The Remarkable Power of Stories and Storytelling as Ways to Learn Languages
When I started learning German some time ago, I came across an outstanding example of the remarkable power of stories and storytelling in my own life.
I was working on memorizing my first few German words, and I quickly realized that this time, my native Italian and the other languages I’ve learned would not be of much help.
While it was quite easy to memorize words similar to English, like gut, muss, Ende, and Freund, there were many words for which I had no cognate or other crutch to lean on. Among them were Schatz (treasure) and Insel (Island). And yet I learned these two words effortlessly.
How? The reason is simple. Without even knowing it, I had already memorized these words through a story.
One day, when I was a kid, I was with my father at a flea market and we came across a beautifully illustrated children’s book. The cover and pictures were so stunning that I almost failed to notice that the book was not in Italian. “Luca, we can buy it, but the book is in German – at least, I guess,” said my father. I had a look and read the title out loud, with some difficulty: “Die Scha...tz...ins...el.”
Once home, my father explained to me that it was a German translation of the famous book “Treasure Island” (Die Schatzinsel in German) by Robert Louis Stevenson. He gave me the Italian edition and suggested that read it while flipping through the pages of the illustrated version.
I must have leafed those pages a million of times, and I loved to try to make connections between the story I was reading and the images in the illustrated version. That might have been the moment when my fascination for languages was born, and also probably the reason why several years later I decided to begin learning German seriously.
I am telling you this personal memory to give you an example of the power of stories for learning new things, such as the vocabulary of a language you want to speak. Thanks to a story I read, I passively memorized two words in German (“Schatz” and “Insel”) which are usually quite difficult words to learn, at least for Italian speakers.
"The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories."
-- Mary Catherine Bateson
Stories and storytelling are two insanely effective tools that every language learner should use. In this article I’ll explain why, and how you can use stories to learn languages.
Why You Should Use Stories to Learn Languages
The idea of learning a language through stories should be somewhat familiar to you. I’m sure people have already suggested watching movies and TV series to improve your language skills. Or maybe reading books, or even comics, in your target language. Movies, TV series, books, comics... they all tell stories with one main goal: to entertain their audience. This leads me to the first and most important reason to learn a language with stories.
1 - Stories Are Entertaining and Fun
One of the reasons why most people struggle with language learning is that they find practicing quite boring. I can’t blame them; in school, it seems like the world was out to convince us that learning a language is tedious and painstaking (are all those bad memories of grammar exercises and rote memorization flooding back yet?).
But what if we could actually have fun while improving our target language skills? That’s exactly what a story can do. For example, I used to mainly watch Friends because it was relaxing and entertaining. But since I watched it in English, I killed two birds with one stone: while having fun, I was also improving my English!
2 - Stories Help Us Memorize New Vocabulary
Stories are great tools for memorizing new words and phrases because they leverage important memory mechanisms like emotion, visualization, exaggeration, movement and connections.
It’s not a coincidence that one of the most popular techniques among memory experts is to build a story around what they want to remember. Let’s say you want to memorize the word “perro” in Spanish. You are more likely to remember it if you:
3 - Stories Give Us Context
It’s much more effective to learn full phrases or sentences than single words. So even when you just want to memorize a word, you should always get some context by looking for example sentences.
In stories, every word you come across is surrounded by other words and phrases. Essentially, stories always give you some context, and context is key for memorizing words because it helps you create connections and associations, which are paramount if you want to remember the new vocabulary.
4 - Stories Teach Us Grammar and Syntax in the Most Natural Way
Stories give you an opportunity to acquire a language’s grammar and syntax in the most natural way. When you read a story, for example, you can acquire grammar intuitively, understanding and adopting the patterns you notice. It’s a bit like how children learn grammar rules. Instead of memorizing them one by one from a textbook, they just pick them up from context, repetition and constant exposure and try to reproduce them.
5 - Stories Create Environments of Linguistic and Cultural Immersion
A common belief is that to learn a language, you need to live in a country where that language is spoken.
While living abroad does not guarantee you will learn the language, it’s true that it can provide full immersion in your target language. But most people can’t just pick up their lives and move to another country.
Luckily, there are many alternatives that can produce the same immersion effect. Stories are one of them. Take the example of a TV series that is set in the country where your target language is spoken. While watching it, you can experience immersion in that language, culture, and country. If you regularly “consume” stories (by that I mean reading them, watching them on TV or live, listening to them, acting them out, etc.) you’ll benefit from a lot of immersion time, which is very useful for building a strong connection with the language and learning it faster.
Introducing the TPR Storytelling Method
In the 1980s, an American teacher named Blaine Ray, who was fully convinced of the remarkable power of stories to teach foreign language, had an idea. That idea blossomed into an interesting, and most importantly, an effective teaching strategy, which he called TPRS.
The acronym stands for:
As you probably guessed, his approach uses stories to teach language. The TPRS method is a mixture of reading, listening and storytelling, and its main goal is to help students achieve proficiency in an entertaining way.
Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Establish Meaning
The first step of the TPRS strategy is to establish meaning. That basically just means to introduce new vocabulary and make sure students understand it.
Learners become familiar with new words and phrases by reading and hearing them. In this step, they need to come in contact with new vocabulary and figure out its meaning. Then, learners answer some questions that provide context for the new words. Students say the questions and answers out loud several times. Doing so serves two main purposes:
1. To give students as much contextual spoken practice of the vocab as possible
2. To test their comprehension
Step 2: Listen to a Story
In the next step of the TPRS method, students listen to a story. The story needs to be short, simple, and entertaining, and include as much of the new vocabulary as possible.
The teacher plays or reads the story several times so that students have time to work on their comprehension skills. The story might be read at a slower pace than normal conversation to facilitate comprehension.
Then, learners answer a series of repetitive questions about the story for even more vocabulary practice.
Step 3: Read the Story
The last step is to read the story. The goal of this step is to make sure the vocabulary introduced in the first two steps sticks.
Students read the story several times in order to understand it completely, and also continue memorizing the new words they learned. They might even be encouraged to read other stories that contain some of the same words and phrases, for example another story on the same topic, or another chapter or installment of the original story.
The TPRS method was designed for classroom use, but it can work for you if you’re learning a language on your own, too.
TPRS for Independent Language Learners
Now that you have an idea of how the TPRS strategy works, I want to show you a practical approach to using stories to learn languages that adapts the method to independent learners’ needs:
Step 1 - Listen to a Short Story
Pick a story that is right for your level. It should be a bit harder than you are comfortable with, so that practicing with it actually improves your skills. Even if you understand only a small portion of it, that’s okay. The goal of this step is to focus on what you hear and familiarize yourself with how the language sounds, without being influenced by how it looks on paper.
Step 2 - Memorize Targeted Vocabulary
The second step in this adapted method matches up to the first one in the classic TPRS. Memorize some words and phrases from the story. You don’t need to learn every single word, and you might already know some of the vocabulary anyway. I recommend using a flashcard app to learn new words. It will make the following steps easier.
Step 3 - Repeat Step 1 — Listen Again
In this step, listen to the same story from step 1 again. You’ll understand more this time around, because you have worked on memorizing the most important vocabulary. Once again, focus only on what you hear, and don’t allow yourself any visual clues yet (such as a transcript or subtitles) – that part will come soon.
Step 4 - Listen with the Text in Hand
During the fourth step, you should listen to the same story again, but this time read along. “Studying the text” is not only helpful for filling in gaps in understanding, but also for noticing syntax and grammar structures.
Step 5 - Listen One Last Time
In the fifth and final step, listen one more time. Focus on how the work you did throughout the previous steps helped you understand the story better.
If you’d like a little more practice, you can add one more step: shadowing, or pronunciation training. Repeat each line of the story after the native speaker who is reading or performing it, and see if you can match your sounds and intonation to theirs.
Where to Find Stories to Learn Foreign Languages
Now that you have a strategy, you’ll need to find material to practice it with. Stories come in many forms, and there are tons available online: short stories, podcasts, audiobooks, videos, and more. But you have to know where to look.
As always, Google is your friend and you can try to look for useful resources by searching terms like “stories in French”, “podcasts in Spanish”, “audiobooks in German”, and so on and so forth.
As for videos, you have plenty of them on platforms like YouTube and Vimeo: sometimes subtitles in different languages are available.
Based on my experience, it can be tricky to find stories that are neither too easy nor too difficult, and that are also interesting. And even when they meet those two criteria, they might not contain the vocab and structures you need or want to learn.
Therefore, if you want to save time and get a turnkey solution to leverage the power of stories to learn languages, I suggest using stories that were designed specifically for language learners. Stories like the one in MosaSeries: The Man with No Name, an original language course by MosaLingua, the language learning company I co-founded.
In the course, MosaSeries participants discover the story of a man who wakes up in a hospital without any recollection of how he got there or who he is. Episode after episode, students practice immersion in their target language as they learn more about the main character. They end up getting hooked on the story and benefitting from all the advantages of storytelling and stories that I already mentioned.
Storytelling has had an important place in nearly every society and culture for centuries.
Stories entertain us, take our mind off our day-to-day problems, transport us to other worlds and put us in other people’s shoes, make us feel things, and teach us important lessons. That much hasn’t changed (and it’s why stories are such powerful tools for language learners, like I said).But how we share stories has changed.
Luckily for us, we are no longer limited to the stories told by the people in our family or even the people in our town or country. The internet has made stories incredibly accessible; the topics, languages, and formats that interest you are just a click away.
But if you want to use them to learn a language, simply watching, reading, or listening to stories isn’t enough. Adopt a structured method to make the most of your time and effort. As a reminder, the adapted TPRS strategy I recommend goes like this: listen, memorize, listen, read, listen…and last but not least, be amazed at how far you’ve come!
Now that you know where to find stories and how to best use them to your advantage during language self-study, the rest is up to you. So go out and find your own “Schatzinsel”!
Written by Luca Sadurny