachers for teaching at kindergarten, primary or secondary school, or for EAP in Higher Ed (though of course I believe teachers need to be trained in formal research for reasons you already know from my previous rants!). 

miércoles, 15 de marzo de 2017

Voices in Society: A Workshop on Prosody

This week I got to spend three busy days in the always busy (yet energy-infusing) London, more specifically at Queen Mary University, to learn more about prosody. The workshop was called "Voices in Society", it was organised by PhD candidates Andy Law and Elisa Passoni, and Dr Esther de Leeuw and it was funded by the ESRC.

Excited as I always am about learning more about prosody, this workshop was really overwhelming in terms of all the things there are out there to continue learning about! I will make a brief review of some of the areas and points raised during some of the talks, and I will, whenever possible, add links to research material, tools or website of the presenters, if any of my readers wishes to go further into any of the topics.
The usual disclaimer (because I have to): As this is a personal blog on personal and academic interests of mine, what follows is not a formal review of the workshop, and it was written as a means of summarising my "take-home points". It is, of course, also meant to share my experience with my teacher-readers. It was written in almost one sitting (on the train from London to York, actually!). And of course, any errors or evaluative comments are entirely my own, and do not represent the views of my University.
Day 1: Intro to Prosody, and Rhythm
Dr Esther de Leeuw discussed the huge realm of prosody by reviewing some of the basics. We were (re)introduced to the subdomains of prosody, and their perceptual and acoustic correlates (with the usual warnings, like F0 not strictly being "pitch", and the fact that our perception of pitch is not linear, but logarithmic). We got to play around with the thresholds of human perception of pitch, using the Hearing Test of the University of South Wales here. Dr de Leeuw also addressed some of the distinctions (or lack of) in the literature, such as the suprasegmental-prosody labelling, and the differences between tone and intonation. 
We tried an exercise of perception of the Three Ts from a scene in "The King's Speech", and simple as it was, it still revealed some of the inter-speaker differences in perception we may find, especially in terms of segmentation and the level vs rise contrast.
In the second session, we did some Praat analyses of tonal alignment, pitch span and pitch level. It turned out to be a complex exercise, but the following sessions were very helpful in clarifying some of the uses of the measurements made (especially for tonal alignment, which is something I never thought of considering for CA).

Dr Lawrence White discussed rhythm and everything involved in it in great detail, and with some very cool videos! Dr White addressed the now debunked stress-timing vs syllable-timing dichotomy by referring to some studies that analysed rhythm production and perception cross-linguistically. Phonotactic constraints and syllable constitution, as well as the fact that many studies were conducted from the basis of stress as it happens in English -thus disregarding the role of stress in other languages-, were found to be responsible for the initial categorization of these two distinctions. Dr White proposed a metric that entails determining the interaction between percentages and ratios of vowels over consonants and vowel duration and standard deviation. We got a really detailed and exciting demonstration of segmentation in spectograms according to manner of articulation to help us make the right measurements.
After the teaching session, Dr White discussed some of the rhythm perception studies on different languages he conducted on babies, some entertaining SASASA perception tests (where syllables in an utterance are replaced synthetically with SASASA), and a few findings regarding the role of phrase final vowel lengthening.

Day 2: ToBI, PRAAT scripting, and research on L1 attrition
Prof. Mariapaola D'mperio delivered a great introductory workshop on AM and ToBI. There was a very interesting historical review of how ToBI came to be, and what were the great findings in Pierrehumbert's 1980 thesis, as well as very convincing arguments as to the representational goals and uses for prosodic typology. Some very interesting points were tackled in passing, such as compression and truncation and alignment. A great part of the session was devoted to discussing the elements of prosodic structure, and then we tried a few exercises which can be found in the MIT site.
Even though I had some very basic (very, very basic) background in ToBI, I have to admit I was prejudiced, but Prof. D'imperio said all the right things: the importance of listening (over merely looking at the PRAAT waveform), the fact that phonetics and phonology have fuzzy edges at times, and that what is contrastive is at times difficult to define, as well as the need for multidisciplinary work on prosody. Once again, I confirm that a great part of what you can "hear" is affected by the model in which one has been originally trained: I hear step ups where perhaps some people who do ToBI hear glides; I understand the notion of rise-falls  on a nucleus as a different notion from what some people in ToBI woud call a LH*L-L%, for instance, where there may be a low "onset" (in British terms) and a fall on the nucleus. I think this session was a great eye-opener for me to understand many things that in the past I found contradictory in papers, and to confirm that we (either ToBI or British-school people) hear the same phenomena, but we process it and label it differently (with all the implications that this entails, of course...).
In the afternoon, Prof D'imperio discussed her research, and she mentioned some very interesting studies that address the complexities of chunking and phrasing (especially in French), and how different types of cues work differently in different languages (fascinating!)

Dr Stephen Welburn made an introduction to PRAAT scripting, which makes automatising tasks in PRAAT much simpler. It was only a brief tour, but I'm certainly going to try and start designing my own scripts! 

