Authentic Language Learning

Many people have the wrong idea about language, but rather than go into that, here’s a link to Stories & Soliloquies’ excellent post on the subject. 

Ok, I’m assuming you read her article, so let’s continue 🙂

If we treat language as verbal behavior that varies by context and is intended to maximize a payoff in that context, then how can ESL teaching be informed by this view?  Some guidelines are…

  • Teach a topic (context)
  • Use authentic language (language as it’s really used)
  • Have students DO things that require the relevant language

For instance, if many students are interested in nutrition, then provide nutrition articles explaining how to read and understand nutrition labels.  Then do activities in which students need to use nutrition labels to choose foods that fit particular nutritional needs (here is an interesting example).  Having students DO things with the language they acquire focuses on a deeper understanding of the language in question.

Another example is giving directions.  Use a map info gap exercise so students can practice telling other students how to get to places on a map.  This would train some prepositions of place in an authentic context and give students practice in producing authentic language.

Teaching contextually can allow us to encounter things (e.g.: idioms like “hang a left”) that we may otherwise miss.  Further, these contextual, authentic exercises can still focus on good form.  There’s no reason students cannot be told to use restrictive forms; what makes language use authentic is that it’s used to accomplish a task, rather than used for its own sake. Here’s an example of an info gap with a highly restricted form that is still is an example of authentic language use.

Also, while we don’t neglect grammar, we stress the functional aspects of language and give idioms pride of place.  For instance, I wouldn’t try to parse “hang a left” but would present it as an “atomic” vocabulary unit.  This is The Lexical Approach.

In short, if we look at language as a goal-oriented verbal behavior designed to accomplish things, our approach to teaching language can be radically transformed.  The result is more engaging and relevant material for our students.


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