Storytelling for languages
Welcome to the Five Week Linguist Show. Today, I want to talk about your story. So stories are an amazing way to learn languages, and if there was any one thing I had to tell people to do, if I only had to pick one, because it works, everything works best when you have variety and you’re balancing the right amount of input with the right amount of output, et cetera, the way that you learned your own language, so it feels so sort of effortless, the more of that, the better. With that said, if I had to pick one thing, it would be stories to learn languages. And I want to dig a little bit deeper into that.
Storytelling for languages
So stories. Watch movies, binge watch on Netflix, on Yabla, on YouTube, really getting into people’s stories, and not just drama. It could be a play. It could be a film. It could be a TV show. History, right? Those are stories, too. Plays, books, audio stories. I love Olly Richards, especially for language learners, but they don’t necessarily have to be specifically for language learners. If there was one thing I would tell people, it would be to invest in interesting stories. I’m loving some of the stuff that Duolingo has been doing. The last time I checked their podcast in Spanish, they were taking stories from Medium and adapting them for their Spanish learners.
Why storytelling for languages?
Stories are powerful. This language is at the center of human connection, and one thing that we all share are our struggles through life, our challenges, our victories, love, not feeling love. And reading about those is a really powerful way to learn languages. So if you could find 30 minutes a day to somehow engage in stories in your language, please do so. And there’s some resources that are specifically made for learners. My very favorite Spanish reader was my easy Spanish reader that I discovered from my grandfather when I was in high school. And there’s versions in French and et cetera. Olly Richards, again, especially for language learners, but don’t feel limited to that. Get Netflix for language learning. It’s a Chrome extension, and they have on their website a whole catalog of shows in different languages. You just put a couple of filters on there, and you got it. You can find content in all kinds of languages. Get into those stories, really pay attention. It’s closed captioned and subtitled. You can really learn a lot that way.
Storytelling for languages: reading
Reading on the web. If you’re reading anything on the web, you can use something called Readlang, which is another browser extension, and it will help you read things in any language, and you can sort of toggle over words and it will translate for you and you can save them to your vocabulary and your dictionaries. It’s really powerful, really great. And it will also offer you recommendations for content in different languages, so newspapers and magazines. Really powerful. So instead of searching around for stories, you can use Readlang to help you.
Now, when we get into talking about stories, there’s a couple of levels that I want to talk about. So again, if I had to pick one thing to offer language learners, it would be get into stories, get into understanding stories. But the way to really accelerate progress is to use your own output. So all of those stories, whether you’re reading them or listening to them, all that understanding is input. And I always try to aim for twice as much input as I have output. And your output is really important. So when you can narrate in the past, you have just about hit the advanced level.
Storytelling for languages: yours
And I wrote a book some years ago, and a reviewer really had an issue with my statement in that narrating the past is an advanced level task. And it is. If you look on the CEFR, the Common European Framework for Reference, it is an advanced, it is a C level task, to be able to accurately narrate about things that have happened in the past, as well as ACTFL, the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages. So it’s advanced. It takes a lot to be able to really manage all of those different tenses and verbs and have all the vocabulary to really actively tell the story in the past. And I want to invite you to try to use that as a rule of thumb for when you hit that B2, moving into C2 level. I also have a list of narration tasks I will share with you, and you can kind of practice them and check them off.
But a really great way to do this is to actually do it yourself. Go through and create, not create, tell a story from your past. You can create a story, too. That’s fine. But talking about yourself is a really powerful way to learn languages. And in fact, one of the experts in my book, The Five Week Linguist, talks about how to do that as a beginner, not in a really advanced way, but about learning your biography. It’s really powerful, being able to talk about yourself. It’s a great way to learn vocabulary really quickly.
Storytelling for languages: mine
And I’m going to tell you a little bit about my story, and it’s really difficult for me to share some of this stuff, and I know that you all have similar stories in your life. So I have a very unusual background, as so many people do. I’ve never met anybody who has a background that’s anything like mine. On my father’s side, my family immigrated from Lithuania to the Boston area, and that’s very common. About a hundred years ago during a famine, many people, about 20% of the population of Lithuania, left. And many of them ended up in Boston and in Chicago.
And my family was very hardworking, and there’s some very, very intelligent people in my family who’ve worked very hard. I have a cousin who is a professor at Princeton. My great aunt, who would be in her hundreds now, was a human computer and did all calculations for a Nobel winning physicist and the man who invented the MRI. And that’s just among the many accomplishments on that side of my family. There have been people who’ve been very studious and they’ve worked very, very hard. And my father did, as well. My father in his early twenties got a doctoral degree in aeronautical engineering and became a professor at the Naval Academy in his twenties, a very bright man.
My mother has a very different background. My mother’s family comes from Atlanta, Georgia, and we are descended from very light-skinned slaves, and my grandfather was the grandson of slaves. And his father was a doctor who bought pharmacies and was able to make a lot money, and with that money, he decided to educate my grandfather. And at 12 years old, he took him to watch a lynching and said, “This is what happens to people in our country. And you need to change that.” And he sent him away. At that time in Georgia, public school didn’t go past the ninth grade. And while my great grandfather had the money to be able to send him to the private schools in Georgia, so we wouldn’t be too far away, nobody would take him.
