Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

5 Top Reasons for Learning a Language with Stories

Find your stories screen Stories play an important role in our lives. Much of our communication with others is through stories. By exchanging stories with others, we connect with them.

Stories interest us. They tell us about the struggles and achievements of others and help us create our own identity. They are a way of making sense of our lives.

Stories are also tools for processing and remembering information. Narratives help us structure and organize content and give meaning to facts.

That's Why polyglots also use stories for language learning. And here are our 5 reasons why you should do as well. 

1. Stories Boost Your Vocabulary

In a story, words come up again and again, sometimes in various contexts.

Having the context of a story, you can often guess the meaning of new words. Especially when words show up several times in different sentences and combinations, their meaning becomes more accessible.

Each time you see a particular word again, it becomes more solidly lodged in your memory.

Guessing the meaning of words from the context of a situation is a useful skill. If we practice it, we become better at it - something that helps enormously when learning a language.

Yes, you can learn words in a list by repeating and walking up vocabulary stepsrecalling them often enough. But there's a "boring" factor attached to that. It's also frustrating to keep forgetting words because we don't connect them to a memorable context.

A list of words is pure memorization. The words stand in a vacuum. Besides, once you've memorized a word in your new language, you still have to understand and learn how to use it. That happens when you recognize that particular word in context. For that a story is perfect.

Can you learn new vocabulary you going through a series of unrelated sentences? Yes, that can be fun for a while. Each sentence gives you a limited context, which is helpful. But, it's a different kind of challenge for your brain from learning with a story.

The core of Duolingo courses is to translate sentences. For me, the random (often weird) sentences are like "language sudoku".

But I don't use such sentences for communication. For example, I had to puzzle out the following sentence in Danish:

Hun elsker at ve bjørnen lide. (She loves to see the bear suffer.)

I'll never use this sentence in real life.

So, why do I prefer learning vocabulary with stories (rather than with word lists or series of sentences)?

I just find that seeing and hearing words and phrases in the context of a narrative helps me remember them. I can picture a situation or an event and that will trigger my memory.

2. Stories Make Grammar Intuitive

Grammar is the glue that holds language together. But for most people grammar rules are not that memorable.

I'm not at all opposed to learning grammar.

I taught college German for a number of years and the textbooks I used had plenty of grammar.

But that's not what got my students excited. What they loved was to use German as much as possible and figure out patterns.

When I learn a new language, I feel the same way. I look up a grammar issue only when I want to figure out how the language works.

grammar types compositeWhen I started with Danish, I quickly understood that there are two noun genders (common and neutral) and that the definite article is normally attached to the end of the noun (rather than stand in front of it).

But understanding a grammar rule is quite different from really knowing how it works.

It took me some time to internalize that a Danish word like "katten" means "the cat" and not "cats" (whereas in German "die Katze" multiplies to "die Katzen").

As we become more and more familiar with a language, we get good at recognizing such "grammar elements". Not to forget, though, that seeing a grammar pattern is a different skill from hearing it.

When we communicate, we use a variety of sentences. Each is made up of various grammar elements.

Depending on our message or narrative, we resort to simple statements, questions, requests, commands, and if necessary, different kinds of complex sentences.

The sentences are, of course, not in a random sequence. They are connected in a meaningful way.

Conjunctions and other connecting words are important elements in a narrative. Beyond "and" and "but", there are other useful words and phrases that link actions, events, ideas, etc.

To name but a few in English: "if, because, however, in case, in spite of, even, even though, neither nor".

Stories are a good tool for understanding the different ways actions and ideas connect.

By paying attention to how a narrative unfolds, we train our mind to pick up and internalize such grammar clues.

Beyond gender, case, and connecting words, there are other grammar elements in a language that carry meaning. Just think of pronouns, including formal and familiar forms of address, prepositions, and negation.

And, just as you can guess the meaning of words, you can also internalize grammar patterns from the context of a story.

The more you read and listen to stories, the more you become aware of the characteristic patterns of the language.

3. Stories Teach You About Present, Past and Future

Drilling verb forms is always quite boring, and then you still have to learn how to apply them.

