If input isn't completely authentic, does that automatically make it any less genuine for language learning purposes? Image: Damon Styer
In my last post, I presented an experimental speaking unit that toys with new methods of material presentation and distribution. I'm eternally thankful to all the teachers out there who made the effort to leave some thoughts and suggestions in relation to the material, as I think this is the way we ought to be exploring and developing new language learning material: putting it out there, talking about it, playing with it, wrestling with it (etc.) -- before we go with any final versions that might then be placed before learners.
Now, one issue that came up (and I really did expect it to!) with a lot of teachers was the relative authenticity and "natural sound" of the input speaking dialogue featured in the sample material. Quite rightly, too. I think it is a dilemma a lot of teachers are wrestling with these days. They're tired of contrived and unnatural-sounding language input that (potentially) just models simplified and sanitized language that native and proficient users are highly unlikely to use in real situations. They want to give their learners a more authentic picture of the language in use in the real world.
I share these concerns.
But I've also come to look at the issue a bit differently, thanks (surprisingly?) to the experience of being a parent and observing the processes by which my children are developing their language and what role (and how) different forms of input play in this.
I've now come to the conclusion that, for input designed to help demonstrate how language can be used for speaking, it may not always be authentic (in terms of how proficient speakers use it in the real world), but it could well be reasonably genuine (in terms of the way people gradually learn how to speak).
That's a very important distinction: models of proficient use versus models designed for developmental use.
It's pretty common for methodologists to talk about speaking and language learning by starting with how speaking happens in the real world. I'm not so sure many of them have taken into account how speaking develops in the real world.
Let's look at the way children learn how to talk. Okay, I'll use my children for the purposes of this argument, but I think it's reasonably generalisable.
There are many things happening with their speaking development in terms of input, but here are five of the key ones I've recently noticed and thought about a little more:
1. Authentic input from proficient speakers (parents, other adults, older children using natural speech), with all its false starts, elipses, competitive rather than cooperative tendencies, etc.
2. Scaffolded input from proficient speakers who adjust their speech for the specific needs of children (parents, carers, but also children's entertainment programs on television).
3. Written input in the form of age-appropriate stories and games (including the dialogues and other "spoken language" that appears in these texts), quite often delivered orally, but rarely exactly mirroring the language/modes we see in (1) above.
4. "Peer" input as children interact with each other.
5. "Internal" input as children think (and think aloud), sorting and experimenting with language.
You'd be hard pressed to find anyone claim that any of these don't play an important role in a child's speaking development. Of course, any one of them in isolation is hardly going to be totally effective, but they all play a role to some extent and together they are a highly potent engine for driving oral language development.
Now, older and adult foreign language learners are no longer children, but they certainly are developing language users.
What I think we need to be careful of, as we clamour and leap eagerly onto the authentic language input bandwagon, is ignoring what I consider to be quite valid and useful kinds of developmental input that we know play a fundamental role in L1 language acquisition, but may be forgetting about.
In terms of what we present in coursebooks and other paper (or screen) based materials, I don't think it is detrimental to feature models and input that have a lot in common with types 2 and 3 from my list above. I like to think of it as developmental input that creates a platform for learners to start effectively using the language within parameters that are accessible to them. I see it as genuine input (as opposed to "authentic"), and believe in its potential because of what I see it doing for L1 language development as well.
Of course, to create a full picture, we really want to make the most of all five types of input in our classroom. Not all of them will plant well on coursebook pages, but that doesn't mean we can't plant them in other ways (and via other means) to create the sort of language learning environment in which they can really thrive.
I'm not sure... Perhaps we've become so good at slagging off coursebook content that we have become accustomed to blaming it for not doing what it essentially can't do (but what teachers can do, or can find ways to do).
What do you think?