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Exploring FL/L2 Adult Learners’ Belief Systems
Jeanne Marie Féder Paraná
Regina Célia Halu

When we extract language from the real world and take it into the classroom, we are, to a degree, de-authenticating it. This paper discusses the use and effectiveness of both authentic and non-authentic materials in the language classroom and attempts to show that neither is better but different, and that both are commonly useful and valid for language learners and teachers.

It is argued that as we extract language from the real world and take it into the classroom, we are, to a degree, de-authenticating it (Nunan, 1998). As a language teacher, one thing that I always wanted to bring into my classes was materials taken from the so-called ‘real world’. Intuitively at first, I thought they were much more motivating than ready-made instructional ones found in textbooks or which came along with them. I remember when I traveled abroad, especially to the United States, I made a point of collecting all kinds of realia in order to use them in my classes. Unlike Brazilian tourists, who would bring back their suitcases filled up with all kinds of gadgets, mine would come home full of genuine restaurant menus, used boarding passes, blank US immigration forms, passport tickets saved during visits to amusement parks, cinema, theater, and even parking tickets, besides magazines, comic books, newspapers, original recordings of movies, audio books, video clips, commercials, sitcom episodes, talk shows, music awards, etc. taped from TV, plus segments of local radio stations’ programming. All this effort inebriated my students with the feeling that as they were dealing with authentic materials, they were experiencing real-world situations. But I still kept in mind that I was teaching English in a formal environment where, for many of them, the direct and only contact with the TL was basically those precious moments we shared in my classroom.

For its intrinsic characteristics, the classroom, with its social authenticity, is a formal learning environment. Allwright & Bailey (1991:18) define the classroom as “the gathering, for a given time, of two or more persons (one of whom generally assumes the role of instructor) for the purposes of [language] learning”. Gaies (1980, in Allwright & Bailey, 1991:18) sees the classroom as “the crucible – the place where teachers and learners come together and [language] learning, hopefully, happens”. Based on this, it is of crucial importance for teachers to keep in mind that the differences in natural acquisition contexts vary drastically from traditional instruction ones.

The trend for bringing “authenticity” into the language classroom became very strong and popular with the advent of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) some 25 years ago. In the early 1980s, with the emergence of the Communicative Approach, research focused on the premise of teaching second languages for the ultimate goal of communication with native speakers of the second language (Larsen-Freeman, 1986). CLT principles centered on the primary goal of having students become communicatively competent. As Larsen-Freeman (1986:128) points out, “whenever possible, authentic language – language as it is used in a real context – should be introduced.” The rationale for using authentic materials and exposing students to natural language in a variety of situations was that, by doing this, it would be possible for learners to overcome the typical problem that they can not transfer what they learn in the classroom to the outside world (Larsen-Freeman, 1986).

Creative and inquisitive teachers usually have a natural drive to always want to go beyond what the textbook, or the syllabus, or even their school’s curriculum preach and impose. When it comes to using, adapting, replacing, analyzing activities from non-authentic sources (textbooks, workbooks, instructional resource books, etc.), or when designing their own activities, the debate over whether we should highlight and seek authenticity as much as possible, has always captured their attention.

As this is still a ‘hot topic’ in language learning and teaching, I have recently conducted a quick survey with some teachers and a few students at the language institute where I work with the objective of discussing the issue with them, our natural stakeholders. I explained to both target groups what the issue “authenticity in the classroom” encompassed, and then asked them to reflect and state any kind of opinion, feeling, hunch, or idea about the language course, classroom environment, textbook(s) and instructional materials they have been/were involved with, have attended/attended, and have been using/used. I then selected the most interesting statements and compiled in the small list which follows:


  • “I think the book brings interesting topics related to real life. We have to pretend we are in those situations.”
  • “I think the listening exercises are a little artificial. I know they are recorded in a lab.”
  • “I like video segments from real movies. I like songs too. That’s the real language.”
  • “We have to rehearse, to repeat a lot to learn. Is this authentic?”


  • “I think textbook writers do worry about bringing into class situations where we practice real language.”
  • “Simplified exercises are very important for beginners. Being not very authentic is part of the process.”
  • “I don’t have a lot of time to devise materials from authentic sources. But I use songs, internet activities as much as I can.”
  • “I need training in order to devise materials from authentic sources. I’m not a professional textbook writer.”
  • “I really thought of authenticity in language teaching when I stopped bringing plastic fruits into my classrooms.”

By going over and reflecting upon what some of our teachers and students had to say concerning authenticity, I came to the conclusion that this is still an issue that needs to be revisited as often as possible, so we can calibrate a lot of our demands in terms of trying to be on the “authentic side” all the time, and also be able to empower the most important players in the process, teachers and students, by having them understand the nature of classroom instruction and that, even though textbook writers make a point of providing materials that resemble the ‘real world’, to a certain extent, complete authenticity will never be achieved.
But going back a little, what do we mean by ‘authenticity’ or ‘authentic materials’? ‘Authentic’ means not false, real, actual, genuine, made or done the same way as an original. In the field of language teaching, definitions abound. According to Shortall (in preparation), Little & Singleton (1989) “were early advocates of using authentic materials in the classroom”. Little (1997, in Shortall, in preparation), defines authentic texts as “the record of any communicative act in speech or writing that was originally performed in fulfilment of some personal and social function, and not in order to provide illustrative material for language teaching.”

To Omaggio Hadley (1993, in Graves, 2000:156), “authentic material refers to spoken and written texts that are used by native speakers in the real world. Authentic tasks are those that native speakers engage in in the real world.”

Equally for Nunan (1998:37-38): “As a rule of thumb, we can say that authentic data are samples of spoken and written language that have NOT been specifically written for the purposes of teaching language.”

Cunningsworth (1996:141) makes a very interesting distinction between authentic content and authentic material: “Authentic content is using real facts and information instead of made-up content. The language used for this authentic content may itself be authentic, semi-authentic, (simplified) or specially written, depending on the level.”

In their everyday practice, teachers have at their disposal materials and tasks whose sources carry authentic and contrived language. When teacher and learners meet to conduct and go under the challenging process of teaching and learning a given language, both bring experience of learning and of life, but as Allwright & Bailey (1991) point out, “no matter what they all bring, everything still depends on how they react (or interact with) to each other (learner to learner as well teacher to learner).” Activities can be authentic, real-world, very well-designed, but if this interaction does not take place and learners do not respond to them, frustration on both parts may emerge. Allwright & Bailey (1991) argue then that “no matter the activity, once we count on the learner’s co-operation, for sure the interaction will take place and this will contribute to the success of the lesson”. Saslow (1998) alleges that “by experiencing numerous exposures to real language within the walls of the classroom, students will be prepared to understand real language when they hear or see it outside in the real world.” So, this leads us into concluding that activities originating from either sources will really prove to be effective if the goals of the lesson are clear, attainable within the level, and if they promote the desired interaction within the learning environment.

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