What we talk about when we talk about Authenticity

While listening to the TEFLology Podcast I happened to hear a discussion on authenticity with guest Richard Pinner. I don’t know Richard but I liked what he had to say. I asked him if he’d consider doing a guest post and he agreed! The result is the rather excellent post below. 🙂 

Introduction

At the end of 2014, I was lucky enough to be invited on tothe TEFLology Podcast to discuss authenticity. The reason I was asked is that I am doing a PhD in which I am (attempting) to look at the connection between authenticity and motivation. I am also currently working on a book about authenticity which will be available next year (all being well).  
Authenticity in language teaching is a thorny issue, and especially in English language teaching because of the nature of English’s use worldwide as an international language, with many diverse varieties. What do you understand by the term authenticity? For most language teachers, the word authentic is part of our daily vocabulary. It is stamped onto the backs of textbooks, it is mentioned when describing a particularly motivating task, and it is often used alongside other words like motivation and interest. So, just what do we talk about when we talk about authenticity?

Shadow-boxing with the definition

In his now famous article, Michael Breen (1985)identified that language teachers are ‘continually concerned with four types of authenticity’, which he summarise as:

  • 1.       Authenticity of the texts which we may use as input data for our learners.
  • 2.       Authenticity of the learners’ own interpretations of such texts.
  • 3.       Authenticity of tasks conducive to language learning.
  • 4.       Authenticity of the actual social situation of the language classroom.

Following Breen, I created a visualisation of the domains of authenticity, mainly just because I like diagrams. 

Figure <!–[if supportFields]> SEQ Figure \* ARABIC <![endif]–>1<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>: The domains of authenticity

 This is basically what Breen was talking about, and as one can see there is a lot of overlap and yet authenticity can relate to four very different aspects of the work we do in the language classroom. What is fundamentally important here, is that a teacher could bring in an example of a so-called ‘authentic’ text and use it in a way which is not authentic. For example, a teacher could bring an English language newspaper to class and tell her students read the text and underline every instance of the present perfect aspect or passive tense, then get them to copy each sentence out into their notebooks. Is this authentic? Although for many people the newspaper is a classic example of an authentic text, what is happening in this class is anything but authentic language learning.

Authentic materials are often defined as something not specifically designed for language learning, or “language where no concessions are made to foreign speakers” (Harmer, 2008, p. 273). In the Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics, the definition of authenticity is covered in a short entry, and boils down to materials “not originally developed for pedagogical purposes” (Richards & Schmidt, 2013, p. 43). Are there any problems with this definition? When I speak with other teachers, this is generally the definition they come up with, unless we are in the midst of a particularly philosophical discussion, which, don’t worry, I will come to shortly. 
Henry Widdowson is one of the biggest names associated with the authenticity debate, and I had the honour of meeting him in Tokyo last year in November 2014. Widdowson made the famous distinction between materials which are authentic and materials which are genuine (1978). Basically, genuineness relates to an absolute property of the text, in other words realia or some product of the target language community like a train timetable or the aforementioned ‘classic’ newspaper. Authenticity, however, is relative to the way the learners engage with the material and their relationship to it. Hung and Victor Chen (2007, p. 149) have also discussed this, problematizing the act of taking something out of one context and bringing it into another (the classroom) expecting its function and authenticity to remain the same. They call this extrapolation techniques, which they criticise heavily for missing the wood for the trees. In other words, simply taking a newspaper out of an English speaking context quite often means you leave the real reason for interacting with it behind, which seriously impairs its authenticity. Another very big problem with this definition is that it seems to advocate the dreaded ‘native speaker’ idea, which as we all know is an emotive argument that has been discussed widely in recent years, particularly with the rise of English as a Lingua Franca and Global English.  When Widdowson made his arguments it was during the rise of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), and as part of this methodology there was an explosion in the debate around authenticity. In particular, people writing about authenticity wanted to distance the concept from the evil ‘native speaker’ definition. But what about learning aims? What about the student’s needs? How was the debate made relevant to the actual practice of teaching? 
In his famous and fascinating paper, Suresh Canagarajah (1993) discusses the way students in Sri Lanka were not only ambiguous towards, but at times detached from the content of their prescribed textbooks, based on American Kernel Lessons. The students had trouble connecting the reality presented in the textbooks with their own reality, which was markedly different to say the least. Canagarajah notes that some students’ textbooks contained vulgar doodles, which he thought could perhaps have been “aimed at insulting the English instructors, or the publishers of the textbook, or the U.S. characters represented” (1993, p. 614). This connects strongly with What  Leo van Lier (1996) calls authentication; the idea that learners have to make the materials authentic by engaging with it in some way on an individual level. Van Lier’s reasoning is that something can’t be authentic for everyone at the same time, but the important thing is to try and get that balance. 
As I think this article has already shown, the concept of authenticity is not easy to define. Alex Gilmore, in his State-of-the-Art paper identified as many as eight inter-related definitions, which were:                            
  

