“How do I make this experience come alive for my students?”
As language educators, we’re constantly mulling over this question.
We want our students to appreciate the language in its full color.
We want to make it so real they can practically taste it.
We want it to be so alive they can virtually greet it at the door and shake its hand.
That kind of “alive”!
Sure, we want them to learn vocabulary and grammar rules, too. But shouldn’t learning a language be more than just a race to the light at the end of the tunnel?
How do you share the more vibrant, real-life aspects of a language with your students throughout the learning process?
Well, the secret, and I’m just gonna let the cat out of the bag here, is using authentic materials.
What Are Authentic Materials?
You likely already have at least some idea of what they are, but for the sake of understanding their significance, let’s start from the top.
Authentic materials can be best understood by comparing them to another group of language teaching tools: instructional materials.
Language textbooks, vocabulary flashcards, listen-and-repeat audio CDs and even grammar cheat sheets are all instructional materials. That is, they have been specifically made with the aim of teaching a language.
So what you have is a set of resources that have been crafted specifically for language learners. In instructional audio material, for example, you of course know that the speakers often talk slower than seems normal. They’ll also sometimes make a point of repeating words and phrases multiple times, taking great care to explain what grammar rules are being observed.
Language textbooks do the same, but in written form. Textbooks are carefully divided into logically sequenced chapters so that readers smoothly transition from one lesson to the next. Textbooks are a well-known example of an instructional material.
Authentic materials, on the other hand, are materials intended for native speakers of the language. They differ greatly from instructional materials because of the implicit assumptions surrounding their existence. Authentic materials assume linguistic competence and comprehension.
In an authentic audio material, such as a radio talk show, the speakers obviously do not try to speak slower than usual. They simply talk like they normally do. They only care about enunciating each word clearly to the extent that they care about being clear to native speakers. They simply breeze through the conversation, confident they are being understood.
Authentic materials are what native speakers of a language encounter every day. Other examples include newspapers, magazines, TV shows and movies. So authentic French materials, for instance, would include French newspapers, French magazines, French TV shows and French movies.
Imagine your students got picked up from their seats and transported to the equivalent of Times Square in a country where the target language is spoken. Everything they see—the billboards, ads, flyers, brochures, street signs and store signs—are all authentic materials. The phrases screamed by the man across the street, the music booming from the taxi, the newscasts played in cafes, the menus in restaurants…these are all authentic materials.
Some great sources of authentic materials online are social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and various forums. If your students use these sites to connect with people who are native speakers of the target language, they get the opportunity to see comments, updates, videos and pictures of these native speakers. They get to have the awesome experience of witnessing the target language used in real life.
For example, they could follow MUY Interesante on Twitter and see what’s interesting in the eyes of Spanish-speaking followers.
Authentic materials are language “live”! Not set in the classroom, but language as native speakers wield it.
I know you’re now beginning to see the advantages of using authentic materials in conjunction with instructional classroom materials. Let’s talk about those advantages next.
Stamp of Approval: 5 Reasons Your Language Students Want You to Use Authentic Materials in the Classroom
1) They’re sufficiently challenging
Okay, so there are those who think that since authentic materials were never meant to teach language, they can prove too challenging for language learners, especially absolute beginners. As previously mentioned, authentic materials make no special allowances (by themselves) for language learners because those who create them assume native speaker comprehension.
Teaching the language as it’s really used is a good thing, but of course no teacher would want to overwhelm his or her students. We don’t want them staring at a newspaper article and understanding only one word per paragraph.
So let’s confront this concern head-on and talk about why the challenging nature of authentic materials is only a benefit (and not a strike against them) as long as you take appropriate measures.
Overwhelming our students with authentic materials can be easily avoided by choosing materials that are appropriate to the learner’s level. After all, you can’t expect a beginner in French to savor the full flavor of Shakespeare’s masterpieces in their French translations.
Our duty as teachers is to provide appropriate material that both engage and motivate our students. Doing this is not actually too difficult. For one thing, there’s something out there for everybody.
So for absolute beginners, for example, you can bring in materials targeted at children who are native speakers, such as children’s stories and children’s TV shows. That way the difficulty level is manageable, but still challenging enough to give an idea of how the language is really used.
The web has lots of children’s stories that are just right for the beginning language learner.
Check out these sites that have great selections:
You should bring in authentic materials as early as possible in order to contextualize your future lessons and make your students understand that “this is what actual Russian/Japanese/Chinese sounds like.”
They don’t need to have 100% comprehension, but you need to acclimatize them early on. This way, when they tackle instructional materials, they’ll understand that they’ve been altered for teaching purposes, and they’ll have a better idea of what to expect down the road.
