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Saturday, 14 June 2014

Authenticity in language learning

What does authentic mean in language learning terms? Back in the 1980s when I was newly qualified, authentic was one of our buzz words. The rise in importance of communicative language teaching included a focus on incorporating "real" language sources taken from French newspapers and the like. These would be more recent than our ageing course books with their carefully chosen screened language, selected to highlight the grammar we had to teach. All very worthy really, and it meant frequent trips to France to bring back useful authentc resources - Carrefour fliers, tickets, fiches. Probably seems crazy now that "autheticity" lies a mouseclick or finger swipe away!

Jump forward 30 years and the notion of authenticity needs to come under scrutiny again. For two reasons:

  • how we deal with/expose learners to "authentic" language use on social media
  • how we devise activities for learning and assessment for learners use of language


Here's an example of the first:


A French teacher uses twitter for advice. He demonstrates in a very real, conversational way (unknown to him) how useful the French word "truc" (thingy) can be whilst using some fairly complex constructions (en, ne..que). This is the kind of authentic language use that my students can learn from, alongside a discussion  about register (appropriate language in different situations). Yet students are rarely using twitter to see how the language they are learning is used by native speakers. If they were they would see that, just like in English, it is full of typos too!

On the second point, authenticity (by which I mean real world) in language teaching offers an opportunity to engage learners in real experiences. Far more real thanks to new technologies than I could manage in the 80's. We use shopping websites to compare and choose provisions for a picnic, the ANPE site to find out about skills necessary for jobs in France, connect directly with French students to find out more about their hobbies and interests. (We could connect with those even further afield without difficulty too). So this tweet jumped out at me:

Given just how much more authentic - lifelike - we can be in 2014, why are our tasks and our assessments still paper based versions of those we used in the 1980's? The current generation of young people have found us out, they want real world skills and preparation for a future we don't even understand. I feel an authenticity crisis is at large, we are rapidly becoming irrelevant. Language study becoming the preserve of a small elite who wish to work amongst the privileged few.

Here is my last hope.