Monday, 20 July 2015

Do women and men process language differently? Is it neuroscience or neurosexism?

Hello internet! 

I've been crazy busy the past few months and haven't been able to blog. I presented in Canada at TOSCON2015 and then presented a new talk at NATECLA. I've met some really nice people and had a great time but I'm hoping to get back to blogging now. And to start things off is a guest blog which I'm really excited about. 

Around the time of TESOL 2015 I heard about a talk called 'Neuroscience, learning styles and teacher training.' The title worried me as I thought it might be some kind of hymn to woo. Once I saw the slides dear reader, my heart leapt! the authors, Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries did something I'd been hoping to do. They repeat the Dekker 2012 study on neuromyths, but with EFL teachers!  

The study basically asks teachers whether or not they believe statements, like "we only use 10% of our brain" are true or false and the results are shocking! Around 93% of UK teachers believe that employing learning styles will lead to better results, despite evidence to contrary. (more info about their findings here

I wrote to Carol almost as soon as I heard about the research to congratulate her and we've been corresponding for months now. I asked her if she would consider writing a guest blog and she graciously agreed (of course, not before Mike Griffin got to her first *shakes fist*). So here it is! I'm exceedingly pleased to present Carol Lethaby writing about two topics which are of interest to me, gender and skepticism. 

Over to Carol...

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A big thank you to Russ Mayne, for inviting me to guest blog - in this post I plan to uphold the tradition of debunking popular myths that has become Russ’s trademark. I've chosen to focus on the idea of women’s and men’s brains and particularly the idea that the sexes supposedly process language differently.  This is an area of considerable significance to language teachers and one that I have been tackling in both talks and articles in recent years.

The popular view is that men process language only in the left hemisphere, while women use both their right and left hemispheres to process language, which supposedly makes women better at language. This idea has been repeated again and again in the literature until it has come to be accepted as fact, giving rise to books with such ludicrous titles as:  ‘Why men don’t iron’, ‘Why men never remember and women never forget’, ‘Why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps’ and my own personal favourite, ‘Why men don’t have a clue and women always need more shoes’

This video from the entertainer, Mark Gungor, illustrates beautifully the popular idea. There is, however, one problem with this account of things … that it’s not true. Now, you may argue that this is all harmless, and just a bit of fun, – ‘laugh your way to a better marriage’ is the name of Gungor’s website and books - even a great topic for discussion in the language teaching classroom; but is it really harmless if the notion that there are pre-determined differences between the way the sexes think and use language is reinforcing self-fulfilling gender stereotypes? This has been termed neurosexism by Cordelia Fine and others, and in Fine’s awesomely readable book ‘Delusions of Gender’, she really takes researchers to task for shoddy research and rubbish conclusions based on spurious findings:
“It is appalling to me that one can, apparently, say whatever drivel one likes about the male and female brain, and enjoy the pleasure of seeing it published in an reputable newspaper, changing a school’s educational policy, or becoming a bestseller.” (Fine, 2010:  174)
I mentioned some of the appalling, blatantly sexist titles above, but there are of course also books that are taken very seriously, based on the idea that female and male brains are very different - Why Gender Matters, Boys and Girls Learn Differently, The Female Brain, to name but a few.  Supposed inherent brain differences between girls and boys have been used as a reason to separate the sexes and to teach them differently.

So, where did the idea come from that men and women process language differently and how does it fit in with supposed brain differences? Like many a good neuromyth, there was originally some, albeit dubious, research base for this claim.  It started in 1995 when Shaywitz, Shaywitz et al published a study based on neuroimaging that showed eleven out of nineteen women’s brains with activation in the left and right hemisphere while the other eight women’s brains and nineteen men’s brains activated in the left hemisphere only, when doing one particular language task (concerned with rhyming words), out of the various tasks that they were asked to carry out.

From this study it was concluded that men and women deal with language differently, with men being more specialised in the left hemisphere and women being less lateralised, further generalised to suggest that men’s brains are more lateralised than women’s, inferring further that this accounts for female and male cognition differences (nicely coinciding with already accepted gender stereotypes (see Gungor above)).

Now, there are several problems with making this conclusion from the study.

