Introduction

AUTHENTICITY IN FL TEACHING

 

        Every prospective FL teacher has, at some time during his training, read, discussed, or written about the topic of first- vs. second-language acquisitionš. It is a recurrent concern, a chronic compulsion. It is the most frequent question I am asked by teachers and school administrators involved in language training. I suppose the question has the fascination it does because of the painful contrast, painful to both teacher and learner, between the seeming effortlessness, and inevitability, with which a child learns the language of his parents and sub-culture, on the one hand, and on the other, the evident difficulty, with almost hopeless befuddlement for so many, of acquiring a second language in the classroom. The difference is almost patho–logical in its intensity and ironic twist: the former can hardly be prevented, the latter can hardly be brought about.

       

        The image of pathology is, I believe, quite apt. Just as in the case of a child raised in an artificial environment, cut off from ordinary human contact, except through in–direct means (e.g., intercom system, closed-circuit T.V., mechanical dispensing of food, etc.), one would indeed grow up as a pathological individual. The school is a spe–cial, non-ordinary, artificial setting, and language learning in the classroom remains a special, non-ordinary, artificial exercise. It lacks authenticity.

       

        If language use in the home and the community were not functional for communicative purposes, it too, would lack authenticity and it is doubtful that first-language learning would take place for all but a few exceptionally motivated individuals, the artists, the poets, the intellec–tually compulsive and gifted. The artificial learning of a natural human language constitutes either a pathology or a highly specialized, exceptional, non-ordinary activity. In either case, only a minute proportion of the general population can be reasonably expected to succeed at it.

       

        The main question I‚d like to raise in this Introduction is whether it is possible to create authenticity in second-language teaching in the classroom. It is this question that I raised with Sandra Savignon when she first came to me to ask whether I would serve as her doctoral-dissertation director at the University of Illinois. This book, which represents the fruits of her painstaking efforts, goes a long way towards answering that question in the affirmative.

       

        By „authenticity in language teachingš I do not mean anything esoteric or particularly complicated. I merely mean to raise the rather straightforward question about any particular verbal interchange that occurs in the class–room whether it is „for realš or „pretendš. Typical lan–guage teaching activities such as pattern practice, struc–tured dialogues, question-answer exchanges, repetitions and rehearsals, corrections, tests, assignments, and the like are all „pretendš language learning activities. These occur minimally, if at all, in natural language acquisition settings, first or second. A simulated dialogue is a simulationųa self-evident truth whose implications language teachers often overlook. When the teacher asks questions in the language classųWhat‚s your name? What did Mr. Jones say? What is the past tense of „he says thatš? etc.ųit is understood by all concerned that the purpose of the ques–tion is not to satisfy the teacher‚s need to obtain the re–quested information but rather to provide an instructional opportunity for rehearsing certain language usage pat–terns. This is surely obvious. What is usually missed about this point are the serious implications of this fact for the language learning process. Let me elaborate.

       

        Let us consider, first, some psychological implications. The consequences of a communication breakdown in a conversational transaction that occurs in a naturalistic, realš setting and in an artificial classroom setting are not commensurate; they are of an entirely different order of magnitude for the individual participant. In one case, the very existence of an individual as a social being is threat–ened; in the other case, no greater catastrophe is at stake than a grade, if that much. Even in the (nowadays) rare case where a student attaches great significance to his grades, he has available adequate defense mechanisms for rationalizing failure in a foreign-language course ų„It‚s boringš; „The teacher is no goodš; „I have no aptitude for languagesš, etc.ųwithout suffering the pain and an–guish that accompanies the realization of an inability to communicate with people in his everyday life course. Similarly, the positive consequences of success in the language course are not commensurate with the joy, the satisfaction, the ecstasy that comes from real interpersonal encounters. In short, the extrinsic motivation required to achieve the little victories of ersatz communication in the foreign-language classroom pales in importance in com–parison with the dynamo of intrinsic motivation that hinges upon achieving the major victories of ordinary conversa–tional transactions in real life settings. The acquisition of communicative competence in real life settings is no less a formidable accomplishment because of its universality. If you remove the momentous implications of the con–sequences of success and failure, its acquisition becomes improbable. The labor involved becomes prohibitive.

       

        So much for the psychological implications. But there is an additional, no less handicapping, consequence of dis–mantling the authenticity of language training. The ability to use a language for communicative purposes in ordinary conversational settings is not visibly related to an individual‚s smattering of knowledge about language as a system knowledge that is the product of language őstudy.‚ I am not referring merely to the obvious fact that őpractice‚ is necessary to achieve fluency and automaticity in phonetic output (as well as in pattern recognition of others‚ fluent speech). I have in mind the nature of this practice: is the practice of speech in artificial settings or is it the practice of real conversational transactions? Language use refers to what people do with words and utterances, and what people do with utterances in a simulated setting is no what people do with utterances in a real life setting. Language use is a normative concept. There are rules for conversational transactions and these rules are given by the interpersonal practices of a speech community. One may learn about these rules in the classroom to some extent one may attempt to simulate some of the conditions that occur in the speech community, but it is evident that both because of a lack of systematic knowledge about conversa–tional events and because of the difficulty of reproducing real life settings, the efficiency of such training must, for the moment, remain quite low. Thus, the problem remains, that of providing the relevant kind of practice for conversa–tional transactions in the classroom.