                                I.            the language produced by native speakers for native speakers in a particular language community
                              II.            the language produced by a real speaker/writer for a real audience, conveying a real message (as in, not contrived but having a genuine purpose, following Morrow, 1977)
                            III.            the qualities bestowed on a text by the receiver, in that it is not seen as something already in a text itself, but is how the reader/listener perceives it)
                            IV.            the interaction between students and teachers and is a “personal process of engagement” <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE van Lier1996271128(van Lier, 1996, p. 128)2712716van Lier, LeoInteraction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy and authenticity1996LondonLongman0582248795<![endif]–>(van Lier, 1996, p. 128)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>
                              V.            the types of task chosen
                            VI.            the social situation of the classroom
                          VII.            authenticity as it relates to assessment and the Target Language Use Domain <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE Bachman1996143(Bachman & Palmer, 1996)1431436Bachman, Lyle FPalmer, Adrian SLanguage testing in practice: Designing and developing useful language tests11996oxford university press0194371484<![endif]–>(Bachman & Palmer, 1996)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>

                        VIII.            culture, and the ability to behave or think like a target language group in order to be validated by them


  Adapted from Gilmore (2007, p. 98)

In order to simplify these definitions I have developed a diagram to show how they overlap and contradict each other. I will use this diagram later as the basis for a continuum of authenticity in language learning.  

Figure <!–[if supportFields]> SEQ Figure \* ARABIC <![endif]–>2<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>: Summary of Gilmore’s Eight inter-related definitions of authenticity

Another way of thinking about authenticity is from a wider perspective, something that encompasses not only the materials being used and the tasks set to engage with them, but also the people in the classroom and the social context of the target language. To better illustrate this, I proposed that authenticity be seen as something like a continuum, with both social and contextual axes (Pinner, 2014b)

The vertical axis represents relevance to the user of the language or the individual, which in most cases will be the learner although it could also be the teacher when selecting materials. The horizontal lines represent the context in which the language is used. Using this continuum, materials, tasks and language in use can be evaluated according to relevance and context without the danger of relying on a pre-defined notion of culture or falling back into “extrapolation approaches”.

As you can see, although the word Authenticity is used all the time in staff rooms and to sell textbooks, if we actually drill down into it we get into very boggy ground.

Dogme ELT and Authenticity (and motivation)

Most readers will probably be familiar with the idea of Dogme ELT, which basically tries to get away from “the prevailing culture of mass-produced, shrink-wrapped lessons, delivered in an anodyne in-flight magazine style” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2003). This movement in ELT has strong connotations for authentic language teaching and also provides a very real connection between authenticity and motivation.

In essence, the Dogme approach places a premium on conversational interaction among teacher and learners where communication is authentic and learner-driven rather than pedagogically contrived and controlled by the teacher. Choice of learning content and materials is thus shaped by students’ own preferred interests and agendas, and language development emerges through the scaffolded dialogic interactions among learners and the teacher. Relevant to our concerns here is the value Dogme places on students’ own voices and identities in these conversational interactions. (Ushioda 2011, p. 205)

In essence, Ushioda is noting that Dogme is both authentic and potentially motivating because it places the emphasis on the learners as people. 

