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 difícil? 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.