The Importance of Narrative in Language Acquisition
Narrativity is ubiquitous in our lives. We encounter narratives in stories, both oral and written, in films, books, television shows, and comic books. Children become acquainted with narrative from a young age, and it is closely tied with the way they learn the language.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Javier A. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
The Power of Stories
Among other things, we learn a language to tell stories. We even often tend to think of our lives as long and complex narratives. Because of the pervasiveness and universality of stories, across geographical and cultural boundaries, they are a perfect vehicle for the transmission of language skills.
Stories in other languages can be not only valuable cultural artifacts for exploration of the language at hand but also invaluable tools for learning the language. Stories are an excellent device for learning language precisely because they shift the focus away from the language-learning mindset. When anyone, child or adult, is trying to understand a story, whether it is being heard or read, the goal is not to learn the language that is being spoken on a linguistic level. Rather, the motivation comes from wanting to understand the story, from a desire to follow the narrative, a desire that is ingrained in us from a young age. Learning and understanding the language serves as a necessary tool for understanding the story.
Language Learning Process
The language learning element, then, is seamless. The student is not constantly consciously aware of the fact that their brain is engaged in language-acquisition processes (as they might be in a conventional classroom setting) because they are giving in to their natural desire to understand the story. This sort of linguistic “bait-and-switch” can be especially helpful when working with students of all ages who lack motivation for learning English. Teachers can take advantage of students’ inherent tendency to understand stories to extract language-acquisition as a byproduct. For example, it is unlikely that a child would be interested or even capable of fully comprehending a traditional grammar lesson. This may lead him or her to become distracted or unmotivated. But conversely, if we tell a child a story, say in the form of a fairy tale, their attention will be seized. Since the child will want to understand the narrative, he or she will unknowingly have to learn the grammatical structures that are governing the story. The learning, then, is seamless.
The same thing can be true of adult learners. They too can easily lose motivation or interest in a lesson if the material is too dry or complicated, if elements of the outside lives are interfering, or if they are being forced to learn the language. In the case of an adult, a teacher can resort to the use of a narrative journalistic article or a short story or a film. This is an easy and useful way to introduce authentic material into a class, which in its own right, can increase students’ confidence in the language by showing them they can comprehend authentic sources. When we give an adult learner a short story, they will no longer feel that they are in language-learning-mode. Instead, they will feel that they are in narrative-understanding-mode, which is a much more natural and comfortable place for students to be.
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Just with a child, adult students’ brains will be engaged in language-learning processes even if their motivation lies elsewhere. If, for example, we stop a reader at a crucial point in the story, they will have a natural urge to know what comes next. Television programs use this technique in the form of “cliffhangers” to ensure that audience members will tune in the following week. We have a natural impulse that is almost uncontrollable to see stories through to the end, to understand how they conclude. Teachers can use this impulse in students to motivate them to keep reading (or listening or watching), and therefore, as a byproduct, to keep learning the target language.
Stories as a Tool
Stories can also serve as tools for language retention. They can encourage students to keep learning the language independently. Teachers can recommend books or movies to students once a class is over. This not only builds rapport between teacher and student but encourages them to independently use their narrative skills and apply them to practice the language.
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None of this is to say that stories should be the only tool used to impart language. They likely will not even be the primary one. However, they can be invaluable in bringing variety into a classroom, introducing authentic materials, and re-motivating students. If different forms of narrative are successfully integrated into a curriculum, they can help students gain a greater cultural and linguistic connection to the language at hand. It is no surprise that for many young children, their favorite part of the school day is not an academic class, but rather “story-time”. Narrativity, then, helps make learning a source of joy for students, a goal that a teacher should always strive for.
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