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What happened to authenticity?

Back in the 1980's, if my memory serves me correctly, "authenticity" was a major buzz word in language teaching. An excellent newspaper for MFL was even established at Dublin University called Authentik, which was filled with real texts from various sources, accompanied by effective exercises. (It has now evolved into a range of magazines and interactive content to be found here.)

We don't seem to hear the "a" word much now. Is that because authenticity in language sources (texts and conversations) is taken as axiomatic? Or is it that we have realised that authenticity has its limitations?

Authenticity came, like plenty of other language teaching innovations, from the ELT world. It is easy to see why it became fashionable. Traditional grammar-translation (Whitmarsh), audio-lingual (Longman) and oral approach methods (Gilbert) had all used, to a large extent, home-made texts or, occasionally at A-level, texts adapted from literature.

The limitations of these methods, notably (and forgive me for simplifying here) in terms of their lack of real-life communication, the artificiality of the texts and the oral communication practised together with, arguably, their extreme emphasis on grammar acquisition, led to acceptance of alternative approaches (communicative, functional and notional).

Along with the partial rejection of grammar as the prime goal went the partial rejection of artificial texts and recordings and the search for "authentic" sources. If only the internet had existed then, teachers would not have been reliant on the occasional newspaper brought in by a thoughtful student and poor quality long wave radio broadcasts! I recall, back at Hampton School in about 1986, designing a listening task for Year 8 pupils using a recording I had made of some visiting French pupils. It seemed exciting at the time - a real conversation with real French children! It was at best a partial success, because the recording quality was barely adequate and the french children used some language forms which did not fit with the structured language our students had learned.

I think I learned a lesson, and my MA tutor of the time Alan Hornsey, a wise former teacher, then teaching PGCE and MA at the Institute of Education, said something I never forgot. What counts in a language source is not authenticity, but plausibility.

The trouble with authentic texts is that they rarely meet the criterion of hitting that sweet spot where you want learners to go, a bit beyond where they are now. It's a basic principle of education which I believe also applies to second language learning. There is no point giving students material which is way beyond them and nearly all authentic sources are beyond the means of many students, especially beginners and intermediate learners. Further, for those who believe in natural acquisition theories, authentic texts and recordings frequently fail to meet the needs of the "comprehension hypothesis", since the input they provide is not comprehensible or compelling.

What works better are "plausible" texts and recordings, which can be based on authentic sources or written by the teacher. Key point: these allow for selection and grading of language which means they become accessible to students and, hopefully, more enjoyable. They take the student that extra step forward.

These days you rarely find authentic texts in intermediate text books and even those in advanced level books are usually quite heavily adapted. Exam listening tasks in England and Wales, even those at A2 (advanced) level, have become more and more artificial over the years, and certainly do not sound authentic.

So, in answer to my questions above, I would tentatively suggest that, at school level, we have quietly consigned pure authenticity to the dustbin and sensibly sought a compromise between authenticity and the artificiality of older courses.

On ne cultive plus l'authentique?


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