2) They’re immersive by default
The next advantage of authentic materials is that they are…wait for it…authentic. Meaning, they represent the target language in its normal form. (Not slowed down, artificially loud and emphasized in all the right places—those characteristics that are the hallmarks of language learning audio material.)
Instructional materials break down the language into chewable bits and pieces—to make them digestible by learners—which is a good thing!
But authentic materials pick up where instructionals leave off by showing what those bits and pieces look and sound like when native speakers communicate with each other. They sound more natural, more “real.”
Using authentic materials (as opposed to instructional materials) can mean the difference between listening to a lively sports podcast and listening to a language lesson that repeats “Hola” 50 times in the first 10 minutes.
As a result, authentic materials create more of an immersive experience. And you probably already know how crucial immersion is to second language acquisition. (It’s right up there with opening one’s mouth.)
3) They’re relevant and interesting
Authentic materials get under the skin. They can hit a spot and make a connection. They can be timely and relevant to your students.
A Spanish language textbook, for example, might contain sample sentences like:
Mi tía Eula vive en España. (My Aunt Eula lives in Spain.)
¿Dónde está mi coche? (Where is my car?)
Meanwhile, your students are thinking, “Who is this Aunt Eula who lives in Spain, ’cause I don’t think I’ve met her?”
Or, “Unless I get my finances right, the question ¿Dónde está mi coche? will be all but meaningless to me.”
Authentic classroom materials, like a foreign language broadcast of record-breaking weather or posts about basketball, are much more relatable and relevant for students.
And since authentic materials don’t really align themselves with specific rules of grammar, you can go about choosing materials topically. You can cater to your students’ interests. Which topics perk up their attention? What’s hot and trending these days? Did you find a viral Youtube video made by Spanish teenagers? Did a politician make another scandalous boo-boo?
With authentic materials, you can play directly to your students’ natural inclinations.
4) They’re extremely plentiful
As teachers, we’re seriously spoilt for choice when it comes to authentic materials. Think about it. In the case of the Korean language, for example, there’s a whole country to pick from!
There’s a whole industry of Korean newspapers and a whole industry of TV shows, including soap operas of different genres that can tickle the fancy of your students. In fact, there’s a whole “Korean wave,” known as “Hallyu,” of thriving pop culture to ride on.
Authentic materials are everywhere. And we can pick from all the different formats: video, audio, print, apps, graphics, etc.
Authentic materials cover a variety of topics. Here are just a couple.
Entertainment and Culture
- French: You can’t go wrong with French Vogue. (Why not learn a language and get some fashion tips along the way?)
- German: “Euromaxx” is a German lifestyle show that features cultural episodes.
- Spanish: Your students can get their telenovela fix through dramafever.com. (Subtitles are there to help.)
- Chinese: For a dose of language and culture, check out CCTV, the main state-owned broadcaster from mainland China.
- Japanese: Manga comics have been embedded in Japanese culture for decades. Ikki-para.com contains some very engaging and creative titles.
- Korean: Get your students following their favorite K-pop stars on “KBS Music Bank”, a music show featuring hits and new releases.
Politics and Government
- French: Le Monde is one of the leading newspapers of France.
- German: Tagesschau is one of Germany’s most trusted purveyors of video news.
- Spanish: Have your students listen to Argentina’s Radio Mitre and dive into pressing social issues while learning a beautiful language.
- Chinese: Plug into Xinhua, China’s official press agency, to get the latest 411 on mainland China.
- Japanese: The NHK website informs native speakers of the goings-on of the nation. Have your students take a peek.
- Korean: Koreans look to Yonhap News Agency for their daily fill of news. You can’t get more authentic than that.
This is all yours for the taking. And there’s so much more!
5) They give students access to the big picture
Authentic materials make the language come alive. They take your students by the hand and tell them, “There’s a whole population of people out there who speak the language you’re trying to learn. Look how cool their culture is!”
Authentic materials tell your students they’re not wasting their time.
When students realize that Mandarin Chinese, for example, is not only a cool language but an eminently practical one, they gain more fire in their bellies. They now know that learning Chinese opens up the lines to more than a billion people and to a rich culture that has brought us fireworks, paper, the compass, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Jet Li, Jackie Chan, dumplings and Kung Pao chicken.
Through authentic materials, language becomes more than just a system of writing and a set of grammar rules. It becomes a lifestyle and a way of looking at things. Authentic materials reflect quirks, eccentricities and nuances that are clearly beyond the scope and purposes of any language textbook.
That’s why, in an ideal language classroom environment, authentic materials and instructional materials work in conjunction with each other to make sure all the bases are covered.
Add a great teacher to the mix and your students have got an unbeatable triumvirate.
So there you go, five reasons why you should start carting authentic materials into your classroom today!