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Response paper on Claire Kramsch's chapter: "Authentic Texts and Contexts." (1993) In: Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp.177-203.

Read Claire Kramsch's chapter.

Write approximately 150-200 words on the following question.

Using your understanding of the visual imagery of CNN's report (see tasksheet) on George Soros's success story, interpret the clip as a representative example of the insiders/outsiders dilemma Kramsch presents in the chapter Authentic Texts and Contexts.


6 Authentic texts and contexts

Je te parle dans ta langue et c'est dans mon langage que je te comprends. 1

(Edouard Glissant 1981)

We have been concerned up to now with the ways in which speakers and readers give meaning to utterances by shaping the context in which these utterances are produced and received. We have gone from the premise that meaning is not in the written or spoken text, but in the dialogue between the learner and the text. In both cases, social and personal voices intersect to create what Nostrand (1989: 51) calls 'the central code' of a culture:

Jhe central code consists not only of customs and proprieties; it involves above all the culture's 'ground of meaning': its system of major values, habitual patterns of thought, and cer­tain prevalent assumptions about human nature and society which the foreigner should be prepared to encounter.

It is a truism to say that teaching language is teaching culture, but what exactly does it mean? How can learners in the artificial and standardized environment of a classroom have access to the central code of another culture? The foreigner, says Nostrand, should be prepared to encounter the culture's ground of mean­ing; but does he or she necessarily have to understand it? And is it at all feasible anyway? As we attempt in this chapter to explore these issues, I suggest taking as a point of departure the current controversy surrounding the concept of 'cultural authen­ticity' because it captures much of the paradox of teaching lan­guage in classrooms.

The term 'authentic' has been used as a reaction against the prefabricated artificial language of textbooks and instructional dialogues; it refers to the way language is used in non-pedagogic, natural communication. As Little and Singleton (1988: 21) point out, 'an authentic text is a text that was created to fulfill some social purpose in the language community in which it was pro­duced'. In their written form, everyday texts of information

178 Context and Culture in Language Teaching

require readers to adopt the communicative reading strategies of native speakers: skim and scan for desired information, capit­alize on the natural redundancy of a text and get clues from its context, recognize authorial intention and act upon it-for example, stop at a stop sign or bake a cake according to a recipe. As spoken exchanges, authentic texts require participants to respond with behaviors that are socially appropriate to the set­ting, the status of the interlocutors, the purpose, key, genre, and instrumentalities of the exchange, and the norms of interaction agreed upon by native speakers (see Chapter 2).

However, with the increased necessity to develop not only communicative, but also cultural competence in language teach­ing, the need has grown to reassess the notion of authentic text and communicative authenticity. The discussion, started in Europe during the last decades (Coste 1970, Widdowson 1979, Loschmann and Loschmann 1984, Breen 1985a) has only recently surfaced in the United States (Kramsch 1988b, Nos­trand 1989). It raises some of the basic issues with which we will deal in this and the following chapter.

What is cultural authenticity?

At least since Widdowson examined the concept of authentic text in 1979, it has become a commonplace to say that authenti­city does not lie in the text but in the uses speakers and readers make of it.

It is probably better to consider authenticity not as a quality residing in instances of language but as a quality which is bestowed upon them, created by the response of the receiver. Authenticity in this view is a function of the interaction between the reader/hearer and the text which incorporates the intentions of the writer/speaker ... Authenticity has to do with appropriate response.

(Widdowson 1979: 166)

For example, a German menu is a genuine piece of cultural realia, but if I use it in the classroom to practice reading prices or to learn the endings of adjectives, I have not used it in the way the restaurant management had intended, nor the way native customers do when they go to that restaurant. As Widdowson comments: 'Authenticity depends on a congruence of the lan­guage producer's intentions and language receiver's interpreta-

Authentic texts and contexts 179

tion, this congruence being effected through a shared knowledge of conventions' (ibid.). The teacher's task is precisely to give the learner the means of properly authenticating a text like a German menu.

Such a definition, however, raises a number of questions. Lear­ners can be aware of the communicative conventions of German restaurants and still be interested in the differing way numbers are written in German and English, and in the way German adjectives are declined; even in a genuine restaurant, they can ask the waiter for explanations about the menu that no native speaker would ask. In other words, they can know the conventions and either simulate native-speaker behavior, or choose not to abide by nat­ive-speaker conventions and, instead, act as the learners and for­eigners that they really are. Both types of behaviors are authentic, but the question is: authentic for whom?