Firstly, this is an example of what scientists call ‘reverse inference’ – that is drawing conclusions about what and how people think based on the physical brain.  Fine has no patience for this and she warns of the dangers of drawing conclusions about how we think based on neuroscientific data. “Inferring a psychological state from brain activity … is fraught with peril.” (2010: 151)  Brain scientists warn against making conclusions about cognition based on brain activation seen during imaging and this is precisely what the Shaywitz et al study does.

Secondly, this is a very small study (38 people) and does not address the fact that, in the other language tasks participants were asked to perform, there were no significant differences between male and female participants, nor the fact that not all women displayed the bilateral activation that was so interesting to scientists.

Note too, that all participants were adults, so how can we conclude from this that this is a hard-wired female-male difference?  As neurobiologist, Lise Eliot, points out, nearly all the evidence is based on the adult brain – “Who’s to say that such differences [in the brain] are caused by nature and not by learning?” (Eliot, 2009: 9).  Brain scientists point to gender differences in brain structure being related to the complex interrelationship between genetic factors, our experiences and our biology, in other words, what we do and what happens to us affects what our brain looks like.  “Experience can alter sex differences in brain structure” (2004:  211) says Melissa Hines, a neuroscientific researcher who has been looking at the question of gender and the brain for over 35 years.  As educators, doesn't it seem more helpful to look at how gendering in the classroom may contribute to learning differences as well as how education can remediate those differences?

Thirdly, and most importantly, neuroscientific studies done since have not shown the sex differences in language processing found in the Shaywitz study.  It has been found that most women and most men process language in the left hemisphere of the brain and that both sexes show a tremendous amount of interconnectivity between the hemispheres.  After carrying out a meta-analysis of functional imaging of sex differences, Sommer et al (2004) conclude:
“In summary, this meta-analysis found no significant sex difference in functional language lateralization in a large sample of 377 men and 442 women. Thus, the hypothesis that language functions are generally presented more bilaterally in women than in men is not supported. This suggests that language lateralization is unlikely to underlie sex differences in cognition, and their biological basis remains elusive.”
So why haven't we heard more about Sommer’s study (and others like it) saying there is no support for innate differences between how the sexes process language? Why does the popular media continue to promote the idea that male and female brains are “completely different”?  Unfortunately studies that don’t show differences between the sexes are often underreported.  Hines talks about this problem as well as the converse “overreporting of positive results” (2004: 6).  To address this issue, Janet Hyde 2005 proposed the ‘Gender Similarities Hypothesis’ after conducting a meta-analysis of 46 meta-analyses of studies concerned with sex differences. She sums up like this:
“It is time to consider the costs of overinflated claims of gender differences.  Arguably, they cause harm in numerous realms, including women’s opportunities in the workplace, couple conflict and communication, and analyses of self-esteem problems among adolescents.  Most important, these claims are not consistent with the scientific data. [my emphasis]” (Hyde, 2005:  590)
This focus on looking for sex differences continues to this day.  In 2013 there was a study splashed all over the newspapers including this headline in the Mail Online “Men's and women's brains: the truth! As research proves the sexes' brains ARE wired differently, why women's are cleverer ounce for ounce - and men can't read female feelings

Cordelia Fine responds  by pointing out that 1) the conclusions don’t take into consideration differences between larger and smaller brains (they have different structures because of size - male brains tend to be larger because men tend to be larger and larger brains are needed to control larger bodies), 2) there’s no discussion of the plasticity of the brain and the effect of our experiences on our neural structure (see above)  and 3) the study is full of reverse inference based on legitimising tired stereotypes (you can see Fine’s full response to the study here).   But the damage has already been done and the study is quoted as ‘proving’ that female-male differences are hard-wired when in reality it shows no such thing!

Peddling sex differences in brain function is clearly ‘sexy’ and sometimes lucrative, and neuroscience is a very tempting way to try to explain differences between the sexes. Isn't it time, though, that we got away from this obsession with looking for hard-wired differences between the sexes and considered the part that our experiences and especially education, play in female and male disparities?  Given the potentially harmful nature of neurosexism, shouldn't we be more critical and look more closely at what the studies should, can and do tell us, rather than merely accepting the narrative that confirms our cliché-ridden beliefs and sells yet more books and toys?


