On Authentic Texts in language learning

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 ???)[1]

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Learner-directed texts are seen as easy, and so less valuable for learners.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


[1] I got this from ACTFL here, but it’s not entirely possible to follow the citation trail, since Galloway has several 1998 publications (Presumably: V. Galloway.)

4 responses

  1. Great post, as always. A few points:

    1. In my experience at US universities, curricular restraints are a major factor in the rush to give students “authentic” texts (with “authentic,” as you say, being narrowly, not broadly, construed). We know that most students who take Latin at all will not go beyond the second year, and it’s considered unthinkable to let them “finish” the four-semester sequence without having spent substantial time “reading” “authentic” texts. As I hope my scare quotes suggest, this line of thought is full of problems, but it’s the dominant mindset. I can only imagine the incredulity which would meet any suggestion of substituting, say, the Vulgate for Cicero in second-year Latin. On one hand, yes, we should give up on the idea that most learners can go from zero knowledge of Latin/Greek in the first semester to any sort of meaningful competence in the fourth semester, if by meaningful competence we mean _reading_ something like Cicero rather than slowly decoding with dictionary and Bryn Mawr commentary. On the other hand, I think people at most US Classics departments take pride in claiming that our students “read” “real” Latin/Greek in the second year, and they believe — perhaps rightly — that this is a selling point for students, some of whom, at least, are content merely to decode the ancient languages because they don’t know anything better is possible.

    2. On a related note — especially as someone who read substantial amounts of Koine before ever turning to Attic — I have mixed feelings about the bias towards the “elite” or “canonical” varieties of authentic texts. On one hand, there is so much post-classical literature out there, and a lot of it is rather easier than the standard authentic texts usually offered to students. Using more post-classical texts would go a long way toward lowering the difficulty gradient, toward bridging the as-yet substantial gap between the end of elementary sequences and learners’ first encounters with authentic texts. And often those texts are not used for no better reason than snobbery. On the other hand, we should be aware that exposing learners to large amounts of non-classical vocabulary, syntax, and morphology will make it harder for them to eventually think of “Classical” Greek or “Classical” Latin as a linguistic norm, as a point of departure. Is that necessarily bad? Not at all. But I know from experience that reading lots of Koine (to be precise, Christian Koine without literary pretensions) before reading any Attic meant that for a long time I thought of οἴδασιν, ἐλεύσομαι, and ἠρχόμην as standard, when in fact that’s not really the case.

    3. I’m actually quite sympathetic to your reason (3). Some of the novellas out there are written by people who really need to get better at Latin before they produce (and sell) materials for consumption by learners. I do not mean to endorse the behaviorist notion that learners retain all the mistakes they ever hear and so the input offered them must be absolutely pristine — but we really should have high standards for learner-directed texts. It’s especially troubling that some writers of novellas don’t even want to hear negative feedback about their work, however politely offered. It’s easy to underestimate just how hard it is to produce quality text in one’s L2 that’s free, or even mostly free, of barbarisms and solecisms, and those of us who speak the ancient languages find our position undermined with those who don’t when they can easily find novellas that contain mistakes in the first few pages.

  2. Thanks Stephen, I appreciate your thoughts here.

    On 2, as someone who came to their Attic via Koine, I’ve had some of those same experiences. I do think there’s a case to be made for deliberately shaping learners’ reading experiences towards their target corpus/corpora. And perhaps that means being willing to adapt texts in various directions. One of the things I enjoyed in Schoder et al’s Homeric textbook was adaptations of New Testament texts in a Homeric direction. They remained simple enough to read, but transposed into a Homeric key.

    On 3, I’m also sympathetic, immo, supportive of your point here. I too have seen plenty of really problematic Latin in the novellas, which I would baulk at presenting to a learner. So, my point 3 above should be taken as “there’s no prima facie reason that composed learner directed content has worse Latinity”. There is, of course, the other extreme – advocates who I’ve heard basically suggest a position of “well, nothing but Ciceronian Latin will do”, ironically put forward in their own spoken Latin. And, as I (and you) well know, speaking or writing error-free Greek or Latin is no low bar. One reason I’m in favour of greater transparency in composition, feedback, and editing processes.

  3. This has me thinking about the differences between modern and ancient languages in this regard.

    At the college near me, 3rd semester Greek reads one of Plato’s dialogs, 4th semester Greek reads Homer, and you can’t take anything further in Greek until you’ve passed (or placed out of) the Homer course.

    In contrast, in Spanish there are so many prerequisites piled up for Don Quixote (6 semesters of Spanish language, or equivalent, and 2 semesters of modern Spanish literature) that it would be hard to take it before your 4th year. (Not that there isn’t plenty of difficult modern Spanish literature to be reading in the meantime.) And Don Quixote is completely optional.

    • I honestly think it’s weird to train people on Attic in order to read Homer. My own experience is that they really are different enough that if your goal is Homer, study Homeric. If your goal is Attic, study Attic. And if you want to do both, probably learn Attic then work with some transition materials to handle Homer. But to pretend you can go from a knowledge of Attic grammar and a smattering of Plato, to Homer, is considerably underrating the gap there.

      In any case, what you describe if fairly typical of most college programs!

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