Using authentic material is one of the five pillars in the field of world language teaching in the 21st century, according to American Council of Teaching Foreign Language (ACTFL). If a language school, program and an educator is using authentic materials, instead of artificial textbook to develop the language curriculum and course, has become a critical standard to evaluate the quality of the school, program and the teacher him/herself.
But why authentic? Well, briefly speaking, authentic materials bring a real world and the beauty of the target language to learners. While language itself makes a main part of the real-world adventure, a successful experience in a target country demands more than using the target language. Authentic materials carry more than the talking piece. Cultural phenomenon, culture differences, social issue, nuances and other important background knowledge can all be reflected in authentic materials. And from an experienced language educator's point of view, it is always the contents that are beyond language itself that ignite interest, thoughts, discussions, and help language learners make self-relatedness. Self-relatedness is a great motivator that drives language learners into a further language and culture exploration, which makes a teacher's job easier to do in the long run. Last year, when I was showing my middle school students a Chinese news video about Chinese President Xi Jinping going to a local steamed bun restaurant to eat, all I intended to do was to help my students get a authentic glimpse of that local restaurant called “Qingfeng". It is a popular place that local Beijingers would go for a breakfast or any meals of the day, and I want them to get an exposition of the restaurant setting, food on the menu and what some dishes look like. I had to choose that video because it was the only good qualify video introducing that restaurant that I could find online. To my delight, an intense debate did happen after students watched the video. However, the focus was not on the restaurant or the food. Instead, it was a discussion about why Chinese president going to a local restaurant could even become a news to buzz about. Students argued that President Obama went to local restaurants a lot, and it rarely made any news. So we had to talk about the significance of political power in China, how it is reflected in daily lives and its origins in Chinese history. Yes, it is a nuance that no textbook for middle school kids would ever mention. But it is a crucial multi-culture communication knowledge that every Chinese learner should know before they become a diplomat or a business person in China! And only authentic materials can carry those nuances and inspire a meaningful discussion about multi-culture communication.
Moreover, authentic materials write target language the way it is. A large amount of learning resources for language learners, such as textbooks, graded-level readers, audio files for listening practice, are either made up or highly modified so that they become appropriate for learners of a certain proficiency level. They do help recycle newly-learned vocabulary, grammatical patterns and other language chunks. And students feel more confident and less anxious when they find that they mostly know everything on the material. However, those language learners who learn a language with no exposition to authentic materials will usually experience a shock when they go to the target country. They find people talk really way faster than their textbook tape recording and they barely understand anything. Also, they cannot read a menu. Even though they have been learning Chinese for a long while, they feel frustrated linguistically and culturally.
Using authentic materials as instruction content will get language learners ready for the real-world challenge. Imagine all the target language expositions you receive from a language course are all copied from the real scenarios in China! An authentic materials can be a recorded audio of a conversation between a passenger and a taxi driver, a menu book that has illustrated pictures that clearly shows you what each dish name means, a most recent and popular TV show that describes young people's lives, as well as a video that explains unwritten rules of working, socializing and family relationships. Authentic materials are not made up or deceiving. They are practical and ready to use.
So next time when you get on a language learning website, app or podcast, watch for the citations of their contents or look for the word "authentic". If you are unsure about the authenticity of its contents, then ask a native target language speaker for advice. It should be very easy for them to tell.