A topic announced for a language teachers’ chat group has gone out:

How can we create authentic class experiences that tap into the 3 modes of communication?

Hmm…well, if we stick to the “accepted” definition of “authentic”, that means by native speakers, for native speakers. So I’m not seeing how we can manage that one, ever. Unless maybe the teacher happens to be native, and can communicate with another native, in front of the class. Maybe a hissed speakerphone argument with an angry target-language-speaking spouse?

If we loosen things up a bit to take “authentic” to mean simply “real”, then the question becomes how one is able to “create” something that will be “real”. Again, I’m not seeing it. Not only am I not seeing it, but I’m not seeing the reason to jump through the necessary hoops to make it happen (other than to satisfy a checkbox on someone’s evaluation sheet, perhaps). There is such a belief out there that doing something will make you able to do it. I have no doubt that students who acquire a bunch of language will be able to converse with people when they encounter them, assuming they are otherwise typical for their age. There’s nothing that different about chatting with someone once you get to France, or Spain, or wherever. I’d rather use my very limited classroom hours to put more language at their disposal. They will have lives after high school or college or wherever you have them.

There are a number of barriers to “authentic experiences” in the classroom. Maybe you have access to a bunch of native speakers, and those native speakers genuinely have something to communicate with your students about, AND those native speakers don’t speak English and so won’t drop into their better-than-your-students-target-language English (which is nothing but normal social psychology at work; two people conversing always default to their most situationally fluent shared language absent very strong motivations and extremely strong willpower).

But that’s quite rare.

Maybe the students could create something to help imagined target-language speakers if they were to come to the school or community? Surely that’s authentic. Well, I guess the concept could be, but the audience design piece is missing. (Notice that I am not even worrying about creating examples of the rather artificial divide ACTFL is pushing between “interpretive”, “interpersonal” and “presentational” modes, which I personally do not believe is worth the effort. Flavor of the month, to avoid what they really want to say: “We want more output!”) The whole thing reminds me painfully of the requirement to come up with “essential questions” that will “definitely” make kids acquire language better. “How do we describe our world?” Oh, please. Just input the language, okay?

I guess I don’t even have to repeat my feelings about authentic materials in novice-intermediate classes. If you want the students to dig out single words, sure. It’s interpretive, I guess. But I’d prefer something with a little more success in interpretation, since it is matching language with meaning that drives acquisition.

Notice a common thread with all those Authentic setups? They all involve students…outputting. Quite a lot. It’s very traditional, even if it’s dressed up in “authentic” and “modes” and all that. It’s seeking ways to set up pairwork (disguised by the fact that technology and international borders are often involved). Sure, at least one side of these pairs might speak the target language reasonably well. But unless the students have reached a rather advanced level, they are not really going to be able to participate meaningfully in this sort of thing. Unless you want to allow half English — which, in my experience actually living abroad for many years, is the real “authentic” communication that happens much of the time. People using a combination of languages to get their points across as best they can, but having a real point to get across in the first place.

Setting up an authentic experience in the classroom? Embedded reading leading to an authentic text. Because language still comes from input, not output. No matter how many checkboxes there are to tick.