Why Authentic Content Is Important

man ordering at coffee shop

By Dr. Katharine B. Nielson –

One of the most effective ways to learn a new language is to practice reading and listening to “authentic content,” which is really just another way of saying “real stuff.” That is, reading blogs, analyst reports, Yelp reviews, directions, medicine bottles, the backs of cereal boxes, horoscopes, fortune cookies, or anything that’s in the language you’re learning. Watching movies or interviews. Listening to music, a podcast, or a conversation between friends. You get the idea.

Authentic content gives learners exposure to the kind of language that they ultimately want to understand and create for themselves. If you don’t use authentic content, and teach learners with scripted dialogs or simplified materials written by language teachers, you’re not giving them models for how to produce or understand the language they’ll encounter in the wild. Not only is this ineffective, it’s also inefficient. They’ll learn expressions and phrases that are unlikely to occur in real life AND they’ll waste all that time they could have spent with real materials.

Perhaps this would be clearer with an example: one of the first things I do when I get to a new country, especially after an overnight flight, is to stand in line behind people ordering coffee, so I can hear what they’re saying. And then I repeat what they’ve said so that someone will give me a cup of coffee, too. Nearly every language textbook I’ve seen has a dialog or two for how to order coffee, but almost none of them captures what people actually say.

Think about the last cup of coffee you ordered. Did you ask for an Americano? A house drip? A double espresso? A double decaf dirty chai latte? Those are all things I’ve heard people ask for in real life, but I’d bet that there isn’t a language textbook in the world that prepares people to order a double dirty chai latte.

Imagine a language course that let learners listen to audio clips of real people ordering real drinks in a real coffee shop. Sure, the language might be nonstandard. It might be hard to understand. There might be a thick accent to decipher. But those are things that will happen to the learner in real life the very first time he goes to order coffee in a coffee shop. If Max has only ever learned that the woman behind the counter will say “Sure. What size would you like?” then he’s going to be thrown for a loop when the barista growls “large or small” at him. Why not move that moment of confusion into the safe confines of a language course, when Max can listen to many of recorded exchanges of people ordering coffee?

This applies to authentic content in general. Sure, it might be complex. It might involve vocabulary words the learner hasn’t learned yet, and it will almost certainly involve a mix of verb tenses. That’s okay. It doesn’t hurt learners to read or listen to things they don’t understand. If they are appropriately prepared for authentic content and understand that they won’t understand every word, or sometimes, almost any of them, then they can have a language experience that much more closely mimics what happens in the real world. Even the most complex texts can be broken into manageable chunks so that learners can get something out of them.

Using authentic content helps save precious time for the language learners, because it allows them to practice with materials that they want to read and understand anyway. It saves time for materials developers because it leverages resources that already exist. Teachers shouldn’t spend their time writing dialogues or simplified paragraphs when they can find real examples of the target language to use instead. Ultimately, using authentic content keeps the goal in sight; learners can see right away that what they are learning can be applied to the real-world, and they get the practice they will need to have in understanding unfamiliar accents, fast talkers, and writers with complex constructions and esoteric vocabulary. Learning a language is one of the hardest things that we ask people to do, and it takes a long time; let’s not make it take any longer than it has to.

Katie is Voxy’s Chief Education Officer, which means she leads the teams ensuring that learners are getting the most efficient and effective educational experience possible.  She has a PhD in Second Language Acquisition and years of experience teaching languages, building language courses, and evaluating the effectiveness of language training as a research scientist.  She lectures and writes about all things related to language learning and educational technology.