I went to the airport to pick up a student from France who will attend my institution as an international student this year. It thrilled me to have been chosen to do this task because this year marks 30 years (!) since I ventured off to France for my semester abroad in Nantes. I remember what that was like—knowing no one at all, navigating an unknown public transport system, eating foods I had never seen or tasted before, and, oh, THE LANGUAGE!!!
Oui, I had studied French for 6 ½ years by then. Like a typical student in the midwestern United States, I started in ninth grade and took four years of French in secondary school. When I went to college I continued on in French and decided to become a French major as a sophomore. I was a mean conjugating and memorizing machine! When I packed my giant suitcase for Nantes that snowy January day, I had no idea what I was about to hear 20 hours later when I disembarked in France.
Hungry upon arrival in Nantes, I went into a café looking for food. I quickly realized that I did not know how to order! I had never taken a performance assessment for which I might simulate a possible conversation in a restaurant setting. So, I pointed at the item I wanted to order and got the job done. Later that evening when I arrived in my host family’s home, family members asked me questions about myself (I think!) and my preferences for food (I think!). They also showed me my room and how the crank for the shutters worked—I understood the gist of the message via gesture.
I could have sworn that the language I heard that day had absolutely no relation to language I had learned in school. My host mother would pass a platter of food to me and ask T’en veux?. I was mystified. What could she be saying to me that was two syllables long? I had always thought that t’ was the pronoun te, but that didn’t seem to make sense. Eventually I figured out that what my grammarian ears were expecting for this question was either En veux-tu? or Est-ce que tu en veux?. But, guess what? These were not the question word orders that my host family tended to use at home, and the French contract words just like we do in English to make them faster to say. They more often used the word order of a regular sentence with intonation to mark it as a question in informal settings. Alright, so the language I learned was indeed related to the language I was now hearing, it’s just that I had only learned part of the language in school!
On my path as a language educator, I often think back to how I learned French as a second language. I loved my French teachers and French classes, but what was missing in decades past was the authentic language piece. Would anyone dare tell Stromae that Papa, où t’es? is not a valid question in French? I propose the following principles to guide authenticity in language teaching.
Any formal or informal, written or oral language form used by native speakers is “correct”. These are examples of the real-world, living language.
All real-world language forms occur in contexts. Native speakers speak to friends and family at home or in public, they leave voicemails, talk to each other on the phone or online, make speeches in class or at work, and create videos with voiceover. Native speakers also text each other, comment on online posts, write blogs, send emails, and write papers. Each of these tasks calls for certain language forms. Proficiency in a language means that one is able to select appropriate forms for the task.
In order to be able to make appropriate language selections in oral and written tasks, students need exposure to and experience working with different language registers and varied tasks. Performance assessments in the three communicative modes in the form of real-world language tasks lead students on their journeys in proficiency.
My language learning story turned out just fine. I kept working at it and eventually became proficient in French. The best part about it is that I learned just about all of my oral language forms in actual, real-life contexts in a target language culture. Our students have the chance to proceed through the authentic language learning process from earlier on and also more efficiently, starting in our classrooms with authentic language tasks right from the outset.