References

Fine, C (2010) Delusions of gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. New York: W. W. Norton.
Hines, M (2004) Brain gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hyde, J S (2005) The gender similarities hypothesis’ American Psychologist, Vol 60 (6), Sep 2005, pp581-592
Lethaby, C (2014) ‘Children, gender and learning’ in Primary Methodology Handbook:  Practical ideas for ELT Richmond Publishing
Sommer, I et al (2004) Do women really have more bilateral language representation than men? A meta-analysis of functional imaging studies Brain, 127, 1845–1852


Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The myth of neat histories

Pure evil!
You've probably heara version of this story of before.

A long long time ago in a place called the 1950s there lived an evil wizard called 'Skinner' who lived in a castle with his many adherents. Skinner was a cruel man who practised a version of dark sorcery called 'behaviourism' which generally involve torturing animals and turning men into machines all in the name of science. His worst torture device was the Skinner box into which he put all manner of creatures including his own children. 

Skinner believed that people were really just machines and so if you wanted some kind of response from them all you needed was stimulus. Something like an electric shock would probably do the trick. 

Poor misguided TEFL teachers were caught in the hypnotic gaze of Skinner and developed a ridiculous  style of teaching called the Audio-lingual method. This involved forcing students to sit in a classroom listening to recordings of conversations for hours on end all the while repeating  mantras like so many zombies. Skinner enjoyed this depraved form of torture. In fact it helped him stay young.


One day, a brave young hero called Noam appeared and with a swish of his sword of logic he defeated the evil Skinner. Chomsky showed that language was innate and that people didn't have to be robots. On this day pair work was born and since language was innate no one needed to teach grammar anymore. Native speaker teachers everywhere rejoiced. 

OK I'm exaggerating but this is the way the history of these events often seems to be presented. For example:

...Behavioralist accounts of language learning became popular in the 1920s and 1930s... (64) In Behaviorist theory, conditioning is the result of stimulus response and reinforcement (51)...In a book called verbal behavior, the psychologist Bernard [sic] Skinner suggested that much the same pattern happens in language learning (52)...Behaviorism was directly responsible for audiolingualism (52)" (Harmer 2007)

And Harmer is by no means alone. Wherever you look, from Richards and Rogers, Ellis or Lightbown and Spada, the story is made up of more or less the same building blocks. Behaviourism? check,  lab animals? check, habit-formation? check,   Skinner? check, Chomsky? check? The pattern of events is clear and well-known by most teachers, but is it true? 

Something about the story niggles and my own personal dislike (not very evidence-based) of everything Chomskyan led me on a journey into the odd world of one of the most famous academic debates in history. Unfortunately this project continues to sprawl horribly out of control but I would like to share with you a few interesting things I've managed to find out. So here are the top 5 myths and misconceptions about the infamous Chomsky/Skinner debate and its aftermath:


1. Chomsky's review was a forensic deconstruction of Skinner's verbal behaviour 

Well...it was an attempt deconstruction of 'something' - though it wasn't Skinner's book Verbal Behaviour. In fact all the evidence suggests Chomsky either didn't read Verbal Behaviour or didn't understand it. The reason we can make this assumption is that Chomsky makes several mistakes in his review, attributing, for example, classical behaviourist beliefs to Skinner, whereas Skinner wrote about 'operant condition' which was a different beast altogether. 

MacCorquodale, in a comprehensive review, notes, that Chomsky's review didn't receive a reply from Skinner or any other psychologist, not because they were 'defeated' but rather because "...Chomsky’s actual target is only about one-half Skinner, with the rest a mixture of odds and ends of other behaviourism and some other fancies of vague origin." Chomsky's review has also been criticised for misquoting Skinner and taking quotes out of context. Skinner himself said of the review:
let me tell you about Chomsky...I published Verbal Behaviour in 1957, in 1958 I received a  55 page type-written review by someone whom I had never heard of named Noam Chomsky. I read half a dozen pages, and saw that he had missed the point of my book and read no further. (see the second video 5:50)
Also interesting is that most of the other reviews of verbal behaviour at the time were positive. This by itself doesn't mean Chomsky was wrong, but it might make us pause for thought. 

