You may have never considered learning a foreign language with stories.
You might not even think it’s possible!
But from all my years of teaching and learning languages myself (eight languages so far!) I’ve found that a language learning method based on input – stories in particular – is the most powerful of all.
Not only is learning with stories extremely effective, it’s more fun and enjoyable too!
By removing the need for a lot of the so-called “study” – the textbook or classroom work you probably remember from school – you’ll find the day-to-day experience of language learning to be rich and fulfilling, quite unlike anything you’ve tried in the past.
So here goes…
Stories are how we, as people, make sense of the world.
From the first caveman drawings over 35,000 years ago, to our walls on Facebook, we communicate by telling the people around us about the meaningful events in our lives.
In fact, according to a study in Scientific American, personal stories and gossip makeup 65% of our communication. If the way we all communicate is by telling or listening to stories or one kind or another, why would you learn a foreign language in any other way?
It’s a nice way to learn!
The magic of story, whether truth or fiction, is that a story grabs your attention and captivates you.
How would you rather learn a language – sat in a classroom on a weekday staring at an exercise book, or sat at home with a cup of coffee getting lost in a page-turner?
There’s more to this than you might think.
The affective filter hypothesis is the idea that your emotional state affects your learning.
If you’re happy and relaxed, you’re more likely to learn than if you’re bored or anxious.
Well, if you’re trying to optimise your learning environment, you may well get on better by spending your time with stories, a medium that’s meaningful and familiar, than in a classroom where you’re expected to not only memorise grammar rules, but use them accurately in your speaking or writing.
Now, some people thrive under that kind of pressure!
My guess is you’ll know which camp you fall into!
When you read or listen to stories, you have the opportunity to grow a huge vocabulary in your target language.
- Firstly, you get exposure to a huge numbers of words. For example, I did a quick analysis of my books of short stories for beginners, and of the 30,000 or so words in each book, there are 4,500 unique words. And that’s just in one book. There’s no other method that can conceivably offer you so much raw exposure to your target language. If you believe that part of learning a language is spending a lot of time with that language, stories are a good bet.
- Secondly, within any story, you’ll find repetition of key vocabulary. When you find certain words cropping up again and again at different points in the story, do you think that makes those words easier to remember? It certainly does. Compare this to textbooks where new words are typically introduced just once, in isolated chapters, and you can see how much easier it is to build your vocabulary within stories.
- Lastly, of course, vocabulary in a story is found in context, making it meaningful and memorable. Which leads us to…
Every word, every phrase, every preposition, every verb in a story… appears in context.
That means you learn which words naturally go together with other words… just like the combination of “appear” “in” and “context” in the last sentence.
You’ll never learn a word without knowing how to use it, or a grammar rule without a real-life example to go with it.
Unlike traditional language learning methods, with word lists, grammar rules and exercises, stories make sure that you learn things the way they’re supposed to be learned.
What’s the single most important factor in language learning?
Your motivation to learn your new language is ultimately the sole determinant of your success.
It’s kinda scary to think how important it is.
When people pick up a new language and then fizzle out after a few weeks, it’s not because the language is hard.
Really it’s not!
It’s because they’re not motivated enough to keep at it – to show up and study day after day, even after the novelty factor has worn off!
You’ll never be as motivated to spend time with your target language than when you’re knee deep in a great story, with cliffhangers and plot twists, desperate to find out what happens next, or whodunnit.
Your physiology changes when you follow a story – FMRI scans show that parts of the brain activate that would activate if you were actually living the story yourself.
Why else do you cry during a sad movie?
It’s because on some level you share their pain.
Stories engage your whole brain while listening or reading.
For learning, that means new languages will be considerably more memorable than if you learn language in an abstract classroom environment.
Stories are the universal method of teaching children their mother tongue.
Stories help kids learn words, phrases, pronunciation and grammar structures by interlacing them with characters, illustration and make-believe worlds.
Children who read build literacy faster and do better at school.
Now, you don’t need to believe that children learn languages in the same way as adults.
But when a method as old as time is used to reliably teach every child in the world to learn at least one language…don’t you think there’s something to be learned from that?
You can use stories to learn a language as a complete beginner.
Well, think about the most memorable TV adverts from your childhood. The classic serialised adverts using the same characters to tell a story:
Go back and watch one of them on YouTube, and notice the simplicity of the language.
Think how easy these would be for a beginner to study the language.