But Phillips Andover in Massachusetts took my grandfather and he finished high school there, and he went to Harvard and then he went to Harvard Law. And after graduating, he returned to the South and didn’t pass the Bar. And so this man who graduated at the top of class in Harvard did not pass the Bar in Georgia. He kept trying and didn’t understand what the problem was. He found out three years before he died that no other African Americans who took the Bar during that time in the state of Georgia passed. He moved to Philadelphia and had a very successful law career, but wanted to live in the South, and moved back and began teaching law in North Carolina, where my mother was born. My grandfather eventually became president of South Carolina State University, which is an HBCU, a historically black college and university.
And he was a very controversial figure. He felt it was more important to try to be realistic and didn’t believe in any of the, or not any, didn’t a hundred percent believe in some of the protesting that was going on. And he was deeply unpopular, though he was excellent at being able to get funding and money and grew South Carolina State from one place to another. And you’ll be able to look him up. He’s infamous. He left in 1967. He was president during the civil rights movement. And some really scary things happened, and I don’t know who was responsible. I know he was a complex man. But he moved back to New England at that time. He wanted nothing to do with any part of that past. He just wanted some peace in his life. He felt like his life been really difficult, and he did what he thought was best and it was just time to retire.
My parents got divorced when I was seven, and they live 2000 miles away from each other. My mother and sister and I moved into my grandparents’ basement in New Hampshire. My grandparents were very quiet people. They went out a couple of times a week, one day to go shopping and the other time to go to church. And they lived in a quiet town on the border of Maine, about 40 minutes north of Boston. And everyone thought that they were really odd to be living in this small town, this very working class New England town, very lovely little town. It had been born out of the mills, a lot of work in the mills that happened about a hundred years ago, very different from anywhere I had ever lived.
And if you think about Stephen King, his brother was our tax collector, and I went to high school with two of his nieces. Just very quiet, little New England town. There weren’t any universities there, one about 15 miles away. People lived there for generations and generations and generations. People lived there their whole lives and never left. Cute little houses. They loved it. And I didn’t. But of course, my life had a lot of changes. My mother found it really difficult to live with my grandfather, and we moved into a trailer in that same town, and it was hard. My father kept advancing in his career, which I don’t believe I mentioned that we moved to New Mexico. My father worked on a classified project involving nuclear weapons and then moved on to do wind turbines. My father had [inaudible 00:13:58] a very illustrious career to include working with Nelson Mandela and in the White House for many years.
And I lived in a trailer with a hole in the floor. I didn’t know a whole lot about my grandparents’ background until I was 15. When I found out why they had moved to New Hampshire, I knew that they were from the South, I knew that they were outsiders, and I knew that my grandfather loved New England because he’d gotten his education there, and I didn’t realize that it was just to have some peace at the end of his life. My mother had a hard time supporting herself and supporting us, and I learned very early that I had to work really hard for everything that I had.
And my father would come visit and he would take us on cultural activities. For example, I went once to the UN, and it was beautiful. And I saw where these people all translated, and it was so far from my life, and that’s where I decided I wanted to be, that I knew languages could take me somewhere. When I got back to the trailer, my mother reminded me that most of those people were from very different backgrounds and that girls from trailer parks didn’t get to do those kinds of things. And while she’s perhaps right, maybe I didn’t become a translator at the UN, I knew that I had to get out of there.
And at 18, I went back to New Mexico and I’ve been working like crazy ever since on languages and teaching languages to help other people be able to communicate with other people and better themselves, whatever that might mean, whether that might mean getting some credits for college and university, or meaning somebody who’s really great who happens to speak another language and opening up that whole part of their lives, or being able to qualify for a job. Or doing some of the things that language has unexpectedly allowed me to do, which was helping people who are lost and can’t speak the language when traveling, and translating for people, translating in meetings for parents.
Storytelling for languages: what’s yours?
So this was really difficult, for me to tell you my story, but I’m going to ask you to go back and really dig deep into your story. And it doesn’t have to be melodramatic or sad or dramatic. It can be really happy. And in fact, I hope yours is, but thinking about some really significant event in your life and using that as a way to practice and build your language skills, listening and reading about other people’s lives, and in your target language, and sharing yours, as well. Medium is a great place to do that. Simply journaling, you can get a notebook and write down all the different pieces of your life. Maybe get it translated or edited, and really study it. It’s a really good way to be able to talk in depth, in detail, about your life. It’s a great way to practice becoming an advanced speaker of a language.
I hope that you found this helpful. As a beginner, get into your bio, and tell us about yourself. When you become intermediate, tell us a little more about yourself, and when you’re working on becoming an advanced speaker of a language, dig deep and tell us a lot about yourself.
Until next time.