Authenticity has been a part of the intellectual resources of language teaching since the 1890s but its precise meaning and implications are contested. This commentary argues for a view of authenticity which recognizes the limits of the concept as a guide for pedagogic practice and acknowledges the fact that texts are processes rather than products. First, authenticity may help to decide what texts not to use in class but provides no guidance about which authentic texts are, for example, motivating. Secondly, the term authenticity is misleading because it leads us to conceptualize authenticity as the bringing of a text from a communicative event into a classroom. Texts are the result of an interaction between what we might term a proto-text, sound waves, or marks on paper or screen, and a language user. The authenticity of a text in the classroom depends on the similarity between the way it is used in the classroom and the way it was used in its original communicative context.
Authenticity has been a part of the intellectual resources of language education for many years. Gilmore (2007Go) traces this back to the 1890s (Sweet 1964Go) but the term moved to a central, if contested, position with the development of communicative language teaching from the 1970s onwards (Widdowson 1979Go; Breen 1985Go; Nunan 1989Go). The debate about authenticity has become more visible in recent years (Badger et al. 2006Go; Gilmore 2007Go; O’Donnell 2009Go; Roberts and Cooke 2009Go) and was a key part of the conversation in this journal between Waters (2009aGo, 2009bGo) and Simpson (2009Go).
Waters argues that the imposition of authenticity by applied linguists on language teaching has, in some sense, led to a disempowerment of language teachers. We agree that there is something slightly dispiriting in the view of the language classroom as a second rate version of what happens outside the classroom. However, we share Simpson’s doubts about whether this is the influence of applied linguistics (2009Go: 432). There is relatively little applied linguistic research on the impact of authentic language on language learning and much second language acquisition research seems to draw on constructed language data (e.g. Pienemann 2006Go). However, we do think that the discourse related to authenticity is problematic. The views that we want to develop here are that, first, the concept of authenticity is used to justify more than it should and secondly, and more fundamentally, it is based on a product view of language which leads to a lack of clarity when the term is used in language education. Both of these factors mean that the role of pedagogic decisions in the use of authentic language can be obscured.
Waters comments on the dangers of treating authenticity as a moral imperative and there is a sense in which authenticity has a kind of halo effect. Waters identifies commentators who link authenticity to native speaker texts and motivation and he himself sees authenticity as obliging teachers to use texts that are too hard for their learners.
The principle of authenticity for language samples is that we should use texts which are not designed for the purposes of language teaching. This notion emerged from concerns with the constructed texts that were produced as part of audio-lingual and situational methods of language teaching which now read as slightly odd. Language samples which come from non-language learning contexts are a better representation of language use outside the classroom. We find it hard to argue against this view but it is important to recognize the limits of the principle. For example, it says nothing about whether the producers of the language are native or non-native speakers. Authentic language is produced by both groups of language users. A similar point can be made about motivation and level of difficulty. Both motivation and level of difficulty are a function of the interaction between particular texts and particular language learners. Authentic texts which are motivating for some users will be boring for others; authentic texts which are easy for some language learners will be difficult for others. Authenticity says nothing about the motivational properties or the level of difficulty of a language sample.
More generally, the principle of authenticity indicates that contrived texts are less useful for language teaching but does not indicate which authentic material language teachers should use in the classroom. When teachers select a particular authentic text, they will consider factors such as whether a particular text is motivating or at the right level of difficulty or whether learners will need to deal with native, non-native speakers or some combination of these. The principle of authenticity does not preclude pedagogic decisions by language teachers. Indeed, we would argue that a more sophisticated understanding of authenticity highlights where pedagogic principles should be applied.
Our second argument relates to the conceptualization of authentic language samples as products. This is a less obvious issue but this conceptualization means that we see teachers as simply taking authentic texts from one context and moving them into the classroom. This view has become so normalized that it has not been explored to any great extent but we feel that it has been reinforced by the success of corpus linguists’ investigations of authentic text products in producing descriptions of the grammar and vocabulary of many languages, particularly English (e.g. Sinclair 1987Go; Rundell 2002Go; Biber et al. 2003Go; Carter and McCarthy 2006Go). These descriptions represent one of the major, if not the major, advances in language description, over the last quarter of a century but, while some teachers will give their learners authentic language products so that they can produce their own language descriptions, generally authentic language samples are brought into the classroom as a way of using the language. Learners are primarily expected to read or listen to such texts and only secondarily, if at all, to exploit them as the basis of the development of their knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. Knowledge is more easily related to product views of language, and skills to process views. The belief that authentic texts are to do with the development of knowledge of language may have made it harder to see authenticity as a process.
