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How Stories Help Learn a Language

Updated: Feb 1

Why stories matter

Storytelling has been around since the existence of mankind.

Okay, I'm exaggerating -- forgive my desire for the epic and hyperbolic. But oral storytelling goes back further than we will ever be able to accurately pin point, past the Old Testament, way beyond records of the Greek Gods on vases, surpassing the tale of Gilgamesh (the oldest recorded story thus far) and on to who knows where, and story telling in general is an undeniably important learning tool.

George Miller's 3000 Year of Longing is a perfect example of the impact and significance of stories. If you haven't seen it, get it on your to-watch list!

Stories teach us everything
3000 Years of Longing

Stories and Learning

When teaching children, stories are fundamental for expanding language use and general knowledge. Children’s stories follow a set structure that makes them memorable and brings the listener a sense of achievement and satisfaction.

As we become more exposed to stories, we get better at remembering and retelling them. Passing them on and inviting others into that world is a source of great satisfaction for children and adults alike because we like to entertain each other but we also enjoy sharing useful information. Through stories, we discover different ways to navigate the world and our knowledge expands again and again.

Reading and watching a lot is a gateway to the many ways stories work (and that list is endless), new words, new sentence structures, but also morals, different types of people, ways of living, cultures, life processes, and so much more.

Today, people write in English across the globe and from all kinds of perspectives. So when you go to the library, you can travel from India with The God of Small Things, over to America with East of Eden, and into the heart of London with Queenie.

Stories help us unravel history, especially when challenged to consider who’s telling the story, why they hold their views, and who’s kept away from the page.

They have transformative powers.

They are portals into different cultures and historical moments, as well as springboards for discovering new ways to manipulate language.

As I said in my last post, English has become a global language, and with it, we know so much more about human experience and language use.

That’s why Scallywag Words utilises stories and poetry in its language teaching approach. Learning English through stories breaks down the expectation that there is one ‘correct way’ to use English and opens up possibilities to explore the language instead.

Selection of books written in English
Stories from all over

How to apply stories to learning a language

Whether you’re starting your English language journey or are an advanced learner with aims to improve for work, an exam, or an interview, there’s a place for stories in your practice. Learning through stories bolsters confidence. Confidence breeds creativity, and creativity allows us freedom when speaking.

Let’s go back to the oldest story on record to see how it works, the story of King Gilgamesh.

To start, Gilgamesh is a delicious word to say. Go on. Give it a go -- Gilgamesh. Mmm. Doesn’t that just roll off the tongue?

As well as being fun to say, the name Gilgamesh has lots of sounds that are good for practicing pronunciation.

There’s great images of him (see below) to use for prompts in prediction exercises. What does he look like? Who do you think he was? What kind of life did he lead? We can talk about colours, emotions, body parts, and then explore the story to learn new vocabulary. Here, we're being creative with our English use from the outset.

Learn English by looking at stories
Gilgamesh - The Oldest Story

For intermediate learners, his story can be used to introduce new vocabulary and look at the past tense. We can come back to our prediction and say if we were right or wrong about what he was like and justify our ideas.

For more advanced learners, we can synthesise information from his story and ask serious questions about the life of this man. Was he a good king? Did people like him? Who is he like that is alive today and how? This gives space for reading comprehension and then free discussion.

For advanced learners, we can look at the story and then turn to researchers like Dr Thomas Swan from the University of Otago, whose research centres around the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion. Here’s an extract from a recent essay about Gilgamesh:

“Primarily, the epic is a window into the desires and troubles that immersed the thoughts of a semi-divine Sumerian king. More than just a tale of heroism, it is the story of Gilgamesh’s path to wisdom and maturity, the benefits of civilisation over savagery, and a lesson for future kings to fulfil their sacred and mundane duties. Perhaps the most pervasive theme is Gilgamesh’s fear of death, a continual concern that is as striking today as it was thousands of years ago.”

Look at all the delicious language in Swan’s essay!

This text provides wonderful opportunities to get really creative. Can you simplify the text and explain it to me in your own words? What words do we want to define for future use? If we're feeling good and want to get really advanced, we could think about the concepts Swan writes about: how can someone be semi-divine? How might that feel? What does 'civilisation over savagery' mean? What is the difference between sacred and mundane?

No matter your English level, a story like this is a great way in!

So, yeah, they’re stories, but look at the possibilities for language growth.

Learn English
Story telling persists through time

Storytelling Persists