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Learning English by Listening, Um, to How People, Uh, Really Speak It

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble. This week on Wordmaster: English teacher Lida Baker joins us from Los Angeles to talk about authentic listening materials.

RS: It's the subject of her latest textbook, called "Real Talk 1."

LIDA BAKER: "One of the trends in the field in the last few years has been to try to expose students to authentic language, which is language -- English the way people really talk."

AA: "So you got your tape recorder out and you walked around and eavesdropped or what did you do?"

LIDA BAKER: "That's one of the ways that we collected the authentic language samples. So, yeah, we would put a microphone on a table and we would ask people to talk about a certain topic. In-person recordings were one kind of authentic speech samples that we collected.

"The second kind was phone interviews and phone conversations. And we tried to make these as relevant to real life as we could. So we had, for example, we asked somebody to call up two different car rental agencies and find out about the price of renting a car. Now the student's task in that case is to listen to both phone recordings and decide if they were going to rent a car, which company would they go to.

"So that's an example of where not only the input, the recording itself, is authentic, but the task is also authentic, which is another aspect in this movement in our profession towards authentic language teaching. It's not only authentic language teaching, but it's authentic language use."

AA: "Let me ask you, obviously when people talk we don't always follow the rules of grammar and syntax and all that.

So how does it benefit students to learn from authentic materials rather than maybe a more traditional approach?"

LIDA BAKER: "By listening to the way people really talk, what students have to do is learn how to filter out the parts of the language that are not part of the message they are supposed to get, and tune in to the parts of the utterance that are part of the message. Does that make sense? So if I say 'ummm .... ummm ... well, let's see ...'"

AA: "I filter that out."

LIDA BAKER: "Yeah, as a native speaker you know that that's not part of the message that I'm trying to convey. We actively teach students how to filter that stuff out, because natural language has all kinds of junk in it, if you want to call it that -- we make grammatical errors when we talk, we hesitate, we repeat ourselves, we use fillers which are things like 'uh,' 'um,' 'you know,' 'kind of' and, of course, the famous 'like.' And like is a really interesting example of something that students have to learn how to either tune out or attend to depending on the meaning."

AA: "Let me ask you, at what level would you start using authentic materials -- beginner, intermediate, where would you start?"

LIDA BAKER: "Believe it or not, you can do it at any level -- you can do it with absolute beginners. But you have to take care to present the language in very small segments with beginners and you also have to create tasks that are at the student's level of ability. Now let me give you a really simple example of what I mean. Very low level students, you might ask them to listen for instance to ... let's say to a weather report.

"And things like weather reports are good because they're short. Now you can give them a list of words related to the weather: it's windy, it's raining, it's cloudy and so on. And you can have students listen to the weather report, which could be as short as ten or fifteen seconds and they have to put a check mark next to the adjectives that they hear. Now that's a really simple task that you can do with beginning students using an authentic recording."

AA: Lida Baker, co-author with Judy Tanka of "Real Talk 1: Authentic English in Context."

RS: There are even some Wordmaster scripts in their textbook, so you know we're authentic!

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is

RS: And you can find other segments with Lida Baker at I'm Avi Arditti.