Think back to when you were first learning your own native language. Your parents, teachers and caregivers probably ran their fair share of alphabet drills with you, yes. But for the most part, you learned through stories. Stories before bed, stories during preschool and stories in children’s books that you could follow along with if the adult reading to you traced the words with their finger. Language learning through storytelling isn’t just an effective means of acquiring language skills; it’s usually the first approach most of us ever took.
Storytelling, it seems, is part of being human. It’s the original way many of us learn as children, and it’s the original way various cultures passed down their traditions before, and even after, written language came to be.
But how does it hold up as a language learning method for adults, especially in an era when apps, voice recognition technology, automatic translation and AI chatbots also exist? As it turns out, language learning through storytelling may always remain as one of the most effective approaches. If you’ve been struggling, bored, or stuck banging your head against a wall trying to memorize grammar rules, there might be a better, more entertaining way to get where you’re going.
Why Language Learning Through Storytelling Works So Well
Why Storytelling Is Important
Since the days of cave paintings, storytelling has been one of the primary means for the creation and transmission of human culture. Storytelling was a way of developing human language further, of tapping into its abstract dimensions, in ways that go beyond rote communication of nearby danger or food up ahead.
Oral traditions were the means by which proverbs, riddles, tales, nursery rhymes, legends, myths, epic songs and poems, charms, prayers, chants and songs would persist. Through them, cultures were able to cohere and remain intact, and to pass their knowledge, memory and values down to future generations. It’s not a total coincidence that many language revitalization projects, like Wikitongues and the Endangered Languages Project, are working to document some of these oral traditions as a means of preserving minority languages that are close to dying out.
Stories also get our brain chemistry moving in a positive direction. In a 2013 study, researchers found that participants scored higher on empathy assessments after reading fiction that drew them in emotionally than they did after reading nonfiction, or after reading fiction that didn’t emotionally transport them into the story. Feeling emotionally invested in a book or movie usually means you’re feeling the same feelings you imagine the characters must be feeling. The more stories you connect with, the theory goes, the more empathetic you become in your actual lived experience.
According to psychologist Pamela Rutledge, storytelling also affects the brain in a number of other important ways. It triggers the release of dopamine in response to an emotionally charged event, resolution of conflict or recognition of a pattern, which ultimately aids memory recall. Conflict in a story releases cortisol, which also boosts attention and memory. Finally, empathy toward characters is the result of oxytocin, mirror neurons and neural coupling (which synchronizes the listener’s brain with the teller’s).
How Does Storytelling Develop Language Skills?
Hint: you already learned one of the potential answers to this question in the previous section. Stories often trigger dopamine and cortisol release in the brain, which make the associated events easier to recall in your memory. In short, vocabulary and grammar you learn through an engaging story will literally be easier to remember. Emotions tend to aid memory — so much so that cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner believes we’re 22 times more likely to remember facts if they’re told as part of a story.
Beyond the neuroscience of it, storytelling naturally lends itself to some of the parts of language learning that can be difficult to do. It’s more effective to learn new vocabulary in the context of a full sentence or story because you naturally absorb contextual clues, as well as grammar and syntax rules. Plus, storytelling is a more effective language study tool because it’s simply more interesting and engaging than flashcards or grammar textbooks. If it holds your attention better, why not roll with it?
Italian polyglot Luca Sadurny is a proponent of language learning through storytelling. One of his best tips for incorporating language learning stories in your practice is to build stories and sentences around what you’re learning to associate new words with each other. Associating a new word with something you already know or find interesting will help you remember it better. If you can link it to an emotionally charged event from your past, or a visual you find exciting, even better.
If you’re curious about how to implement storytelling into your study routine, there’s actually already an established protocol for that. Language teacher Blaine Ray came up with TPRS, or Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling, in the 1980s.
There are three main steps to TPRS:
- Establish meaning. This is essentially the introduction of new vocabulary or getting students acquainted with the main premise of the story via a translation of it. They may also have to figure out the meaning of new vocabulary using context clues.
- Ask a story. The students themselves are involved in creating a story around the new words, or they listen to a story that was already written. The teacher plays it back or reads it a few times, and students then answer some questions about the story to test their comprehension.
- Read and discuss. Students read the story themselves a couple times to help make sure the vocabulary sticks in their memory.
This is relatively easy to recreate on your own, or through learning media created for this purpose like Un Día En Español, Babbel’s Spanish-language podcast that features short stories narrated in a mix of English and Spanish and vocabulary guides for beginners.