Friday, September 16, 2011

Authenticity in Language Teaching

Recently, I was preparing for a 10-minute presentation on the "Top 10 Things I Learned in Grad School," as far as it related to language teaching. I learned way more than 10 things, so I thought it would be pretty easy to choose 10 that were relatively important.

However, as I was trying to put information together, I realized that if I chose the top 10 things and talked about them ALL in 10 minutes, I would have only enough time to mention the name of each concept before moving on.

 So, I decided to talk about the top 5 things. Same problem. Top 3. Same problem.

When it came down to what I presenting what I actually learned, I felt that I had so much information that I couldn't possibly talk about it all in just 10 minutes. I ended up choosing what (in my mind) is the singularly most important thing about language teaching: authenticity. Below is the speech I prepared, as well as a few links for further reading, if you are interested.


I spent a lot of time trying to think of the best way to present all of the great information I learned in grad school. However, when push came to shove, and the time limit jumped in, I had to chose just one topic. That one, most important thing I learned in my degree program was Authenticity in Language Teaching. I think that this topic applies to several areas of teaching, namely Content, Materials, and Methodology.

Authenticity in Content

There is a set idea about what English is, and then there is the reality of what it really is. As proficient or native speakers of English, we have developed concepts of what it is to be a “fluent” speaker, but our concepts are usually shaped by our own setting and by what we've learned in an academic context. Authentic Content needs to take into account the fact that there are multiple Englishes and multiple grammars.

  • Multiple Englishes: Not only are there multiple Englishes from English speaking countries (standard BrE and AmE, for example), but since English is used for international communication, we are seeing the emergence of World Englishes (many variations of Standard English used among speakers of a common native language, such as Japanese English; a.k.a. WE) and English as an International Language (a variation of Standard English used between multiple non-native speakers of different linguistic backgrounds; a.k.a. EIL). These Englishes have different features than standard English, such as language coping mechanisms, vocabulary, and sometimes, even grammatical structure variations. In some cases, it is a disservice to teach a standard version of English when the learner is preparing to enter an English environment that primarily uses one of these other Englishes.
  • Multiple Grammars: There are a variety of different grammar systems for just Standard English. Traditional language education has focused on written grammar, treating spoken grammar as the ugly step-child. However, spoken grammar is as (if not more) important as written grammar for many language learners. These grammars have distinct features, and they must both be taught in order for language learners to achieve communicative competence. Teaching only one or the other will lead to language speakers who sound like a text book, or language writers who are unable to follow literary conventions. Teaching them as separate registers has been suggested in the literature. 
    • The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English is the most popular resource that I've seen on this topic. It is based on an analysis of a 40 million word corpus, and it describes the way English is actually used.

Authenticity in Materials

The majority of language education materials available today do not reflect authentic language. These materials show that, even though native English speakers think they know what they are saying and what they sound like, in reality, they don't.

When I was doing my thesis research, I came across a study that looked at telephone conversations in real life and compared them to text-book dialogs, and it found that the dialogs over-simplified the actual processes that native English speakers use and left out key elements that a native speaker would expect to encounter in the conversation. Inauthentic materials, like these, give the learners a misleading idea of how words or phrases are used in the target language, and do not accurately prepare them to understand to interpret the words/phrases when they are used by a native speaker.

There are two good areas of linguistic/educational research that can help with this problem, and they are also great tools for teaching.
  • Corpus Linguistics: A corpus is a searchable database of written or transcribed oral language. This can be used in research (to find how words are actually used, to explore native speaker use vs. non-native speaker use of words), and in teaching (by incorporating it into learning and allowing students to make their own conclusions by analyzing the data. 
  • Conversation Analysis: Conversation analysis is a branch of discourse analysis that seeks to analyze the “moves” made in a conversation between two language users. It usually takes a a large number of pieces from genre of language (telephone conversation, apology, greetings, etc.) and codes them for specific moves. While it is good for materials research, Conversation Analysis can also be used in teaching. Allowing students to analyze conversations (especially in comparison to the patterns of their native language) would be helpful in letting them see the distinct qualities of each language. 
    • Free download of course materials developed by a leading scholar in Conversation Analysis, Anne Marie Barraja-Rohan, on her blog.  Also available on this page are other resources on C.A. 

Authenticity in Methodology

If you compare the way people naturally learn languages to the classroom setting, it becomes obvious that it is artificial to put a language learner into a teacher-centered mold. However, teaching should not only be student centered, but students should be taught to exploit their own resources, rather than relying on the teacher.

Self-Access Language Learning is a strategy being employed currently by many universities to promote this idea of learner independence. The idea is that the teaching in students' language courses is complemented by a self-access center that has language resources that the students can access (video, news, books, etc.). The student is expected to make personal learning goals and to use the center to accomplish them. The classroom is for guidance, experience sharing, and interaction with a language expert. You can find out more through the “Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal.” Their articles are open access, and you can browse or search for specific articles.

Language Learning Strategy Training should also be incorporated into language teaching methodology. Students pursing language learning outside the classroom setting can benefit greatly from training in Language Learning strategies. Some students have already figured out what works for them, and others have no idea why they don't learn words well by trying to memorize them from a list. Everyone can benefit from strategy training, whether it is learning what works or adding strategies to what you already know. The leading book on the subject is Rebecca L. Oxford (1990). Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know. It talks about the strategies, applying them to language skills, and includes resources for training.

**Update 9-17
I tried to find a way to attach the handout with additional resources, but Blogger doesn't have PDF preview capabilities yet. Instead, I just attached the resources to the end of each section. Enjoy!