Today I want to get back to talking about “authentic” texts and language learning. It would behoove you to read the prior post that sets this one up.
Firstly, let’s talk about terminology. Very often people talk about “authentic texts”, and in classical languages they really mean something like “Authentic texts are defined as “written by members of a language and culture group for members of the same language and culture group” (Galloway 1998 ???)
I think this is a lot better as a definition than what is normally bandied about. The main point is that authentic texts are not authored primarily for language learners, or for the purpose of learning the language. They may not be authored by native-speakers, they may also not be targeted at native-speakers. They are ‘real’ texts whose primary purpose is communicative, not pedagogical.
In this discussion then, I’m going to go back to using ‘authentic’ in the above sense, and leave off using “non-learner directed speech” (which is useful in clarifying what ‘authentic’ means in this context). But I will use LDS (“learner directed texts”) for those texts whose primary audience are learners and primary purpose is pedagogical.
Why are people so keen on authentic texts in language learning? Here are five reasons I find commonly or strongly posited in historical language education:
- Students’ goal texts, the reasons they are learning these languages, are authentic texts, so getting some authentic texts is actually getting to where you are going.
- Learner-directed texts are seen as easy, and so less valuable for learners.
- Learner-directed texts are seen as not being representative of good, or best, language usage. They are often considered inauthentic representations of Latin or Greek speech. For example, accommodations to English word ordering, or reduced particle usage in Greek.
- Authentic texts are motivational. A corollary to (1) really, but if you can get some authentic texts early, students feel like they are getting ‘the real deal’, and that is motivating.
- That the gap between Learner-directed texts and authentic texts is still quite considerable even after a lot of introductory material, and so authentic texts are seen as a better preparation for reading un-scaffolded authentic ancient texts.
Before going on, I just want to note that what counts as authentic is often, really, quite narrowly understood. It is often defined very much by traditional canonical perceptions, and only elite literary texts are considered authentic enough. For both Latin and Greek, the huge (really, vast) tracts of post-classical literature are swept out of consideration.
Of all these reasons, (4) is the one that is most understandable and most readily taken into account. And, careful curation of authentic texts can be done – by having a good repository of shorter authentic texts, such as fragments, verse, graffiti, etc., as well as less high-literature texts. These, presented to learners along the way, do give a sense of, “Yes! I read some real Greek!” And with some learner accommodations such as minimal glossing, occasional helps, and techniques such as embedded/tiered readings, more authentic texts can be made more accessible.
However, the others I find the others less convincing. The whole point of LDS is that it is accommodated to learners. And LDS should be accommodated to learners! Even if a text or speech’s purpose isn’t pedagogical, its content and manner should be. That, in my view, is how and why you should split purpose from content – communicative language learning shouldn’t give you oodles of material whose primary purpose is learning, but communicating, and by communicating we learn – when the language is comprehensible.
(5) is a real problem. As much as I sympathise and whole-heartedly agree with those calling for more and more and ever more CI novellas and the like with highly restricted vocabulary, there’s also a particular and peculiar gap at the intermediate stage – between the end of practically all textbooks and the encountering of wild, unsheltered “real” (and let us distinguish between this idea of “real” and a technical definition of “authentic” above) historical texts. There’s a reason Xenophon and Plato are such common 2nd year texts – they seem low on the mountain. But they aren’t necessarily easy.
I’d really like to see more LDS written at the post-beginner level. High quality, good Graecitas, post-textbook but pre-literary texts. Stories, poetry, etc., that is slightly sheltered in vocabulary in particular, and so is accommodated in content, but not necessarily in purpose. Tell a good story in a novella (or a novel!), so that it’s communicative in purpose, but learner-friendly. More and more of this would help bridge the gap.
Since, we should not forget, most of the goal texts of learners are high-register literature, as I said in my prior post. And the gap between ‘end of learner books’ (of whatever series) and ‘literature’ is still pretty difficult. A lot of our learners fall of the cliff at that stage – they did fine in intro classes, but they never really learn to scale the heights, and pretty soon they are back wandering around the foothills searching for silver bullets.