Native speaking English teachers have been on a mission to expose their students to ‘authentic’ materials for generations. At least since the communicative approach to teaching English gained traction at most language schools around the world.
Over the years, materials deemed too ‘textbooky’ were cast aside in favor of content that supposedly reflected what ‘real’ native speakers say in their day to day conversational transactions. Whether or not this is a good thing to happen to language learning and teaching is debatable. But it raises an interesting question: how much practice is required to speak ‘genuine’ English?
This is the authenticity paradox: in order to sound spontaneous, learners must practice.
Here’s a great example that came up in a conversation with a favourite prof the other day. There is a famous French idiom that the French use to scoff at poor speakers of their language – ‘Il parle français comme une vache espagnole’ (literally – he speaks French like a Spanish cow; not a bit nice). However, if you used this expression about yourself in French company (Je suis désolé, je parle français comme une vache espagnole!) you are being coyly self-depricating because if you were a horrible speaker of French then you wouldn’t know the idiom, therefore, your French must be better than you say it is!
Get it? Paradoxical!
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