But what exactly is authentic material? There are numerous audio texts that can be considered authentic material, but not all of them take the same form, or help you in the same way. In this post we’ll look at a few different options.
Several of my English teaching colleagues use Ted Talks for listening practice in class or as homework for their students. Similarly, I have used videos from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for the same purpose. One MOOC course that I especially like to bring into the classroom is World 101x: The Anthropology of Current World Issues.
Listening to this type of content on topics that interest you can be a great way to improve your listening skills. However, there are two main drawbacks1 to this form of authentic material.
Firstly, this type of listening material is usually a monologue – in other words, one person speaking. It can be very difficult to maintain your concentration while listening to a monologue in a foreign language (in fact, many people find it difficult to do so even in their native language). I know this from personal experience, because I have listened to a lot of monologues in Italian from RAI’s excellent Alle Otto Della Sera series. I have about a B1 level in Italian and even though I’m fascinated by the history podcasts this series offers, and I already know a fair amount about most of the topics, I still struggle to focus for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s not a question of motivation but one of concentration (and my lower intermediate level). My mind wanders off2 and suddenly I find that I haven’t been paying attention3 for two or three minutes and as a result I have completely missed what was said and I’m lost. I’m sure that happens to you as well when you listen to monologues in foreign languages.
The second disadvantage to listening to monologues is that the way people speak is somewhat unnatural. In these situations, people speak using their ‘broadcast voice’, like you would hear on the radio or television news, and that’s quite different from the way people speak in regular conversations (you might notice that I used my ‘broadcast voice’ in Episode 0 of this podcast and that it’s different from the way I speak in all the other episodes). In monologues, people tend to speak more slowly and more clearly than they do in regular conversations, and to pronounce words more ‘correctly’ (which, in the case of English, often means using fewer schwas, the hallmark4 of conversational English pronunciation). Listening to monologues can certainly have value, especially if you see it as an end unto itself5 rather than as a means to an end6 – that is, if you want to improve your ability to listen to monologues precisely because you want to be able to enjoy listening to more monologues. But you may find that it doesn’t help as much as you might think when it comes to participating in conversations.
My own experience in language learning has led me to the conclusion that the most helpful authentic listening you can do is to listen not to monologues, but to dialogues – that is, two people speaking to each other in conversational style. There are a few reasons for this: to start with, following a conversation between two people with a back-and-forth dynamic is a lot easier than listening to one person go on and on7. In my experience, listening to a casual conversation doesn’t require the same intense focus as listening to a monologue. Secondly, conversations usually give you richer and more authentic language such as idioms and colloquial expressions that form a large part of the every day language. And thirdly, holding conversations yourself is going to be a big part of your experience in a foreign language, whereas8 giving speeches and talks probably won’t be. So you can duplicate9 the language you hear in these authentic conversations in your own conversations, which will make you sound more natural and fluent.
The most helpful authentic listening I’ve ever done in the languages I study has come in the form of real, conversational, 10-minute dialogues, particularly Notes in Spanish and Italian LingQ. And that’s why I decided to start English in 10 Minutes in the first place10, so that you could have a similar experience. All you have to do is head over to the list of episodes, pick one that interests you, and get started. Or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Android and you’ll never miss another episode.
- drawbacks: disadvantages
- my mind wanders off: I start thinking about other things
- paying attention: concentrating
- hallmark: main characteristic
- an end unto itself: it does not need to have a greater purpose than what it is
- a means to an end: not the final purpose or main reason for doing something, but something necessary along the way
- go on and on: speak for a long time
- whereas: while on the other hand
- duplicate: copy
- in the first place: to begin with, in the beginning