Authenticity and new media in foreign language teaching

Chances, problems and perspectives

Term Paper 2006 25 Pages

Didactics - English - Pedagogy, Literature Studies


Table of Content

0. Foreword

1. Authentic Material and Foreign Language Teaching

2. Authentic Material provided by the New Media: an Overview

3. New Media and Authenticity in FLT: Chances and Problems

4. Conclusion

0. Foreword

Authentic material has always played a vital role in English Language Teaching. To study the country (or in the case of English: countries) through the eyes of the people living there, to get a fuller perspective of the uses they make of the language as well as enabling the learner to find his or her own way in this world is a generally accepted if not the most prominent goal of language teaching. In many respects, the use of authentic material is beneficial for in–class teaching although from a didactic point of view it has its limitations as well as some disadvantages that will be more fully explored in the following chapters.

As what regards the New Media, we are facing a world today where cultures and people can come closer through means of the New Media. Technical devices have become the main influence in shaping new ways of how we work or how we live. Companies develop global networks and communicate mostly through the use of e-mail, voice-mail or other electronic devices. More recently, voice over IP (VoIP) has brought about new ways of connecting people by being able to transfer not only sound but also images via the online connection, thus enabling e.g. medical staff to show the latest technologies of surgery to their colleagues at the other end of the globe, saving time and money at the same time. The internet is a very fast and efficient way of presenting and mediating knowledge which can at the same time be presenting in a multi-media fashion by combining sound, graphics, video and text. Besides an ever expanding globalisation is transforming our society that seems to be closer than ever to at least technically accomplish the task of sharing this knowledge with all those eager to acquire it. New learning perspectives seem to develop at the speed of light and transfer our society into a so-called ‘learning society’ while at the same time connecting us to all sorts of learning and knowledge that is available around the globe and – at least theoretically - giving us a chance to teach people even in the remotest areas of the world:

“New computer and telecommunications technologies offer the possibility of global access to education. In turn this global access offers the possibility of a truly global classroom, unlimited by race, religion, or nationality with multi-ethnic courses, students and teachers. Teachers and students can be drawn from many countries and study the same course together at the same time” (Bates 1997, 2)

What sounds like Martin Luther King’s dream transported into the brave new world of science and the internet, might be of a deeper pedagogic value because this concept – though maybe fraught with too much political optimism – may involve more than just the content that is transferred in the teaching process, adding to Foreign Language Teaching for example some aspects of intercultural learning as well as of authenticity. Both of which concepts are not only much discussed topics in recent Foreign Language Teaching but also much valued from a didactic point of view.

But do these two (or even three if we include intercultural learning) concepts really connect? Can the New Media actually improve teaching by adding a breath of the real life of the outside world into the classroom and to in-class teaching? Or is the internet in its limitation to the two dimensional world of a computer screen not only a reminder that virtuality is by definition only a poor imitation of whatever the world has in store for the learners of English?

This paper will at first explore the meaning of authenticity in the context of Foreign Language Teaching before moving on to presenting some ways of how authenticity can be supplied by ways of the New Media and finally giving a critical examination of the benefits and possible problems of the use of New Media for the purpose of presenting authentic material in-class.

1. Authentic Material and Foreign Language Teaching

The use of authentic material in Foreign Language Teaching has been a topic of some debate among teaching methodologists. At a first glance those postulating the integration of authentic material into in-class teaching have a point as authenticity is what all language learning should be aiming for. Authenticity is understood here to mean the use of material that has not been edited or adapted for the uses in-class, e.g. newspaper articles that might contain difficult vocabulary would not be made easier to be more easily understood by the pupils. Authentic material includes a great variety of different media, e.g. radio or TV programmes, pop songs, books (that have to be read in their original form, neither abridged nor made easier linguistically) and audio books, newspaper articles, as well as travel guides or advertising leaflets, or can nowadays include any form of the New Media, such as internet sites, chats or e-mail and blogs. Authentic material is defined by its not being adapted for the use of the leaner but stemming from an ‘authentic’ context, i.e. this material is genuine and written by an author or a journalist with the aim of conveying content rather than a teacher with a certain didactic or linguistic task in mind.

Although this definition is trying to integrate as many aspects of authenticity as possible, it is still not without problems. As Werner Beile (1986, 145 ff.) has pointed out, there is no such thing as authenticity for in-class purposes as things can only be called authentic in a pre-defined context and the level of authenticity is at the same time measured and limited by it. In his opinion, an authentic utterance is only authentic if it is contextualized and bears the mark of its emergence, e.g. a spontaneous oral remark has other characteristics than one made for a television broadcast etc. Thus, all authentic material will lose their authenticity entirely once it is used in-class as it loses this context by the integration into the teaching process and thus becomes to some extent non-authentic, a point also argued by Wallace (1992, 79):

“As soon as texts, whatever their original purpose, are brought into classrooms for pedagogic purposes they have, arguably, lost authenticity.”

Bearing this rather philosophical limitation in mind, Beile nevertheless goes on to give the following definition of authentic:

“Wird ein Text als ‘authentische Alltagssprache’ beschrieben, muß der Zuhörer sich darauf verlassen können, daß

(1) die Sprecher ‚Native Speakers’ sind,
(2) mit keiner fremdsprachendidaktischen Absicht sprechen, sondern
(3) um ihre eigenen kommunikativen Bedürfnisse
(4) innerhalb einer echten Sprechsituation auszudrücken.