In some languages this can get pretty complicated. When, for example, do you use the simple past versus the present perfect? Not to mention the conditional, or the subjunctive mood.

Yes, there are rules. But they don't help much unless Present - Past - Future dicesyou've already internalized some verb patterns in a meaningful context.

Stories help. They move back and forth easily between present, past and future actions and events.

Context provides you with various time markers and clues. As you follow a story, you remember earlier events or what was said previously and how this fits into the present situation, etc.

You also notice how future events are anticipated and talked about.

Your brain is constantly figuring out what's going on, the causality of events, when something happened in the past, or what future possibilities are triggered by present actions.

That's what our brain does in everyday life: We remember thoughts and actions, we make decisions about what actions to take, and conjecture about the future.

Why not practice doing this in the language we're learning?

4. Stories Help You to Stop Translating

People often ask me: How do you stop translating when you hear, read or speak another language?

Yes, it's a dilemma. When you're beginner at your target language, you need to know what words and expressions mean in your native language.

Pictures can help. But learning a language just with pictures doesn't get you very far.

So, in my mind it's okay to build one's basic vocabulary with translations as they are needed.

But it's easy to get into the habit of translating everything.

That's where stories come in. They can teach you to stop translating.

Stories (even brief anecdotes) have a narrative sequence with meaning.

silhouette head with "welcome" in different languagesAt first you may need some help with translation, but the meaning itself will stay in your mind.

So, by listening to a story several times, you can train yourself to get the meaning without translation. By doing this often enough, you can create a new habit: understand what you see and hear without translating it.

I'm currently listening to Luca Lampariello's travel stories in Italian on LingQ to keep up my Italian. (You may be able to listen to his Viaggio in Russia if you register for free on LingQ).

Luca reads the stories himself and his natural speed is very fast. So fast, in fact, that there's no way I can do any translation at all.

While my Italian is good enough that I don't have to look up many words, this is not the case with Danish.

Listening to Danish stories on LingQ, I do read through the text one time (after listening a couple of times) and click on any words I don't know. But then I listen to the story several more times and make a point of not translating. Each time I understand the story better just by hearing it.

As with any skill, you have to practice, and with regular practice you get better.

5. Stories are a Creative Tool You Can Individualize

Stories give you a lot of material to work with as you're learning a new language.

You can create your own stories in a target-language journal. Make up stories or write about thoughts, experiences, or encounters in your daily life.

Stories for language learning have become very popular. You can find stories for various levels and in many languages (on Amazon, on Pinterest, on LingQ, etc.).

Take a simple story and retell it from another point of view (first- or third-person), with other details (a different setting, place, people etc.), or change the time (from past to present).

Tell the story aloud or write it out. Brave souls share your story sign with iconscan make a video of themselves and post it in a social media language group.

I used stories a lot to teach our sons German. When they were very young, I recorded little stories I made up and played them when the boys were falling asleep at night.

When they were a little older, I read stories to them in English, with certain words and phrases repeated in German. Later, I read stories to them, and translated every sentence into German.

Finally, I just used German, or we played German stories in the car: Tim und Struppi (Tintin), Asterix und Obelix, or the popular stories of Enyd Blyton: Fünf Freunde (the "Famous Five" series).

For ourselves as adult learners, we had another idea. We love to travel, and especially like traveling in a country where we know the language.

Because we were eager to spend time in Italy and Spain, we wanted to learn Italian and Spanish. To get us started, one of our sons set up a site for us, which we called GamesforLanguage.

Together with a team of native speakers, we created simple, gamified travel stories. These we then used to learn our two new languages.

(You can listen to our Story Podcasts, play our Quick Language Games or read our Blog posts without registering.)

It's been great to combine language learning with travel. Our Spanish course writer and speaker lives near Seville. We had found him online.

Once our course was done and we had used it for learning and practicing Spanish, we traveled to Barcelona and Seville. We stayed in both cities for a month. And we met our course writer in Seville in person, over a wonderful lunch of special local dishes.

We love to tell our story of why and how we created GamesforLanguage.

It works in every language that we know.

What is your story?

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below.