The language is straightforward, the imagery is powerful, the message is clear, and the story is unforgettable.
Simple stories are powerful at any level… why else do you still remember these ads 30 years on?
I've heard it said that the average speaker of a language uses only around 10% of his or her vocabulary in everyday speech.
So, if you’re relying on speaking to learn your target language, you’re unlikely to ever hear 90% of the words in the vocabulary of the average native speaker.
By learning with stories, on the other hand, you get to see high-quality, well-written language. That means more words, better grammar, and ultimately a much higher level of literacy and education in the language.
Ever noticed that grammar rules can be hard to remember? (You’re not the only one!)
And even once you’ve remembered a new grammar rule, ever try using it on the spot in the middle of a fast-paced conversation?
It’s another thing altogether.
It’s simply too hard, especially for languages with more complex grammar systems.
It may be convenient for teachers to base their teaching around rules…but it’s not great for you.
Instead of a “rules first’ approach, you can learn how grammar works in your target language by observing it naturally within stories.
By reading the story you get to see how grammar is being used in service of the storyline, and you can usually understand a lot, even if you don’t yet know the underlying rules!
Over time, you simply get used to how grammar is used.
Later, if you do look up the grammar rule, it’s to confirm or refine the understanding you already have… not to teach it to you from scratch.
When you realise grammar doesn’t have to be the painful monster you think it is, life gets better, and you’ll be a happier person… Really!
Unlike watching movies or speaking with people on the street, stories come in an ideal format for studying as language learning material.
By using audio narrations for the text, you are able to read what you hear, and hear what you read.
This makes everything more memorable, and also helps you to improve your listening skills at the same time.
With the text in front of you, you easily go back and review the text as many times as you want…far easier than rewinding a movie, or asking your friend to repeat the thing he just told you in conversion!
Stories are the ideal format for language learning material, and help you make the most of the time you have.
Thanks to memories of language learning from their school days, many people have an unhealthy obsession with rules and accuracy in language learning.
You had to pass those tests, after all!
Obsessing over rules can hold you back, because of all the time you could be spending doing other things with the language.
Learning with stories can help you avoid a dangerous obsession with rules, by having you focus on understanding and enjoying the story first and foremost.
The huge benefits of this approach are that you end up getting so much more exposure to global features of the language like sentence structure, narrative, sequencing events, and pronunciation in the case of audiobooks, which propels you forward much faster than if you were trying to learn everything from rules!
You’ll never run out of resources.
If you’re looking for stories to act as the foundation of you’re learning, with the magic of the internet you can now access anything that a native speaker in their own country can access.
There really isn’t any excuse not to be immersed in the target language.
We talked about using stories to learn a language as a beginner, but whatever level you’re at, you can use stories in exactly the same way to drive up your level from where it currently is to where you want it to be.
All you need to do is choose stories that are slightly above your current level, not too easy, not too hard, so that you’re pushed without being overwhelmed.
If you’ve fallen in love with the language you’re learning, then one of your goals is most likely to be able to live and breathe the culture too.
One of the main benefits of learning with a focus on input, such as reading and listening to stories, is that you’re training yourself to cope with authentic material in the language, things intended for native speakers… whether that’s a novel by your favourite author, or an opera by your favourite composer.
If you want to immerse yourself in the cultural side of your target language, then stories help you get there fast!
Modern teaching methods, especially what is often referred to as “Communicative Language Teaching” place an emphasis on speaking your new language from the start.
But for many people, there’s a lot of fear associated with starting to speak a new language with another human being.
You might think: “How can I start speaking when I don’t know anything yet?”
If this is you, then learning with stories offers you a wonderful alternative.
By spending your time listening and reading to entertaining stories, you simply focus on building your understanding and awareness of the language.
You let new words sink in.
You let grammar structures take shape in your mind.
There’s no need to talk to anyone if you don’t want to (at least not yet!).
But when the time is right for you to start speaking, you’ll have built up a formidable vocabulary in your target language, and you’ll be able to enjoy your conversations in a more relaxed way, knowing that you’re able to express yourself and follow along.
Learning a language through stories is the best method I know of to pick up a new language, achieve any goals you have for that language, and enjoy yourself in the process.
To find out how you can get started learning languages with stories, including articles, materials, and more, everything you need is here on my website, iwillteachyoualanguage.com. Take a look around!
What do you think of the idea of using stories to learn a new language? Does it motivate you to learn? Leave a comment and let me know!