If we take a moment to see where we are with the issue of authenticity, we will realise that the definition of authenticity, although a tangle of concepts and resistant to a single definition, what it seems to be pushing at is essentially something very practical. If something is going to be authentic, it needs to be relevant to the learners and it needs to be able to help them speak in real (as in not contrived) situations. In other words, when they step out of the classroom, what they did in the classroom should have prepared them to speak and understand the target language. In order to achieve this, what they do in the classroom has to be as authenticas possible, and by implication it needs to be engaging. Essentially, authentic materials should be motivating materials.

Why should we care about any of this though, can’t we just get on with it?

I would like to bring this long discussion back to the practical realm by sharing an example from my own teaching. One very successful example of an authentic task comes from a class I taught in a Japanese University in 2011. The class was entitled Discussions on Contemporary Topics which meant I could teach more or less anything. The students expected “just another course about news and current affairs” but what we ended up doing was trying to make the world a slightly better place. The final assessment was a group video project and this is what one group produced for their final piece.
 
It is obvious from watching this video that what the students did here was highly authentic, in that it was personal and achieved something real. This was all their own idea as well, I just told them to make a video and offered suggestions here and there. 
Authenticity is a good thing. It sounds like a good thing and by association, anything labelled as inauthentic must be bad. However, I think that the word authenticity is complicit with many of the problems in English language teaching. Authenticity is still too often defined in a way which, either directly or indirectly, infers the privilege of the native speaker (Pinner, 2014a, 2014b). However, if we can get away from that, authenticity can be a powerful concept to empower both learners and teachers, because authenticity connects the individual learner to the content used for learning. 
So, in summary ‘keep it real’.
References
Bachman, L. F., & Palmer, A. S. (1996). Language testing in practice: Designing and developing useful language tests (Vol. 1): oxford university press.
Breen, M. P. (1985). Authenticity in the Language Classroom. Applied Linguistics, 6(1), 60-70.
Canagarajah, A. S. (1993). Critical Ethnography of a Sri Lankan Classroom: Ambiguities in Student Opposition to Reproduction Through ESOL. TESOL quarterly, 27(4), 601-626. doi: 10.2307/3587398
Gilmore, A. (2007). Authentic materials and authenticity in foreign language learning. Language Teaching, 40(02), 97-118. doi: 10.1017/S0261444807004144
Harmer, J. (2008). The practice of English language teaching (Fourth Edition ed.). London: Pearson/Longman.
Hung, D., & Victor Chen, D.-T. (2007). Context–process authenticity in learning: implications for identity enculturation and boundary crossing. Educational Technology Research and Development, 55(2), 147-167. doi: 10.1007/s11423-006-9008-3
Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. (2003, Thursday 17 April 2003). Dogme still able to divide ELT.   Retrieved 4th February, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/education/2003/apr/17/tefl.lukemeddings
Pinner, R. S. (2014a). The Authenticity Continuum: Empowering international voices. English Language Teacher Education and Development, 16(1), 9 – 17.
Pinner, R. S. (2014b). The authenticity continuum: Towards a definition incorporating international voices. English Today, 30(04), 22-27. doi: 10.1017/S0266078414000364
Richards, J. C., & Schmidt, R. W. (2013). Longman dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics. Harlow: Routledge.
Ushioda, E. (2011). Language learning motivation, self and identity: current theoretical perspectives. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 24(3), 199-210. doi: 10.1080/09588221.2010.538701
van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy and authenticity. London: Longman.
Widdowson, H. G. (1978). Teaching language as communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Trust us, we know what’s best for you.