And rather than 'forensic', Chomsky's review was just really really mean. MacCorquodale, described the review as "ungenerous to a fault; condescending, unforgiving, obtuse, and ill-humoured". I urge you to read a few pages and see what you think. I'm not one to be overly concerned with comments about the 'tone' of someone's argument, but Chomsky actually seems to be personally offended by Skinner's book. Skinner often commented that he couldn't understand why Chomsky seemed so angry. A sample of the language can be seen in  Virues-Ortega 2006's review:
perfectly useless,” “tautology,” “vacuous,” “looseness of the term,” “entirely pointless,” “empty,” “no explanatory force,” “paraphrase,” “serious delusion,” “full vagueness,” “no conceivable interest,” “quite empty,” “notion,” “no clear content,” “cover term,” “pointless,” “quite false,” “said nothing of any significance,” “play-acting at science” (from )
The tone isn't so much the problem as the chilling effect this kind of academic writing can have on others. When a writer's work is discussed in such a dismissive tone it can give the impression to the uninitiated that the matter is settled, -which in this case, was very far from the truth. 

2. Skinner's Behaviourism led to Audiolingualism 

This is a tricky fish to fry. In order to answer this you need to be able to authoritatively identify Skinner's behaviourism, Audiolingualism and then the link between them. First we should examine the timeline. Skinner was born in 1905 and published Verbal Behaviour in 1957. Chomsky's review came out in 1959. The first mentions of the audiolingual approach were in the mid 1950s. But it starts to really get mentioned in the early 1960s. This would mean that ALM became popular AFTER Chomsky's review. 

Another problem is that there seems to be a lot of confusion about what the audiolingual method actually was. When reading Lado's 1964 book entitled 'language teaching: a scientific approach', ALM is describe simply as the approach where (in contrast to grammar translation) speaking and listening are taught first. Yet others, like Cummins and Davidson conflate the audiolingual approach and the 'scientific approach'. 

things get more confusing as many others like Hall (here) and Lacorte suggest that ALM was synonymous with or grew from 'the army method' in 1945 (certainly before both Verbal Behaviour and Chomsky's review). While Coady and Huckin suggest that ALM is also known as 'the structural approach' by those who created it. They pin this honour on Fries in 1945. And Harmer, suggests it came from the Direct Method (p.64) There are also mentions of contrastive analysis being an important component by some authors while not being mentioned at all by others. 

As  Peter Castagnaro* notes neither Brookes, Fries or Lado (three names often associated with ALM) make much mention of Skinner at all in any of their books. True they use language associated with stimulus and response, -but why could this not  be inspired by Pavlov, rather than Skinner? (Harmer does link to earlier behaviourists Watson and Raynor). The only person who actually draws a direct link between Skinner and ALM was a critic of ALM, Wilga Rivers in "the psychologist and the foreign language teacher" and Castagnaro believes that Rivers' book is the cause of much misunderstanding, noting that it was Rivers who "saddled Skinner with being ALM’s theoretical parent"(523).

So, if we believe the literature on ALM the approach came from the Army Method, the Structural Approach, Contrastive Analysis or the Direct Method and was big in the 40s-50s (lightbown and Spada), or the 50s-60s (Richards & Rogers, Thornbury). It may or may not have been based on a book written in 1957 and then undone by a review written in 1959...even though, according to Richards and Rogers, the term Audiolingualism wasn't invented until 1964 -that's five years after Chomsky's review. Am I the only one feeling confused? 

*More than anyone else Peter Castagnaro (thanks to Harmer for this link) has attempted to unweave the knotted misunderstandings surrounding ALM. I would direct anyone to read his article for a much more concise examination of this topic.


3. Chomsky's review lead to the death of Audiolingualism 

In his ELTJ review of reviews, Alan Maley describes Chomsky's review as 'destructive' and one that 'changed the course of events'. Now while it is undeniable that Chomsky's review was influential and made his name, did Chomsky kill off Audiolingualism? 

After reading the previous section it becomes clear that this is unlikely. Not only does the timeline not work, but simply put methods and approaches are fashions and as such aren't killed off by logic of any kind. If methods are killed off, who killed off the silent way and suggestopedia? 


