Foreign language classes still simulate communicative processes in many cases. What should be the goal, however, are learning scenarios in which authentic communication between real people takes centre stage. Digital media can play an important role in achieving this.
It sounds so easy: rather than working with outdated textbooks in foreign language lessons and merely simulating communication in situations that have little to do with real life, digital media could be used to bring real communication partners into the classroom on a virtual level so that languages are learnt in an authentic manner on the basis of real-life examples. Back in 1995, Rainer Donath in Germany was already lamenting the fact that didactic simulations are causing us to “create a sham form of communication that reflects neither the linguistic nor cultural reality of the country in question” (Donath 1995: 46). He proposed that the “second-hand information contained in textbooks that have always been outdated and distorted and are rarely authentic” (Donath 1995: 46) be replaced by realistic communication, and initiated corresponding e-mail projects. However, what sounds so easy and convincing in theory proves complex and problematic when it comes to the detail. This is because the problems begin even with the term authentic.
What is authentic about authentic communication?
There are increasing calls for authentic communication because foreign language lessons are often characterized by non-authentic communication of an absurdity aptly caricatured by the German comedian Loriot (1992: 94) in his television course “German for Beginners”:
Viktor: My name is Viktor. I weigh 82 kilos.
Man: My name is Herbert. My train departs at 7.26 pm.
Woman: That is my husband.
Man: Those are my trousers.
Viktor: That is my briefcase.
In extreme cases, communication inside the classroom may have little in common with authentic communication outside it: it serves solely a predefined didactic purpose (learning pronouns, for example). There is no intrinsic motivation to enter into a dialogue; at best an artificial reason for the conversation is created. The communication has no significance in terms of its content – let alone any existential meaning – for the real lives of the participants.
By contrast, authenticity is evident in three dimensions that can be summarized – in much abbreviated form – as follows, in line with Judith Bündgens-Kosten (2013): communication is authentic on a linguistic and cultural level when it is based not on the ideals and stereotypes of the textbook but on the linguistic and cultural reality. It is functionally authentic when there is a genuine reason to engage in conversation with other people, and when the exchange in question serves not only a curricular purpose but also has a personal relevance for those taking part in it.
Even this brief and superficial outline makes it clear why there is often a discrepancy between authentic communication and classroom communication. To put it bluntly, the greater the extent to which communication processes serve only didactic ends, the less they will be experienced as authentic. Against this backdrop, digital communication can be viewed as an opportunity to lend foreign language lessons the highest possible degree of linguistic, cultural and functional authenticity.
Authenticity versus a didactic approach
Learners can use voice messages or video conferences to communicate authentically with others. | Photo (detail): twinsterphoto © Adobe Stock
One of the Internet developments with the most far-reaching consequences was the step from the consumer web 1.0 to the social media web we have today: while chatrooms, forums and video conferences were still seen as the exotic domain of the nerd when Donath was engaged in his e-mail projects, such activities are nowadays an integral part of everyday social media life for users of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter and WhatsApp. On a technical level it has never before been so easy to initiate authentic communication processes in foreign language lessons: to begin a collaborative writing project online that will involve learners jointly composing and discussing a text, all one needs to do is create a Google Docs document
with the respective sharing options
and then share the link. Portals such as fanfiction.de
can be used as the springboard for social reading where the focus is not solely on books: current cinema films
or computer games
can also present opportunities to compose texts of one’s own and/or to enter into a discussion about them online. Those who dislike the public nature of the Internet can use commercial services such as lectory
, which provide a more private setting in which to jointly read, annotate and discuss books. Facebook profiles and groups invite communication, and even individual hashtags can be used for language-learning purposes: on Instagram for example, a community has sprung up around #basicgermanwords
, collecting and discussing artistic photos of German words such as “Hähnchengrill” and “Glühwein”. Blogs can be set up with great ease using services like Wordpress
and used to combine many of the aforementioned functions: as a digital version of a reading diary or portfolio, they serve as a virtual expansion of the classroom and potentially can address the entire online community (see Schildhauer 2015). Popular messaging services like WhatsApp allow voice messages to be sent for time-staggered verbal exchanges. This can be a definite advantage as learners do not have to respond spontaneously to their communication partner and have enough time to compose their verbal contributions. Video conference calls (using for example Skype, Facetime or Hangouts) can now be made with any smartphone.
This technical simplicity is at odds with the complexity of the challenge of initiating authentic communication processes in a successful didactic manner. The main difficulty for teachers is to arrange the classroom scenario in such a way that learners experience the communication as authentic rather than as artificial and stilted. As a rule, a common topic is used as a communication bridge: this could include shared interests, local specificities, topical issues or identical lesson content. It should also be noted that authentic writing processes in digital media are based somewhere between the two extremes of spoken and written language use, so a text message chat for example should not be assessed strictly according to dictionary standards. Another aspect that is typical of authentic communication is that teachers will lose control on various levels: learners may choose for instance not to send a profile by e-mail, as they were requested to do, but may simply refer in a WhatsApp message to their Instagram account or use Twitter – without the teacher’s knowledge – to comment on what is happening instead of using the “official” video conference. In extreme cases authenticity may even mean that German and French pupils prefer to communicate with one another in English.
Technology and didactics
In terms of technology, digital media make it easier than ever before to initiate authentic communication. On the other hand, it is still as difficult as ever to preserve authenticity in a didactic-based classroom setting. This is probably the key reason why Donath’s appeal – to put a stop to simulations in foreign language lessons – is still relevant today, almost a quarter of a century later. The German-Dutch video conference project GLAS (see Langela-Bickenbach 2015), which won the 2018 Teaching Award in the “innovative lessons” category, is one example that proves that it is possible to communicate authentically in foreign language lessons.
Bündgens-Kosten, Judith (2013): Authenticity in CALL: three domains of “realness”. In: ReCALL 25, Issue 2, p. 272-285.
Donath, Rainer (1995): Schluß mit den Simulationen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. In: Computer&Unterricht Volume 5, Issue 18, p. 46-51.
Langela-Bickenbach, Adriane (2015): GLAS-klar! - Austausch und Videokonferenzen mit der niederländischen Partnerschule. In: nachbarsprache niederländisch, Issue 30, p. 4-25.
Loriot (1993): Deutsch für Ausländer. Ein Fernsehkurs. In: Ders.: Menschen, Tiere, Katastrophen. Stuttgart: Reclam 1992, p. 93-94.
Schildhauer, Peter (2015): Blogging our Way to Digital Literacies? A Critical View on Blogging in Foreign Language Classrooms. In: 10plus1: Living Linguistics, Issue 1, p. 182-195.