Learning a Foreign Language Through Storytelling: Does it Work?
If you’re looking to learn a foreign language to near-native proficiency, don’t ignore one of the best learning methods ever invented.
From cave paintings to Egyptian hieroglyphics and Homer’s Odyssey to the most popular Netflix series, storytelling has been a key part of our communication, learning and entertainment since the dawn of time.
It’s a little surprising, then, that it’s not been used more in language learning methodologies. Until now.
Let’s take a closer look at why we should be doing more with the available technology and how we can unlock the language-learning capacities of every language student out there:
- Why has the power of storytelling not been harnessed more?
- Storytelling in a foreign language you’re probably NOT learning
- What is Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS)?
- Comprehensible input in a low-stress environment
- Modern stories and modern language learning
We’ll also show you how a simple Chrome extension is all you need to learn your chosen second language from interactive, engaging, story-based content — helping you acquire and speak the language more effectively than traditional teaching methods.
Why has the power of storytelling not been harnessed more in modern language learning?
Given the capacity of storytelling to engage the listener/viewer and “strike” the brain in the right area to be able to recall it later, you might imagine that teachers around the world would be clambering to use storytelling to raise the proficiency levels of their students.
But that hasn’t been the case.
We can’t blame the lack of technology. The cave painters had little on that front. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were created without the use of digital graphic design tools.
Other cultures used song, chant and epic poetry to tell stories that had been handed down from generation to generation. Homer’s epic poetry was performed to music to pass down stories to his contemporaries.
Today, we have endless tools to be able to use stories to accelerate foreign language learning but until recently, they’ve been under-utilized.
Storytelling in a foreign language you’re probably NOT learning…
The Thai language has 44 consonants. The way these consonants are taught to primary school children is to associate each consonant with an animal or everyday item to make it easier to remember.
Children are taught the order of these consonants (their ABC, if you like) through a rhyme that links the consonants together in order.
So, part of the rhyme goes like this:
Ch is for ching (finger cymbals), struck so loudly
Ch is for chang (the elephant) who runs away
S is for soh (the chain), to tie him up
Elsewhere, we have:
Y is for the beautiful ying (girl)
D is for cha daa (the dance hat), she hastily dons
Not only is it a rhyme but it includes elements of storytelling for children to learn the correct order of the Thai alphabet. The Thais also have a similar rhyme/story for learning English (the ABC).
Regardless of the language, storytelling is an integral part of how children learn and acquire language. And we can learn a lot from this as teachers and students of foreign languages.
What is Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS)?
Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) is a highly effective second-language-teaching method based on the idea that the brain needs comprehensible input to acquire a new language.
Comprehensible input refers to the ability to understand the essence of what is being said or presented to a student — according to Stephen Krashen, a linguistic expert and leading voice in second language acquisition. You can read more about Krashen here.
Krashen noted that comprehensible input can happen even without teaching or explicit instruction — and happens best when the listener is interested in the subject matter. It’s how children acquire language.
The term Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling was coined by Blaine Ray, a Spanish teacher in the late 1980s. He was heavily influenced by Krashen’s work.
The TPRS method facilitates an accelerated acquisition of language through the co-creation of stories in the target language in a classroom setting.
It has achieved some impressive results. For instance, some TPRS online classes have helped students reach the intermediate-mid level for a second language in less than 100 hours compared with the standard 400-600 hours.
How does TPRS work?
The process of Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling goes through three basic steps:
- Establish meaning: targeted new vocab structures are taught using translation, gestures, and personalized questions
- Story: those structures are used in a spoken class story
- Reading: these same structures are used in a class reading
During these three steps, the teacher should use techniques to make the target language comprehensible to the students. This will include:
- The careful limiting of vocabulary
- Constant checking of comprehension with simple questions
- Short grammar explanations (known as “pop-up grammar”)
Each lesson is very focused, targeting only a few vocabulary phrases or fewer. Students must demonstrate that they have internalized each phrase before moving on to new material. If not, additional story lessons should be provided with the same vocabulary.
Some teachers also introduce free voluntary reading activities for students.
Comprehensible input in a low-stress environment
Krashen extolled the virtues for second language learners of large amounts of comprehensible input in a low-anxiety environment.
This, he believed, would accelerate both fluency and accuracy of language learning.
While TPR Storytelling helps teachers to provide the necessary input in a classroom setting, it doesn’t always achieve the low-stress, low-anxiety environment that Krashen expressed the importance of.
How can we create that type of environment?
Modern stories and modern language learning
Most of us learn stories today through the many tools available — social media, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, digital TV, Kindle, digital newspapers, and so on.
We’re spoilt for choice.
For foreign language learners, the opportunities to learn language through these stories have expanded as AI has developed. Now we can watch highly engaging subject matter on the topic of our choice via on-demand video and have it translated automatically into our target language.
This allows language learners to get large amounts of comprehensible input in an anxiety-free environment: precisely what Krashen and Ray were referring to in their work.
Ultimately, then, everybody has the potentially ideal setup to acquire language through stories. So why are so few language learners using it to take the next step up in proficiency?
Looking to learn a language to near-native proficiency?
So many language learners complain of getting to a level from which they just can’t make further notable advancements.
A simple Chrome extension may help you change that. It combines the benefits of AI and human-based learning to translate material that engages the learner and encourages a deeper immersion into the target language: i.e., as close as you can get to having a language tutor follow you around 24/7.
If you’re targeting near-native proficiency, you’ll find our app will help you acquire language more readily through video and storytelling.
Find out more and download it here to get started.