Almost certainly ALM just withered on the vine. In education, as Swan among others has noted, fashions rule and these fashions are often polar opposites. With Grammar translation reading and writing was paramount. Next came methods that banned reading and writing and translation of any kind. That an approach where people mechanically practiced  artificial sentences while worrying greatly about making mistakes should be replaced by an approach which allowed free 'authentic' conversation with little care for errors, should surprise no one at all. 

It's also difficult to properly perform an autopsy on the undead. As authors, like Scrivener note, many of the the techniques of 'ALM' "continue to have a strong influence over many classrooms"(38)

4. Chomsky's review led to the death of Behaviorism

Again, not true, Behaviorism carried on and continues to this day( see herehere and here). Skinners' book still sells well (better actually than Chomsky's response) and Skinner is considered one of the most important figures in psychology

Behaviorism is successful, despite the image problem, precisely because it works. It works in treating autistic children and if you've ever had any kind of therapy, it's likely it was CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) which is another.

5. Chomsky's new linguistic paradigm is accepted by most linguists today

Absolutely not. Chomsky ideas are accepted by few. The idea of Universal Grammar has been shown to be a myth, the Poverty of Stimulus argument has been rejected, and could only apply to syntax anyway. Vocabulary development in children has clearly been shown to be entirely affected by 'stimulus'. the generative grammar paradigm he created has been rewritten several times by the Chomsky himself in a failed attempt to salvage it. 

A recent scathing review by Behme describes Chomsky as not seriously engaging with criticism, misrepresenting the work of others and providing little or no evidence for his claims. She highlights, as many others have, his tendency to "[ridicule] the works of others". These claims are not surprising since they are pretty much the same claims made about his attack on Skinner 50 years earlier. 

Behme also lists Chomsky's other tactics, such as claiming his opponents are 'irrational' or have mental issues. This may seem shocking until we read papers by his former student Paul Postals who writes “After many years, I came to the conclusion that everything he says is false. He will lie just for the fun of it...It was like playing chess with extra pieces. It was all fake.” Postal also suggests Chomsky has written "the most irresponsible passage ever written by a linguist in the entire history of linguistics". 

An interesting note for all your corpus fans out there is that Chomsky has been a consistent critic of Corpus Linguistics considering them pointless and the data worthless. Rather, he suggests, Native Speakers should just sit around and think up examples: 

Chomsky: the verb 'perform' cannot be used with mass word objects: one can perform a task, but one cannot perform a labour.
Hatcher: How do you know, if you don’t use a corpus and have not studied the verb perform?
Chomsky: How do I know? Because I am a native speaker of the English language. (source)
One can 'perform magic', of course. This extract I think sums up Chomsky perfectly; unassailable arrogance.

Reality is not the neat history presented in so many EFL histories. In truth, almost every chain in the link is broken. Skinner wasn't the behaviorist he's painted as, he didn't inspire audiolingualism -whatever that is, and he wasn't overthrown by Chomsky, who isn't quite the 'hero' we might imagine. We should not be surprised that the facts about Skinner are often wrong in ELT as he is often misunderstood by psychologists too

As Hunter and Smith note ELT tend to package complex history into convenient bundles. This packaging may make digestion easier but it often involves cutting the corners off to make things fit. Sometimes the facts are fudged to give us a pleasing narrative where 'traditional' (read: dull and wrong) methods are superseded by all the great stuff we're doing these days. It's a nice story to tell ourselves but reality is more messy. 








Monday, 9 February 2015

What we talk about when we talk about Authenticity


While listening to the TEFLology Podcast I happened to hear a discussion on authenticity with guest Richard Pinner. I don't know Richard but I liked what he had to say. I asked him if he'd consider doing a guest post and he agreed! The result is the rather excellent post below. :) 

Introduction

At the end of 2014, I was lucky enough to be invited on tothe TEFLology Podcast to discuss authenticity. The reason I was asked is that I am doing a PhD in which I am (attempting) to look at the connection between authenticity and motivation. I am also currently working on a book about authenticity which will be available next year (all being well).  

Authenticity in language teaching is a thorny issue, and especially in English language teaching because of the nature of English’s use worldwide as an international language, with many diverse varieties. What do you understand by the term authenticity? For most language teachers, the word authentic is part of our daily vocabulary. It is stamped onto the backs of textbooks, it is mentioned when describing a particularly motivating task, and it is often used alongside other words like motivation and interest. So, just what do we talk about when we talk about authenticity?

