How to Learn a Language Using Stories

by Orestes Orlando Jiménez Pineda

Maybe you've tried to learn a new language before by taking classes or using a language app. If you spent most of your time conjugating verbs, learning grammar rules or drilling on vocabulary words, I'm betting that you didn't gain the fluency you wanted.

Why? Well, frankly, this approach to language learning is boring. Grammar lessons and vocabulary lists just don't fire up our brains.

What does? Stories.

“We are, as a species, addicted to story,” Jonathan Gottschall writes in his book “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.” Stories help us understand the world and give shape to our lives. We just can't resist them. And you can make use of that “addiction” to learn a new language faster.

Stories Are All Around Us

Did you know that you already have an impressive track record of using stories to master a language? You don't remember it, but you probably learned your first language from the adults around you engaging in a lot of storytelling and narration.

If they read you bedtime stories with pictures, that helped you connect words with images and context. But the stories that were all around you didn't just come from books. Before you could even talk, your parents or other caregivers had one-sided conversations with you. Maybe your dad sat you in the high chair in the kitchen and talked to you about the dinner he was making. Or your mom told you about the places you were seeing as you rode in the car with her.

And when the grown-ups in your life weren't talking to you, you heard them talking to each other — and exchanging stories. Your parents telling each other how their days went. The teachers at your daycare talking about the big storm last night. The woman ahead of your family in the grocery line telling the clerk about the party she's buying supplies for. As you listened to all the storytelling around you, you learned to put together people's words, facial expressions and emotions to discern the meaning of what they were saying.

How to Choose Stories for Language Learning

Learning a new language works the same way as learning your native language. You need to surround yourself with stories in your target language that are relevant, memorable and interesting to you.

When you were little, your bedtime stories fit the bill. Today, as a grown-up language learner, you can build your fluency by using stories like fiction or nonfiction books, scripts for plays or movies and TV show subtitles or transcripts. Use these tips to choose stories that will help you reach general fluency faster.

A special note about the news: Many students tell me they've been advised to watch the news in their target language because newscasters speak clearly and slowly. Now, I understand why someone would suggest this. But I also believe it sets language learners up for failure. The only people who talk like newscasters are, well, other newscasters. Newscasters don't typically use everyday language or phrases that you would hear with friends, family or colleagues. Furthermore, few native speakers speak as clearly as newscasters do. So watching the news isn't the best way to practice everyday conversation. It's not the worst thing you can do, of course, but you can spend your precious time in more productive ways.

Oh, and one more note if you will need to use your target language in a specialized business or academic context: Stories like the ones above probably will not give you the vocabulary you need, so adjust these ideas accordingly.

Staying Motivated to Learn

Now that you know which stories to surround yourself with, how do you actually learn from them — and keep yourself from getting bored, frustrated or annoyed if you feel like you aren't learning fast enough? Here are a few strategies that have worked for my students.

Using Stories with a Native Speaker

If you know someone who's a native speaker of the language you are learning, ask if they can work with you as you use stories to build fluency. One learning strategy I really like is listening to an audio or movie clip or reading a dialogue with a native speaker friend or a tutor. Then you can summarize what you heard to the native speaker and have them ask you a ton of questions about it. You can do this many times using one dialogue, story or conversation. I've used the same conversation for an hour with my private tutor. She asks me 60+ questions about the dialogue. For example:

You get the idea!

No matter how you choose to incorporate stories into your language learning, doing so will help you reach fluency faster — and have more fun along the way — than endless drilling on vocabulary and grammar rules will. The trick is harnessing our natural human curiosity about “what happens next” and using it to immerse yourself in your new language.

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