       

        Dr. Savignon‚s work, as reported in this volume, is worthy of attention because it attempts to come to grips with both sorts of considerations that I mentioned, the psy–chological implications of the artificiality of the language classroom and the nature of the practice afforded the lan–guage learner. It would be naive to suppose that the classes she conducted in an elementary French course at the Uni–versity of Illinois, some of which I personally attended were indeed reproductions of real life settings. Perhaps such a possibility is excluded by the inherent limitations of teaching French within the four walls of a building in a small Midwestern university town. But there are features to the approach she has taken which nevertheless contain elements of reality, which are genuine and authentic, no simulations. It is these elements, rather than the specific communication exercises she describes, that should be identified and saved for further explorations in language teaching. Let me identify some of these, as I have observed them during those sessions in which I was a participant.

           

            In addition to the students, all of whom were beginners, there were present in the classroom four fluent speakers of French: Professor Savignon, myself, and two (sometimes three) advanced students of French who had had some residency in France in connection with their language training program at Illinois. We participated in unre–hearsed French conversational transactions. The social interactional context, though a classroom, was no more artificial, no less authentic than what it would have been had we met in the waiting room of the American Express Office in Paris, or the hotel lobby down the block, or, even, the terrace of the restaurant across the street. The physical environment was different, the clatter of conversations of the Parisians and the tourists were absent, the „policemanš was a fake, but what did remain retained some authentic elements of real conversations: the rapid-fire interchange of normal speech, the necessity to get some information across, the psychological components of real conversa–tionsųthe hesitancies, the topic based on real, not made-up experiences of the speakers, the necessity to keep the conversation going, the absence of the intrusive disrup–tions of corrections, the risk-taking involved in saying something for which one is accountable, the unpredicta–bility of the identity of the next speaker in the conversa–tional stream, the unexpected humor, the flatteries, the compliments, the sex appeal, the embarrassments and the blushing, the one-upmanship, the realities of the personal and the interpersonal encounter. There was no pretense that what was going on was anything but what it was: a group of young Americans (myself excluded!) conversing with each other, some in French exclusively, some in half French and three-quarters English. In my over–enthusiastic moments, I felt that if only we had had more time, even modestly so, four, five hours a week instead of one, the desired outcome would have been as inevitable as the child‚s learning a language at home, not unpainfully, yet gloriously. As it was, with one hour a week over a short semester, the results were yet surprising, so encouraging, so promising, as the reader can judge for himself on the basis of the results of the carefully administered communicative competence tests described in the report.

       

        There is nothing in the approach outlined in this work that is so esoteric or specialized or difficult that any competent foreign-language teacher could not adopt some c all of its features and amplify upon according to his own style. The difficulties that are likely to arise are psychological in nature rather than instructional, as ordinarily understood. Though the teaching profession pays lip service to the importance of the personal interaction between] pupil and professor, in practice, the daily vicissitudes c classroom management, instructional technology and pro gram sequencing, not to mention the latest as yet in estimable consequences of the requirements of objective „accountabilityš, effectively counteract the best intention of good will for many a dedicated teacher, and help tip the balance, in a decisive way, in favor of impersonality, o non-authenticity, of transactions based on role-prescribe patterns of behavior in the classroom. Perhaps one way the teacher can develop counter pressures to being buried under the weight of Para-instructional activities and requirements is to insist on the validity and desirability o goal-oriented criterion measures based on practical communicative performance rather than on theoretical (an in my view, impractical) considerations of a linguistic sort as typified by the „standardš language tests or class room examinations based on similar principles. A major difficulty in this respect is the general unavailability of „publicš tests of communicative performance. I say „public‚ because, as a matter of fact, communicative performance tests do exist, although they are more usual in the TESOL field than in FL education. In my view, the language testing field represents today the most reactionary wing in F] education. Under the guise of claims to objectivity a comparability, it exercises a shackling influence upon the teacher, the student, and school administrative personnel concerned with preparation for college entrance require–ments. This is an inadmissible price to pay for the con–venience of selection procedures. It is self-defeating and destructive. It must be fought with a vigorous consci–entiousness. The communicative competence tests out–lined in this work appear adequate from a purely practical point of view. No special expertise is required in their preparation, administration, or evaluation. They have a face validity that is immeasurably more relevant than the commercially available standardized tests. Good will and good common sense will yet prevail. They must, for the sake of the future of FL education. This book is a step in that direction.

 

LEON A. JAMES

University of Hawaii

Honolulu, January 1972.

 

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