Offensive “authentic resources”

In the language learning community, and particularly in the language teaching community, one of our hot-button topics is the idea of authentic resources. The definition and usage of “authentic resources” (authres) varies from person to person. The generally accepted definition is that authentic resources are realia (videos, stories, commercials, whatever) taken from your language/culture of choice and not from the textbook. Some people believe that you should teach only using authres. Others, like myself, believe that authres is just another tool in the toolbox. Then there are others on the complete other end of the spectrum who feel that authres is often not comprehensible input and therefore should be discarded entirely.

But this isn’t about the usage in the classroom. I’m very much live-and-let-live. If a person is happy with their program and feels like their educational tools are working for them, great. The part where they say, “there’s got to be a better way and I need help” – that’s when I step in.

This post is about something that’s been somewhat stuck in my craw ever since I became more active in the language educator community, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it until the lovely Carrie Toth made a post on her blog, Somewhere to Share, earlier this month. (You can go read it first. This is a blog. My words can wait.)

Her first point in that post gave a shape to my discomfort. Something that really bothers me about the hardcore authres-only no-teacher-created-materials position is that the argument discounts all non-native speaker teachers. I try not to take things personally in the teaching world, but this argument is like a suckerpunch. It demeans me. It undermines me. It dismisses all the work I put into learning my second language, especially considering I learned it in the US school system, where we learn bits and pieces of every single culture and dialect of Spanish in the world rather than just the single environment a native speaker grows up with. In English, I am a hardcore grammarian. I am one of those people that, when I learned Spanish, was terrified of sounding stupid. I couldn’t carry a conversation with even the most basic confidence until college because I didn’t want to mess up. It’s also tough for me because I don’t have the vocabulary in Spanish to express myself in precisely the same way I do in English. I am very sensitive to my ability to produce Spanish, even though I’m sure every other non-native speaker has the same fears that I do. Do I sound stupid? Do they know I’m really just making up this word and hoping it’s the right one? Are they going to care that I always put the accent in the wrong place when I say dif√≠cil? Probably not.

The problem with immediately discounting materials created by non-native speakers is that it basically says that my Spanish isn’t authentic. My Spanish isn’t real Spanish, it’s gringa Spanish. I’m just a faker. But when I speak it or write it, and native speakers can understand and respond, isn’t that authentic? The argument pokes at that little doubtful hole that is already large enough thanks to my own nitpicky brain; I don’t need other people to make that hole bigger – even though I am sure it’s unintentional 99% of the time. When the majority of language teachers in the US are non-native speakers of the languages they teach, making the argument that only native speakers can offer useful or meaningful teaching materials is a hurtful statement to non-native teachers as individuals and our programs as a whole. It is discourteous to the non-native speakers who spend their precious free time creating materials for everyone to use in the classroom, whether it’s as simple as a blog post or as involved as a novel.

In the end, this isn’t a call to arms to abandon the idea of using authres in teaching. It’s a call to recognize that non-native speakers can offer authentic language experiences too. Just something to consider the next time the authres argument comes up.

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3 thoughts on “Offensive “authentic resources”

  1. Thanks for this – I think your concern stems from the hard-line ‘my way or the high way’ that can often seem to appear. Sometimes the lack of space in tweet or the enthusiasm for a method seems to make the voices ‘sharper’ than they intend to be. I have been at the receiving end of tweets etc from those who can’t see any way but ‘theirs’ and quite frankly put me off of even looking at what they are espousing. I too use #authres – but where appropriate and, as I’ve blogged before, where it ensures an equality of access to text among all of my students. It is by far NOT the only tool in my toolbox and (gasp) I even use readings etc from textbooks. We are each finding our way in our teaching and what works for one doesn’t always fit or work with another. What I value is the collaboration between all language teachers who respect the decisions each of us make in our classroom. After all – we need to practice what we preach in classrooms: tolerance, respect for diversity, valuing the contribution of individuals and a willingness to risk. As I’ve said before – I am a teaching ‘mutt’ and proud of it!

    • I do think that the sharpness is, as you said, because there’s not enough space to add the parentheticals to our thoughts. I’m not calling out any specific person – it came up in #langchat last night but it’s a fairly common situation that we run into, and it’s hurting people’s feelings (including my own. I know, I’m an adult, but people won’t rethink their phrasing if nobody ever points out that it can be perceived as hurtful. And again, I am fairly certain that is not their intent.) But if we rephrase the argument as “I don’t write/use readings that are intentionally easy for my students” (because that’s really what the argument is about), then it’s no longer accidentally insulting non-native speakers, but it sounds like those teachers don’t care about their students’ ability to understand which isn’t true, either. If we argue from the side of “I want realistic culture to be present in my readings and you can only get that from someone in the culture,” then we also get into the sticky situation of imaginative vs. realistic situations. For example, I just finished my unit on giving directions – should I have my students use a map of Lincoln, where they will actually go and need to use directions, or should I use a map of Madrid, where there is Spanish culture involved though my students will probably never go there? Which will truly be more useful? The answer I picked was… why not both?

      So I agree wholeheartedly with your comment. I think there is room for all sorts of different techniques in teaching and by being overzealous about our pet techniques, it can turn off people who would otherwise be on board with the message.

  2. Pingback: #Teach2Teach Question 2 | Making Good Mistakes

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