Learner-Centered Texts vs. “Authentic” & “Natural”

Chris Stolz recently had a couple fascinating things to say regarding language teaching. Both had to do with what some people refer to as “natural” language…

Authentic Texts
Like a growing many, I don’t use the term. It’s usually poorly defined, even with all the updates and revisions over the years. Instead, I prefer “unadapted texts” because that’s what they are, regardless of intended audience, which seems to be at the core of all the ill-defining. Chris recently shared how Bill VanPatten had an exchange with someone about the term “non-learner-centered” replacing “authentic.” That makes sense to me. Anything “non-learner-centered” doesn’t concern itself with comprehensibility on the level that’s needed, at least for the beginning student. That is, when a text waaaay beyond comprehension is given to the beginning student to interact with in some kind of task or Task that doesn’t result in comprehenDED language (e.g. “I can recognize 3 words in that paragraph, therefore I have a guess as to what it means.”). This has been my experience with anything dubbed “authentic,” although I’m sure some texts exist that are both unadapted as well as understandable. Usually, though, the texts are quite short, and lacking substantial input (e.g. announcements, repeated chorus lyrics, phrase-level messages, etc.). “Learner-centered” texts, however, employ a range of techniques to make the target language more comprehensible. Some people have taken issue with these texts, referring to them as being “unnatural.” Mmmmkay.

“Natural Language”
Any arguments centered around language being “natural” are red herrings. This shouldn’t be an issue for the learner. Chris pointed out how we do a loooooooot of unnatural things to communicate when teaching. For example, we speak much more slowly than any native speaker would, we repeat statements and questions for exposure, we even use an entirely additional language to establish meaning (i.e. L1/native language), not to mention any gesturing, drawing, etc. that’s done in the classroom. This makes sense. It’s a classroom, not a street corner in a target language speaking country. Without those teaching strategies, language would be more immersion-based, an environment that does help as long as there’s a massive amount of time, like thousands of hours, but that’s waaaay more time than typical K-12 public school students have (e.g. ~400 hours over four years in high school). Besides, for most learners, immersion quickly becomes submersion, even if benefits could be seen after the ~400 mark (see this post on teaching for a positive language experience).

I’ll add that there’s nothing natural about a second language classroom, anyway, at least in its construct within school and the nature of communication. That is, there is very little need to communicate in a new language if everyone more or less shares another. Humans don’t usually go out of their way to communicate. So, anyone attempting to reconstruct purely “natural” conditions in the classroom is actually fooling themselves!

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