Dr Anouschka Foltz made a very interesting discussion of her studies of L1 attrition, which broadly defined is the loss of native-like proficiency of speakers of L1 as speakers grow to be bilinguals (perfect description of me, I am no longer a reliable speaker of Spanish, especially in terms of intonation!). Dr Foltz discussed the intonation of questions in Arabic speakers of English, and then presented another study of perception of contrastive accent and eye-gaze anticipation.

Day 3: Stats, R, and more research studies
Dr Anouschka Foltz made a quick, yet clearly-presented tour of different functions in R, including basic stats, mixed models and Growth Curve Analysis. Lots of work for me to continue doing in this area!

Dr Candide Simard presented her research consisting in the documentation and description of an Australian aboriginal language, Jaminjung (see Wikipedia entry here). It was a truly fascinating presentation that discussed the vicissitudes of doing this kind of work with a very special community, with specific cultural traditions, and a language which has got less than 50 native speakers at the moment. Dr Simard modelled the intonation systems of this language with reference to topic and focus (theme and rheme), communicative function, and to other emerging structures. 

Dr Erez Levon covered the topic of High Rising Terminals in London speech in young men and women. Dr Levon attempted to find clear acoustic differences between HRT fulfilling different functions, but the findings were not signficant in this respect. What was found in this particular context is the tendency for women to use uptalk to request alignment, and for men to apply it for affiliation-seeking purposes, among other more relevant functions (which I have to admit I did not get to take down). I think my attention was focused on these functions because I believe there could be a different realisation of the rise for alignment or affiliation projection, so I actually presented this as a suggestion in the Q&A session for the presenter to perhaps look into.
I am not a sociolinguist, but I sometimes find the men vs women criteria for exploration a bit problematic for reliable findings, and I would perhaps work on other variables myself. I think, in any case, that it is very interesting that there were no significant differences in the realisation of these rises. Who knows, perhaps conversation analysis could help untangle this point! (Sorry, could not help it!) (Plus, I do believe there must be something in the way these rises are produced that leads to their being interpreted differently!)

Dr Tiina Eilola presented some interesting studies on the way people perceive the language of emotions in bilinguals.  By referring to models such as the Revised Hierarchical Model (Kroll and Stewart 1994) and the Circumplex Model of Affect (Russell, 1980), Dr Eilola discussed her framework and findings on Gujarati speakers of English who moved to the UK. She explained the different processing of "positive", "negative" and "neutral" emotions, and the participants' evaluation of English as being the language of emotions for them over their own language (which reminds me of a lot of feelings I have in connection to my L1 and my L2)
I know I am missing out on a lot of detail here, but I just wanted to give you an idea of all the fascinating learning experiences, research and topics I have been trained in the last three days. If any of you happens to be interested in any of the presentations, and you wish to ask further, please use the comments box below, or check out the researcher's websites for related publications and possible ways of contacting them.
 A huuuuge thank you to Andy, Elisa and Esther for the great organisation of the event. And let's face it: prosody rocks!

viernes, 10 de marzo de 2017

An impulsive reply.

I know I should not be blogging, and less so, because I keep doing it impulsively, but as I read discussions on pronunciation teaching and teacher training, I think I need to say things.

Not so long ago, I heard someone from the States say that people in my context were "poorly trained" , because they did classroom studies in their schools and did not include basic statistics in their papers, or they retold tips and tricks they had used in a sort of "narrative" form. I have seen presentations by teachers in my country, I have seen many teachers in action who may not know about regression models or control groups (I don't know about those so deeply myself) but who make "scientific" decisions all day: they test activities with their students, they change things if the don't work out, they try again. They are scientists in their context, they do research even if they don't notice.

To be honest, I think these teachers do a far better job in their EFL context than I would do in a controlled experiment at Uni with students who need to use English outside the classroom for their everyday life. Experiments can tell us a lot about the way people react and work and think in controlled and less controlled environments, but I am not too sure I want to *only* inform my practices by looking at these experiments, because my teaching reality is different, and because many of these studies are not always honest about the scope to which they can be generalised.

I find talking to other teachers as informative as a research paper. I honestly think none of the two actually give a complete and generalised picture of what really happens when people learn to pronounce a foreign language.

I think that my so-called Third World country teachers get fabulous initial training for what they need to do, and encounter everyday classroom realities that I have not seen reported in any paper; realities that force them to continue self-training at times. I think that calling them "poorly trained" is just a poor appreciation.

As a researcher in training, I see the value of research in moving science forward, but as a teacher, I feel the injustice of many teachers not being given a "voice"  if they don't join an academic community. I don't know how to solve this issue, and as a teacher trainer I have tried to instill some interest in research in my trainees so that they find a way to make their experiences heard, but what I do know is that the only "poor training" I can attest to is that of those people who enjoy belittling and undermining others whose reality they don't know, or understand.

jueves, 2 de marzo de 2017

Reflection in Passing: The Macro and the Micro in Pron Teaching

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.)