Language for giving opinions

At a recent BALEAP conference the plenary speaker said something I found was quite startling. She was talking  about the fact we often teach things to students which are not, according to corpus data, representative of natural speech. That is, when we teach students things like ‘language for giving opinions’ we may present phrases like “I tend to think that..”, “I consider…” and ”in my opinion’ as a possible ways of alternatives to “I think” despite the fact they are actually vanishingly rare in speech, and are not really alternatives.   

I was worried when she reached her conclusion as it differed from mine, and I was speaking later that day! I had rather foolishly assumed that this meant we should stop teaching language which was unnatural of uncommon and instead focus on more useful, high frequency items. She didn’t see it that way. She suggested that international students using odd or uncommon phrases, -especially if they were female, may sound quite ‘charming’.
 
What I heard sounded familiar. I was reminded of my own experiences of learning a foreign language. Learning Japanese in Japan meant I had fairly natural sounding Japanese (brag brag). I only ever heard it from Japanese people speaking and I didn’t have a textbook so my only input was them. I would occasionally meet people who studied abroad and would often find their Japanese odd or unnatural. For example, I would say the casual male 俺 ore for ‘I’ and they would say the more formal 私 watashiI would say “eh, what?” (e? Mou ikkai?) and they would say “I’m sorry but could you please repeat that.” (sumimasen ga mou ichido itte kudasai) etc etc. It was really clear to me. The Japanese these people were learning was nothing like the Japanese I was hearing in Japan. 
 
Sometimes Japanese folks would be surprised and say things like ‘foreigners shouldn’t use Japanese like that.’ or try to persuade me that really ‘watashi’ was a better choice of personal pronoun marker despite the fact none of the guys I knew used it. 
 
I’d also often hear ‘you don’t need to learn that Japanese’ from well meaning folk, who no doubt had my best interests at heart. I later found that in 1988, the idea  of creating a ‘foreigner Japanese’ called Kanyaku nihongo with all the politeness markers removed was funded by the National Language Institute of Japan. This was no doubt to make it easier, for us poor foreigners trying to learn what is, according to many Japanese anyway, the most difficult language on the planet. Now, anyone who knows anything about Japanese can tell you that removing the politeness markers from Japanese is like removing the alcohol from beer. Technically possible but kind of defeating the object.

I found all of this patronising. I didn’t want to learn foreigner Japanese I wanted to learn Japanese. Thus my experience leads me to think that students probably don’t like being fobbed off with ‘pseudo language’. They pay for and expect the real thing. My experience leads me to think this but I’m only one person and I could well be wrong.
 
It’s not fair for me to assume that what I want is what my students want any more than it was fair for those well meaning Japanese folk to decide what I did and didn’t need to learn and how I should sound. The danger with experience is always over extrapolation. This worked for me, in this place, at this time, so it must work for everyone.

In the past some teachers told students that they should strive to sound like a native speaker and probably a certain type of native speaker.  Some teachers now tell students not to try to sound like native speakers. In both these cases, the person telling and the person being told, haven’t changed.
If student want to sound like their ideal of a native speakers (and many do) then that’s fine. If they don’t that’s fine. It’s their money. But even if students aren’t interested in sounding like native speakers that’s no excuse for us to teach them unnatural language and phrases because it’s easier for us to teach like that.  All we are then doing is creating an alternative version of English -not ELF, just a pseudo English bleached and stripped of reality and no one is asking for that, no matter how ‘charming’ it might be.

Why we need evidence part 2: How we know what isn’t so

Are you more likely to die from a car accident or from cancer? And just how much more likely is the one than the other

While writing this post, the excellent ‘EFL teachers shouldn’t prefer blonds’ appeared. It is definitely worth a read and gets right at the heart of what I’ll talk about here, even mentioning the availability error.
 

The availability error/heuristic means that people tend to favour information that is more available to them.  For example, If you ask people whether they are more likely to die from a car accident or cancer many people would suggest that they were perhaps about equal, after all cars are very dangerous. Of course, people dying of cancer doesn’t make the news very often and so the fact that you are over 10 times more likely to die of cancer than being in a car accident, isn’t as ‘available’. Similarly, people may worry about terrorists or shark attacks, but the likelyhood or either of these happening to you is so remote as to be almost meaningless. That said, both of these are still more likely than winning the lottery, but in the UK round 2 million play it every week.  