In the enthusiasm for functional approaches to language teaching (whether they be called 'communicative', 'natural', or 'proficiency-oriented'), 'authentic' speech is often presented and read in language classes in the same uncritical way as such lan­guage is used by most native speakers-as if the classroom could ever be, or even should ever try to imitate, the natural environ­ment of restaurants and workplaces. This applies also, as we have seen in Chapter 3, to the speech used by learners in classrooms. Either, as we saw in case 3, the students' conversa­tional style is allowed to remain the one of their native culture, or, as in case 4, the teacher insists that they adopt a behavioral style more congruent with the conventions of the target society. In both cases, the language is used in an authentic manner, but we have to ask ourselves: authentic of what? As Widdowson perceptively remarks, 'Uncritical acceptance of the need to pre­sent learners with "authentic" data can lead to an avoidance of pedagogic responsibility' (ibid.: 171). What exactly is our pedagogic responsibility?

Let us examine what the issues are. If authenticity is a rela­tional concept-that is, a characteristic of the context in all its dimensions (see Chapter 2), then we need to reassess the common usage of the term. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1989 2nd edn.), the term 'authentic' has at least four meanings:

  1. in accordance with a socially established usage or tradition (= from a duly authorized source);

  2. 180 Context and Culture in Language Teaching

  3. entitled to acceptance or belief, as being in accordance with fact (= real, trustworthy);

  4. the result of a recognizable communicative intention (= sincere, not specious);

  5. compatible with an identifiable, undisputed source or origin

(= original, genuine).

This cluster of dictionary meanings, that considers established conventions, facts, intentions, and sources to be undisputed and socially agreed upon, has to be flagged for social and cultural differentiation in four respects.

Representative usages

Firstly, how do we determine which socially established usages or traditions are representative of the native speaker's speech community? If, as I suggested in Chapter 2, the notion of a generic native speaker must be put in question both from a linguistic and a pragmatic perspective, then to what extent should we continue to teach generic contexts of use? To what extent should language teaching retain as its sole point of refer­ence the national characteristics of certain communities of native speakers?

The question of cultural authenticity was raised for example in an interesting manner by two German foreign language edu­cators from the (then existing) German Democratic Republic (GDR). Commenting on the misrepresentation of their country in an American textbook,2 they write:

A report by a journalist [f.] from the Federal Republic [FRG] on a trip through the GDR cannot be considered an authentic text for the GDR, even though it is written by a native speaker of German. Not only is the point of view of the observer [m.] different, but also the quantity and quality of his [sic] cultural knowledge and in many respects his [sic] use of the language are different from those of a journalist [m.] from the GDR. However, such a text can be quite authentic of the perspective of FRG journalists [] on the GDR. This example shows that authenticity is always socially determined; it always means 'authentic of .. .'.

(Löschmann and Löschmann 1984: 41, my translation)3 [The notations [f.] and [m.] indicate the gender chosen by

Authentic texts and contexts 181

the authors for the respective words in the German text, a potentially significant cultural fact in itself.]

This statement stresses the importance of readers'/writers' per­spectives in the debate about authenticity. Too many textbook publishers believe that there is a universally 'German' link between the German language and any German speech com­munity, and that any speaker of German is automatically repres­entative of any given German society. As Saville-Troike (1992) points out, the link between a given language and the communit­ies that speak that language can vary a great deal. Let us note that the fact that West-Germans might consider the language of the article itself sexist and therefore culturally different from an article written in the West, is yet another illustration of the serious cultural problem identified by the authors of the article.

Cultural competence

Secondly, does cultural competence include the obligation to behave in accordance with the social conventions of a given speech community? Should we, as Santoni insists, 'ask students to try as hard as they can to be someone else, to plagiarize as well as they can all sorts of linguistic and behavioral patterns from observed "authentic materials" (even to the point of caricature) [because it] is the best way to feel and understand the culture' (cited in Nostrand 1989: 52)? Or should we not rather, as Nostrand (1989) and Valdman (1992) strongly recommend, separate knowledge about the culture and experience of the culture-cultural competence and cul­tural performance? The ability to 'behave like someone else' is no guarantee that one will be more easily accepted by the group who speaks the language, nor that mutual understand­ing will emerge. A tragic illustration is provided by the many Asian or Hispanic immigrants or native Americans in the United States, whose sociolinguistic skills may help, but in no way guarantee, their social integration.

Critical understanding

Thirdly, should it really be our goal to develop in our students the same uncritical insider's experience of the target culture as those who are instrumental in forging it in a given society?

Should we not give our students the tools for a critical understanding of the target culture and its social conventions? As already discussed in Chapter 2, is it not the privilege of the language learner to understand and poach on the target culture without automatically contributing to its construction?4 The ability of the learner to behave both as an insider and an outsider to the speech community whose language he or she is learning, depends on his or her understanding of the cultural situation.

