Book Review: Authentic Texts in Language Acquisition: Theories, Approaches and Practices (Solvita Berra)

This month, Līga Horgana is back with a look at Solvita Berra's new book Authentic Texts in Language Acquisition: Theories, Approaches and Practices, a guide for Latvian language teachers who want to include more authentic texts in their practice.
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As many people who have tried learning or teaching Latvian as a foreign language know, there has been somewhat of a lack of quality resources to help with the process. Thankfully, sociolinguist Solvita Berra’s new book Authentic Texts in Language Acquisition: Theories, Approaches and Practices has helped to fill that gap. Drawing on her wealth of experience teaching Latvian language, literature, and culture both here in Latvia and as far away as the United States and China, Berra has considerable insight on how to talk about our country and language and make it feel close to those students who have neither been here nor have had any contacts with it before. Authentic texts – ones that are not specifically made for teaching purposes, but created within a certain language and culture for practical usage – are the tools Berra recommends us teachers to use. 

Text, linguistic landscape and meaningful learning are the three main issues Berra has covered in this work. It starts with clarifying the definition of the term “text”, which gets expanded from the traditional linguistic understanding to a more complex one including also visual, audio, digital and other features. This way, a competent text reader is able to understand not only words and sentences, but also a various range of semiotic information. Such items as maps, posters, web pages, diagrams etc. are understood as whole items of text. The author gives an interesting overview as to why and how teachers can use different authentic texts in their work; however, Berra focuses on linguistic landscape studies, as that is her area of specialty. 

For those who haven’t heard of it before, linguistic landscape (LL) is all of the different language signs in a public space, such as commercials, posters, warning signs, street signs, graffiti, announcements, titles of different businesses and official government institutions, etc. Different photos of linguistic landscape items that are samples of both language and culture can be successfully integrated into the language learning process in order to teach not only vocabulary and grammar, but also initiate meaningful and up to date conversations about different real-life situations in students’ lives – both in Latvia and elsewhere – such as people’s habits, income and expenses, art, culture, sports, public administration etc. 

Along with these linguistic aspects, Berra has covered the pedagogical side as well. In fact, this book is primarily meant for practicing teachers and students of pedagogy. Along with the latest language teaching theories and approaches, such as place or task-based education, which might be useful to read for any teacher, she gives very clear tips and advice on how to plan, structure and organize a language lesson, and how to model the tasks and grade them which can be a great help for the new language teachers. The described practical tasks have been constructed for not large groups of adult students; therefore, if a public school teacher wants to include some of them in their practice, changes according to the groups size, students’ age and other important conditions are needed. 

The book is in Latvian; it is a 296-page work published in 2020 by The University of Latvia's Latvian Language Institute, with Indra Lapinska serving as methodological consultant. It contains six chapters, each of them starting with 5-8 key questions that are discussed throughout. At the end of each chapter, there is a list of literature that has been used. Berra has compiled a list of recommended literature (35 items in Latvian and English language) for further studies, which can be found at the end of the book. The samples of the tasks are highlighted with a green line on the outside edge. Personally, I would prefer if some of the photos were bigger or clearer, as it was impossible to read the text in some of them; however, they were acceptable as visual examples of linguistic landscape signs, and came with descriptions of how they could be used in the learning process. 

Although the book is mainly meant as material for foreign language teachers, being a Latvian as a second language teacher for middle school students, I also found it interesting and useful, especially because I have had to take part in writing study programs, and have created a lot of studying materials myself. However, I haven’t personally used many linguistic landscape elements, which now seems like it would be a very interesting and usable resource for me to use as well.

To those who are interested in this topic, I can recommend another one of Berra’s book – a popular science e-book in linguistics for teachers that covers pretty much the same issues: Ceļvedis pilsētu tekstu izpētē (A Guide for Exploring City Texts). You can also find linguistic landscape related articles in Latvian and English on Berra’s blog:

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