As Andrew Walkley points out, the same goes for teachers (and material writers) understanding of language. We think we know what people say, we think we know how people talk but actually we often have no idea. We think we know which words are ‘common’ and which are less so but as this game shows, we probably get it wrong as often as we get it right (thanks to Rachel for the link). This is because humans don’t do statistics very well.  

For example, imagine if I told you I was going to spend a lesson teaching students about the the word ‘just’. you may be horrified at my wasting so much time on a word like that. However examining Nottingham’s corpus of spoken English reveals that “just” is the 31st most commonly used word in Spoken English (O’Keffee et al 2007: 35). Other words are “yeah” (no.12), “mm” (37) and “er” (38).

Generally our intuition about language is wrong. What we end up teaching students is what Lewis calls “TEFLese” (2001: vii) and Stubbs notes that many learners may be able to ‘speak grammatically, yet not sound native like’ (2006:115) As long ago as 1998 this approach was being questioned:
 

Working on educated guesswork or hunches when writing dialogues and transactions for coursebooks or when selecting language to teach is highly questionable. (williams 1998:53)
 

For example, maybe today you taught a class.  And depending on where you work (China, Korea and Japan, yes, I’m looking at you!) perhaps the class featured a dialogue like the following:

 
A: Hi, How are you?
B: I’m fine thank you, and you?
A: I’m fine too, thank you.
 
Now it’s easy to pick fault with this for being unnatural, but what about this one (Nunan and Lockwood in Carter et al 2005:79):
Patient: Could I make an appointment to see the doctor please?
Receptionist: certainly, who do you usually see?

Patient: Dr Cullen
Receptionist: I’m sorry but Dr Cullen has got patients all day. would Dr. Maley do?
Patient: Sure
Receptionist: OK then. When would you like to come?

Patient: Could I come at four o’clock?
Receptionist: four o’clock? Fine. Could I have your name please?

If you’re like me then you have probably taught this kind of thing before. It looks pretty authentic, doesn’t it? Certainly better than the 1st example. Yet reality looks quite a bit different (Burns at al 1996 in Carter et al 2005:80):

 
Receptionist: Sorry to keep you waiting.
Patient: That’s alright um I’m just calling to confirm an appointment with Dr X for the first of October
Receptionist: oh…
Patient: Because it was so far in advance I was told to.

Receptionist: I see what you mean, to see if she’s going to be in that day.
Patient: That’s right
Receptionist: Oh we may not know yet.
Patient: Oh I see.
Receptionist: First of October…Edith….yes.

Patient: Yes
Receptionist: There she is OK you made one. What’s your name?
Patient: At nine fift…
Receptionist: Got it got it.
 

Now whether or not we expose students to this kind of dialogue is an argument I’m not going to get into here, but the point is that despite what we think we know, we are often very bad at judging what actually is.

And if we have no idea about how language is really used how can we expect to make the best use of our students’ time? This is where the evidence discovered by corpus linguistics is invaluable to teachers. Computers don’t suffer from the availability error. Corpus has revolutionised dictionaries, textbooks and language teaching. But it has only managed this because we were so wrong, so often. If our intuitions about language had been largely correct, it’s doubtful corpus would have made the impression that it has.


References

Carter, R. Hughes, R and McCarthy, M (2005) telling tales: The spoken language and materials development in Tomlinson, B (Ed.), Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge UniversityPress 67-88.

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove:Language Teaching Publications.

Williams, M. (1998) Language Taught for Meetings and Language Used in Meetings: Is there Anything in Common Applied Linguistics 9/1: 45-58

Stubbs, M. (2006) language Corpora. In Davies, A. & Elder, C. (2006) (eds.) The Handbook of Applied Linguistics. Malden M.A. Blackwell. 106-132