Authentic language learning

Ultimately, such critical understanding is an educational issue. As Breen (1985a: 62) suggests, 'the learner will re-define any text against his own priorities, precisely because he is a learner', and in this respect the learner is not any different from any other language user. The fourth question is therefore: should we not, as teachers, be concerned less about' [authentic] language-using behavior' and more about 'authentic language learning behavior'? Breen (ibid.: 65) argues the point forcefully:

Perhaps one of the main authentic activities within a language classroom is communication about how best to learn to com­municate. Perhaps the most authentic language learning tasks are those which require the learner to undertake communica­tion and metacommunication.


182 Context and Culture in Language Teaching

I fully share Breen's conviction, but I am also aware of how this view of learning stems from an educational culture and intellectual tradition that have strong roots in the European enlightenment. This tradition might not be shared by teachers from other educational systems, such as, for example, most for­eign language teachers in the United States who value action and communication rather than metacommunication (see, for example, Omaggio 1986). Breen's view is again different from the German hermeneutic tradition in language education, cur­rently advocated by Hunfeld (1990). This tradition stresses not so much the benefits of critical analysis in language learning as the difficult process of putting the other in relation with self. Hunfeld writes:

What does the foreign language mean for the foreign language learner? Many things. For example, the obligation to adapt, to repeat the conventionally sanctioned phrases, to playa role, to identify [with members of another group]. But it also means being able to compare one's own world of language with that of others, to broaden one's experience with language and lan­guage use, to insert some uncertainty into ways of speaking one had hitherto taken for granted; it means border crossing, blockade, disturbance-in sum, to use Humboldt's words, it means 'acquiring a new way of viewing the world.' (Hunfeld 1990: 15, my translation)

These three intellectual traditions, the critical, the pragmatic, and the hermeneutic, are not incompatible-for example, self­-discovery can be furthered by metacommunication and hands­-on experience- but it is up to the teacher to set the ordering of educational priorities.

Cultural relativity stops at the threshold of the teacher's class­room. Not because the educational culture of the language class reflects by necessity the dominant culture of the institution, but because teachers could not teach if they did not make pedago­gical choices. Indeed, I would argue that the seeming lack of educational vision among some language teachers is a sign not of eclectic choices but of the uncritical acceptance of the dominant educational culture of their society.

Breen concludes: 'Perhaps all other questions of authenticity in language teaching may be resolved if the potential of the classroom [as a classroom] is fully exploited' (1985a: 68). Is educational authenticity then just another word for pedagogic effectiveness? After all, do not these various educational cultures have that much in common that they all seek to contrive the most effective conditions for learning a foreign language? Do they not all want language learners to be able to:

1 communicate appropriately with native speakers of the language;

2 get to understand others;

3 get to understand themselves in the process?

As with most matters cultural, it is a question of emphasis. A pragmatically-oriented educational culture stresses the first goal and measures the effectiveness of language learning against the ability of learners to participate in socially appropriate verbal exchanges with others. A critical pedagogy stresses the second goal and searches for evidence of effective language learning in



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the insights gained by the learners about foreign attitudes and mindsets. A hermeneutic approach weighs effectiveness in terms of the learners' discovery and understanding of self through others. In the way the hermeneutic approach defines itself, one can already see the difference in emphasis it establishes between it and, for example, what it calls the 'pragmatic-communicative' approach:

The [hermeneutic] approach ... carries the hermeneutic skepsis into the foreign language learning process. It insists that the opportunities for understanding are always also liabil­ities of non-understanding ... The principle of this approach is neither to adopt nor to reject the thinking of others, but to relate it to one's own.

(Hunfeld 1990: 15, my translation)

In this sense, all pedagogy is an artifact of educational discourse. Widdowson (1990: 46) has written recently: 'The difficulty with [Breen's] conclusion is that one can claim authenticity for any­thing that goes on in the classroom, including mechanistic pat­tern practice and the recital of verb paradigms, on the grounds that it may be conducive to learning'.

Mechanistic pattern practice, however, is not bad or ineffect­ive per se, but only as measured against the communicative or cognitive goals of an educational culture that uses such metaphors as 'meaningful communication', 'negotiation of meaning', and 'creative uses of language' to express its vision of human relationships. We have to commit ourselves to a set of metaphors, but we have to remain aware that these metaphors are the very culture we live by and that in other educational cultures people might live by other metaphors. The difficulty-and the perils of cross-cultural understanding ­stem precisely from trying to express one metaphor in the language of another and to judge the pedagogic effectiveness of one in terms of the other.

I will therefore leave aside questions of 'authenticity' and 'effectiveness' and try instead to describe the educational meta­phors that underpin different educational traditions in their use of non-pedagogic texts for the teaching of foreign languages. I will first examine the communicative proficiency approach pre­valent in the teaching of English as a second language and of foreign languages in the United States.

Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 177-203.