Using Realia Resources in Language Teaching & Learning

Realia is everyday, authentic objects, such as photographs, menus, brochures, receipts, maps, movies, television shows, commercials, etc. that are used to teach and learn languages. Some researchers include any items that can be used to prompt conversations or role-play, such as telephones, but those are generally meant to be employed in the classroom with other learners. For self-study, the most helpful realia illustrates how the language is actually used in the country where it is spoken. Visiting the country to experience the language is obviously the best way to learn, but in the absence of the time and money necessary for travel, the internet can provide much of the realia needed.

Online ad showing spoken French: Yapamieux = Il n’y a pas mieux

The lack of authentic language in language learning materials was most striking to me upon arriving in France and realizing that what I had learned in my classes was not how people actually spoke. I still recall the dialog in my textbook for buying train tickets, which consisted of a mere 4 lines and completely lacked any cultural clues as to what country it was referring to. Most textbooks default to France and teach a little about the rail system, the SNCF, but they neglect to include the specific names of trains. It is very important to know the difference between the TGV and TER, or what types of trains Lunéa, Téoz and Intercités are, or what the Carte 12-25 or Carte Escapades are used for. And as soon as you cross the border into Switzerland or Belgium, there is a new list of names and acronyms for the rail systems and trains to deal with: CFF, SNCB, ICT, ICN, etc.

Probably need to find out what composter means before getting on the train…

So why didn’t my textbook (or teacher) provide us with an actual train ticket and schedule, or at least a copy of one? Why did I never see a real menu from an actual restaurant while we were learning food vocabulary? I realized it may be a little difficult for North American teachers to have access to these types of realia, which is why I started scanning my old train tickets and receipts. Then I started taking pictures of menus and signs; anything with the written language that I thought would be useful for learners. Currently my realia collection includes French, German, Croatian and Danish, and I will be adding Dutch and Italian in the next few months. Every time I travel, I make sure to gather as much visual realia as possible, as well as website addresses of stores, restaurants, museums, and public transportation companies since many offer downloads of catalogs or menus or schedules.

What would you like to drink?

You don’t necessarily have to be in the country in order to experience and learn its language. The internet allows you to get very close without leaving your home. I certainly wish I would have been able to look at menus before arriving. I would have known that everyone says cookie instead of biscuit and ice tea instead of thé glacé (the latter being the only words my books ever taught me). And if Youtube had been around when I was in school, I could have watched plenty of videos and listened to spoken, informal French instead of relying on scripted dialogs from a textbook. This is yet another reason why I started the Informal French and Listening Resources pages. Getting as much exposure to the real language as possible is now a priority for me when first learning a language (I learned my lesson with French!) and so I find myself using the internet much more often than any of my books, unless I specifically want to focus on grammar.


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  • Betty Carlson

    I haven't heard the word “realia” in years, oddly. I remember bringing home suitcases packed with it in the 80s after my trips to France. Now I tend to rely on the Internet for everything, but your approach to scanning what you find is interesting.

  • Cynthia

    That is a great idea! I know a lot of people who have learned English in class but still feel intimidated in front of a real menu.

    However, I still say biscuit, thé glacé and canneberge but that's probably because I am from Quebec :)

  • Zhu

    That's how teaching should be and I think this is a great idea. I struggled to get current materials when I was teaching.

  • ielanguages

    I feel like that's why so many teachers don't use realia – it's just too hard to come by in certain situations.

  • ielanguages

    I prefer all of those words anyway. Guess I should live in Quebec! :)

  • ielanguages

    Yes, we can find almost anything on the internet these days. Even comparing my language classes from 10 years ago to now is interesting considering how much technology has progressed and how schools are utilizing it. Makes me wish I were in school now!

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  • Danielle

    I love this entry. It’s so true–I’m going to China next winter to take a couple of classes, but all I know is the random stuff covered in textbook dialogs that most likely are nothing like what real conversations are like, unfortunately. I’m a little scared of this.

    PS–Is it alright that I quoted you in an entry I wrote for my blog?

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  • flowers in bhopal

    I’m doing Homework for college and I’m stuck in a point where
    I must describe the language resources used when writing instructions. I could
    use some help.

  • sai

    very good

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.


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