This is reflected in the paucity of discussions of authenticity as a process, although Widdowson (1979Go) was clearly thinking on these lines in the late 1970s, albeit in a rather negative way.
I am not sure that it is meaningful to talk about authentic language as such at all. I think it is probably better to consider authenticity not as a quality residing in instances of language but as a quality which is bestowed upon them, created by the response of the receiver (1979: 165).
Widdowson saw the central aspect of this as what the writer or speaker intends.
Authenticity, then, is achieved when the reader realizes the intentions of the writer by reference to a set of shared conventions (1979: 166).
We would want to query the extent to which reading, or listening, can be seen as the realization of the writers' or speakers’ intentions, rather than as the outcome of some kind of negotiation between writers/speakers and readers/listeners. But, leaving this point aside, readers and listeners do more than interpret their interlocutors’ intentions. Field points out that, when we listen:
what reaches our ears is not a string of words or phrases or even a sequence of phonemes. It is group of acoustic features ... We must not think of the words or phonemes of connected speech as transmitted from speaker to listener. It is the listener who has to turn the signal into units of language (2008: 127).
Similarly, what we think of as letters on a page or on a screen are just marks until we bring our knowledge of language to those marks. The process by which we treat ‘g’ and ‘g’ as the same and ‘p’ and ‘q’ as different has become so automatic that we do not even recognize that there is a process. Bauman and Briggs (1990Go: 120) point out ‘that verbal art forms are so susceptible to treatment as self-contained, bounded objects separable from their social and cultural contexts of production and reception’ that we do not even notice the process of what they call entextualization. This process makes ‘a stretch of linguistic production into a unit – a text – that can be lifted out of its interactional setting’ (1990: 73). We think of texts as simply physical objects. Rather, texts are created by an interaction between the physical marks on the paper or the sound waves in the air, what we might call the proto-text, and language users. When a teacher brings an authentic proto-text into the classroom and learners read it or listen to it, there is a new text and the authenticity is to be found in the degree of similarity between the text process in its original context and the text process in the classroom.
There will almost always be a difference between the text processes inside and outside the classroom and teachers need to consider the aspects of the text process outside the classroom that they want to replicate inside the classroom. This implies a greater role for teachers than simply that of porters. So, White (1998Go: 61–62) suggests that a teacher reading a newspaper article might be pedagogically more effective than playing the recording of someone telling a story because this enables a degree of interactivity that is more similar to how the story was originally told. The reading is in some ways more authentic than the recording. In a different way, authenticity can serve to identify pedagogic gaps in language classes. Field (2008Go) describes the pre-listening stage of a typical listening class as having a focus on providing linguistic and world knowledge. These kinds of knowledge are elements in many psycholinguistic models of the listening process (e.g. Field 2008Go) and can be seen as an attempt to make the listening more similar to listening outside the classroom, that is, making it more authentic. However, this analysis also reveals that there is relatively little teaching of listening going on in such classes. In many reading and listening classes, there is too much focus on making what happens in the classroom as authentic as possible and not enough on helping learners to develop their skills so that they can read and listen independently.
Our conceptualization of authenticity also has wider implications as it sees language users as a necessary part of language and so is hard to reconcile with a Saussurean (1974Go) view of language as comprising a signifier and a signified. It fits in better with a Piercean view (Pierce 1965Go; Young 2008Go) of language as something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity (Pierce 1965Go: 135). This change in the conceptualization of language moves us towards a view of the language classroom not as a kind of second rate version of the outside world but as a place with its own legitimacy. ‘The classroom has its own communicative potential and its own authentic metacommunicative purpose’ (Breen 2001Go: 138), in which learners and teachers may work towards the development of what Simpson (2009Go: 432) describes as ‘authentic voices’.
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS
Richard Badger is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Leeds where he co-ordinates the MA TESOL. His research interests are in the areas of academic literacies and TESOL methodology, particularly teaching or listening and writing. Address for correspondence: School of Education, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK. <firstname.lastname@example.org > Back
Malcolm MacDonald is an associate professor at the Centre for Applied Linguistics in the University of Warwick. He is engaged in three areas of research: intercultural communication, discourse analysis, and English language teaching. Address for correspondence: Centre for Applied Linguistics, Room 1.79, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK. <email@example.com > Back
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