Shadow-boxing with the definition

In his now famous article, Michael Breen (1985) identified that language teachers are ‘continually concerned with four types of authenticity’, which he summarise as:

  • 1.       Authenticity of the texts which we may use as input data for our learners.
  • 2.       Authenticity of the learners' own interpretations of such texts.
  • 3.       Authenticity of tasks conducive to language learning.


  • 4.       Authenticity of the actual social situation of the language classroom.



Following Breen, I created a visualisation of the domains of authenticity, mainly just because I like diagrams. 

Figure 1: The domains of authenticity

 This is basically what Breen was talking about, and as one can see there is a lot of overlap and yet authenticity can relate to four very different aspects of the work we do in the language classroom. What is fundamentally important here, is that a teacher could bring in an example of a so-called ‘authentic’ text and use it in a way which is not authentic. For example, a teacher could bring an English language newspaper to class and tell her students read the text and underline every instance of the present perfect aspect or passive tense, then get them to copy each sentence out into their notebooks. Is this authentic? Although for many people the newspaper is a classic example of an authentic text, what is happening in this class is anything but authentic language learning.

Authentic materials are often defined as something not specifically designed for language learning, or “language where no concessions are made to foreign speakers” (Harmer, 2008, p. 273). In the Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics, the definition of authenticity is covered in a short entry, and boils down to materials “not originally developed for pedagogical purposes” (Richards & Schmidt, 2013, p. 43). Are there any problems with this definition? When I speak with other teachers, this is generally the definition they come up with, unless we are in the midst of a particularly philosophical discussion, which, don’t worry, I will come to shortly. 

Henry Widdowson is one of the biggest names associated with the authenticity debate, and I had the honour of meeting him in Tokyo last year in November 2014. Widdowson made the famous distinction between materials which are authentic and materials which are genuine (1978). Basically, genuineness relates to an absolute property of the text, in other words realia or some product of the target language community like a train timetable or the aforementioned ‘classic’ newspaper. Authenticity, however, is relative to the way the learners engage with the material and their relationship to it. Hung and Victor Chen (2007, p. 149) have also discussed this, problematizing the act of taking something out of one context and bringing it into another (the classroom) expecting its function and authenticity to remain the same. They call this extrapolation techniques, which they criticise heavily for missing the wood for the trees. In other words, simply taking a newspaper out of an English speaking context quite often means you leave the real reason for interacting with it behind, which seriously impairs its authenticity. Another very big problem with this definition is that it seems to advocate the dreaded ‘native speaker’ idea, which as we all know is an emotive argument that has been discussed widely in recent years, particularly with the rise of English as a Lingua Franca and Global English.  When Widdowson made his arguments it was during the rise of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), and as part of this methodology there was an explosion in the debate around authenticity. In particular, people writing about authenticity wanted to distance the concept from the evil ‘native speaker’ definition. But what about learning aims? What about the student’s needs? How was the debate made relevant to the actual practice of teaching? 

In his famous and fascinating paper, Suresh Canagarajah (1993) discusses the way students in Sri Lanka were not only ambiguous towards, but at times detached from the content of their prescribed textbooks, based on American Kernel Lessons. The students had trouble connecting the reality presented in the textbooks with their own reality, which was markedly different to say the least. Canagarajah notes that some students’ textbooks contained vulgar doodles, which he thought could perhaps have been “aimed at insulting the English instructors, or the publishers of the textbook, or the U.S. characters represented” (1993, p. 614). This connects strongly with What  Leo van Lier (1996) calls authentication; the idea that learners have to make the materials authentic by engaging with it in some way on an individual level. Van Lier’s reasoning is that something can’t be authentic for everyone at the same time, but the important thing is to try and get that balance. 

