Authentic and non-authentic listening

One aspect of listening that concerns many teachers and methodologists is the difference between authentic and non-authentic texts.

Authentic textsare said to be those which are designed for native speakers. They are ‘real’ texts designed not for language students, but for the speakers of the language.

A non-authentic text in language teaching terms is one that has been written specially for language students. Such texts sometimes concentrate on the language we wish to teach. E.g.:

- How long have you been collecting stamps?

- I have been collecting stamps since I entered secondary school.

- How many stamps have you collected?

- I have collected about 25 hundred stamps.

- Are there any rare ones among them?

- Yes, there are some. Etc.

There are clues that indicate at once that this language is artificial. In the first place, both speakers use perfectly formed sentences all the time. Especially noticeable is the fact that when one speaker asks a question using a particular grammar structure, he gets a full answer based on the same structure. Another clue is the fact that the language is extremely unvaried. The repetition of the present perfect progressive and present perfect tenses shows what the purpose of such a text is. It is to teach or revise those very structures.

All over the world language teaching materials use such devices. Their aim is to isolate bits of language so that students can concentrate on it. Such materials should not be used, however, to help students become better listeners. The obviously artificial nature of the language makes it very unlike anything they are likely to encounter in real life. While some may claim that it is useful for teaching structures, it can not be used to teach listening skills.

Should we, therefore, use only authentic material for teaching listening? On the face of it this seems like a good idea. But what effect will it have on students if a group of elementary students is given a page from W. Shakespeare?

They would probably not understand it and become very much demoralised. And that demoralisation would undermine the very reason for giving students listening material. The reason to give listening material is threefold:

1) The most obvious reason for giving listening material is to encourage students to be better listeners. In the broadest sense, the more listening we give them (and which they succeed with), the better they will become at listening English.

2) Students who read and listen a lot seem to acquire English better than those who do not. In other words, one of the main advantages of listening for students is that it improves their general English level. Students acquire some of the language in texts they listen to, provided that the input is comprehensible. To go further: without a lot of exposure to listening material, students who learn languages in classrooms are unlikely to make much progress.

3) Students are frequently made nervous by listening material. It looks incredibly difficult to them and it is incredibly difficult. When students are presented with texts they cannot understand, the effect is extraordinarily demoralising. But when the right kind of material and the appropriate teaching technique are chosen, then the benefits are obvious. In other words, if we can say to our students that they have listened to something difficult and they have managed to understand it, then they have every reason to feel triumphant. As a result the barriers to listening are slightly lowered. A frequent diet of successful listening classes makes students better able to cope with listening to English.

Thus, what we need for our purposes are not the extremes of authentic and non-authentic listening material, but texts, which students can understand the general meaning of. Such texts, whether authentic or not, must be realistic models of spoken English. If we can find genuinely authentic material our students can cope with, that will be advantageous; if not, we should be using material, which simulates authentic English. In simple words, the texts should be roughly tuned rather than finely tuned. The need for language control at lower levels or in junior grades must not be used as an excuse for extreme artificiality.