Bei einem erstellten Text – selbst wenn Verfasser und Sprecher ‚Native Speakers’ sind, trifft das nicht zu.“ (Beile 1986, 146)

Bearing in mind the fact that English has become today’s lingua franca, this emphasizes on the one hand the inestimable value of being able to speak English and feel comfortable speaking it, but on the other hand this has Beile’s definition appear a little outdated because authentic material nowadays does not necessarily have to be material produced by native speakers but can be any material produced by a speaker of English that is not primarily produced with a didactic but with a communicative purpose.

As the goal of any command of a foreign language can obviously not be to be fluent in a context of pre-set classroom tasks, but to be able to succeed in a context of other speakers of this language and of authentic texts - be it in for professional or recreational reasons, authenticity is a vital part of the teaching of English. Hence Fitzpatrick et al. (2004, n.pag.) identified

“the need for more authenticity both in task and content in language learning. Learners need to be given the opportunity to get more exposure to real-life language use, and tasks need to be defined which enable the learner to interact with authentic language and reflect on authentic contexts of the use of the target language in ways meaningful and supportive to their learning;”

But the question arises, in how far authenticity, while obviously being the highest goal in the learning of a language, can be integrated efficiently into the teaching process as such. From a didactic point of view, the use of authentic material has always presented a problem and the discussion has centred not only around the question whether to use authentic material but to what degree and at what age this use could be beneficial or counterproductive for the advancement of the learner:

“The question of ‘authentic texts’ is somewhat problematic because there are different options here. For those who believed in the ‘language-learning bath’ theories espoused by Krashen and his followers, exposing learners to texts where not everything was understood was part of the learning experience. In these cases a text taken directly from the target context should not be adapted. Other language-learning theories that view learning as an aided process with specific language patterns being plentiful would identify a useful authentic text as one produced by a native speaker but probably adapted from an original source. Making judgements then about authentic texts in course books is still a matter of some debate.” (Morgan et al. 2001, 67)

Basically there are two contrasting concepts of language acquisition that lead to these antithetic standpoints. One is the cognitive approach that presumes that all language learning is a structuring process. The learner needs to structure the new input and construct general rules by doing so that will help him or her through the next steps of learning:

“... learning results from the growing strength of interconnections between nodes through individual volition, filtering and restructuring of input. The associative patterns become so strong that the speaker acts as if he/she has an unlimited capacity to generate new utterances” (Macaro 2003, 34)

These interconnections can be developed by the immergence of the learner into “real-world environments that employ the context in which learning is relevant” (Jonassen 1991, 29). A learning task has not only to be relevant to the learner to provide him with a constructing task, but also be clearly associated with a situation of the real life it is stemming from or is exemplary of:

“In order for the activities to be authentic, they must reflect the natural complexity of real-world environments that employ the context in which learning is relevant. Jonassen contrasts such activities with those that are abstracted rather than contextualized and favors adopting approaches in which learners are solving real-world problems or cases.“ (Murphy n.d., 3)

Hence, all learning has to be embedded in a context or be contextualized by the learner. Real-life or authentic material is regarded as being of particular avail towards this goal as it helps the learner to integrate strategies into his knowledge that are linked to authentic situations. The learner is regarded as being more or less autonomous on his or her way towards the construction of knowledge. The more authentic his learning-environment is the more efficient is this construction towards the target of being proficient in a real-life context.

The other theory, the objectivist side, argues that knowledge is a finite set of skills and a confined body of knowledge. While the highest aim of language learning remains to be able to assert oneself in an authentic context, the learner has to master certain steps towards this proficiency and needs to be aided by the teacher to this mastery. Hence followers of this theory tend to rely on simplified or graded (as opposed to authentic) texts and materials for teaching.

Both theories have proven influential for the development of course books aiming at the learner of English as a second language, the constructivists’ view with their focus on the autonomous learner being in favour of the integration of authentic material into course books:

“To promote autonomous learning textbooks should, therefore, place sufficient authentic texts at the learner's disposal so that he can choose a text which he finds interesting, or at least, a way of approaching a specific text which accommodates his needs and interests.” (Fenner 2000, 7)

But the evidence of authenticity in the textbooks or course books is still a little underrepresented.[1] While textbooks represent to some extent authentic reading material, with regard to listening practise little is done to achieve authenticity: the listening comprehension tasks are indeed commonly contributed by native speakers although most of them do not feature a realistic communication but rather text in the form of dialogue which is performed by professional speakers rather than authentic ones and designed linguistically as well as topically for the particular demands of in-class use:

“In den Lehrwerken fehlen (fast) ganz die Phänomene: lange stille Pausen, anakoluthische Erscheinungen, Wortfragmente, Reduktionserscheinungen, simultanes Sprechen oder gefüllte Pausen.“ (Beile 1986, 150)


[1] Most recently, the “Portobello Road” series (edited by Christoph Edelhoff for Diesterweg 2006) makes use of a lot of faked authentic materials, e.g. cookery recipes, newspaper cuttings as well as internet sites, i.e. material that has the look of being authentic while at the same time being didactically adapted.


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Technical University of Braunschweig
Authenticity Neue Medien Fremdsprachenunterricht




Title: Authenticity and new media in foreign language teaching