As I think this article has already shown, the concept of authenticity is not easy to define. Alex Gilmore, in his State-of-the-Art paper identified as many as eight inter-related definitions, which were:                            
  
                                I.            the language produced by native speakers for native speakers in a particular language community
                              II.            the language produced by a real speaker/writer for a real audience, conveying a real message (as in, not contrived but having a genuine purpose, following Morrow, 1977)
                            III.            the qualities bestowed on a text by the receiver, in that it is not seen as something already in a text itself, but is how the reader/listener perceives it)
                            IV.            the interaction between students and teachers and is a “personal process of engagement” (van Lier, 1996, p. 128)
                              V.            the types of task chosen
                            VI.            the social situation of the classroom
                          VII.            authenticity as it relates to assessment and the Target Language Use Domain (Bachman & Palmer, 1996)

                        VIII.            culture, and the ability to behave or think like a target language group in order to be validated by them

  Adapted from Gilmore (2007, p. 98)

In order to simplify these definitions I have developed a diagram to show how they overlap and contradict each other. I will use this diagram later as the basis for a continuum of authenticity in language learning.  

Figure 2: Summary of Gilmore's Eight inter-related definitions of authenticity


Another way of thinking about authenticity is from a wider perspective, something that encompasses not only the materials being used and the tasks set to engage with them, but also the people in the classroom and the social context of the target language. To better illustrate this, I proposed that authenticity be seen as something like a continuum, with both social and contextual axes (Pinner, 2014b)


The vertical axis represents relevance to the user of the language or the individual, which in most cases will be the learner although it could also be the teacher when selecting materials. The horizontal lines represent the context in which the language is used. Using this continuum, materials, tasks and language in use can be evaluated according to relevance and context without the danger of relying on a pre-defined notion of culture or falling back into “extrapolation approaches”.

As you can see, although the word Authenticity is used all the time in staff rooms and to sell textbooks, if we actually drill down into it we get into very boggy ground.

Dogme ELT and Authenticity (and motivation)

Most readers will probably be familiar with the idea of Dogme ELT, which basically tries to get away from “the prevailing culture of mass-produced, shrink-wrapped lessons, delivered in an anodyne in-flight magazine style” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2003). This movement in ELT has strong connotations for authentic language teaching and also provides a very real connection between authenticity and motivation.

In essence, the Dogme approach places a premium on conversational interaction among teacher and learners where communication is authentic and learner-driven rather than pedagogically contrived and controlled by the teacher. Choice of learning content and materials is thus shaped by students’ own preferred interests and agendas, and language development emerges through the scaffolded dialogic interactions among learners and the teacher. Relevant to our concerns here is the value Dogme places on students’ own voices and identities in these conversational interactions. (Ushioda 2011, p. 205)

In essence, Ushioda is noting that Dogme is both authentic and potentially motivating because it places the emphasis on the learners as people. 

If we take a moment to see where we are with the issue of authenticity, we will realise that the definition of authenticity, although a tangle of concepts and resistant to a single definition, what it seems to be pushing at is essentially something very practical. If something is going to be authentic, it needs to be relevant to the learners and it needs to be able to help them speak in real (as in not contrived) situations. In other words, when they step out of the classroom, what they did in the classroom should have prepared them to speak and understand the target language. In order to achieve this, what they do in the classroom has to be as authentic as possible, and by implication it needs to be engaging. Essentially, authentic materials should be motivating materials.

Why should we care about any of this though, can’t we just get on with it?

I would like to bring this long discussion back to the practical realm by sharing an example from my own teaching. One very successful example of an authentic task comes from a class I taught in a Japanese University in 2011. The class was entitled Discussions on Contemporary Topics which meant I could teach more or less anything. The students expected “just another course about news and current affairs” but what we ended up doing was trying to make the world a slightly better place. The final assessment was a group video project and this is what one group produced for their final piece.


 
It is obvious from watching this video that what the students did here was highly authentic, in that it was personal and achieved something real. This was all their own idea as well, I just told them to make a video and offered suggestions here and there. 

Authenticity is a good thing. It sounds like a good thing and by association, anything labelled as inauthentic must be bad. However, I think that the word authenticity is complicit with many of the problems in English language teaching. Authenticity is still too often defined in a way which, either directly or indirectly, infers the privilege of the native speaker (Pinner, 2014a, 2014b). However, if we can get away from that, authenticity can be a powerful concept to empower both learners and teachers, because authenticity connects the individual learner to the content used for learning. 

So, in summary ‘keep it real’.


References

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