The Role of Personal Narrative in Foreign Language Acquisition

Briefly. Language learning is a combination of (1) bottom up learning (grammar, drills, tests, vocabulary) and (2) top down learning (expressing facts, desires and ideas).

Mostly the work done in schools is type (1). The opportunity to do type (2) work is primarily limited to ‘small talk’.

Small talk is never enough to adequately explore a new language. Small talk is not the natural route into language. Small talk is the ritual of language that two adults use when they meet for the first time. If a conversation does not progress beyond small talk then it is unlikely these people will have the motivation to speak together again (certainly in the context of language learning).

Instead of encouraging students to make small talk, they should instead tell stories. Telling stories requires more skill. Before a learner can tell a story they benefit greatly from having written the story down. Writing a story is highly effective. It is effective because it allows the communicator more time to consider what they would like to say. Grammatical concepts et al which have previously been acquired must be practiced in context. Practicing these concepts in writing before speaking them is highly effective because it allows the learner more time for the concept to be demonstrated.

Because this activity requires time to be invested, it also requires greater motivation. Students are motivated to write their personal story (no fantasy stories — the story must be real) because it is something that actually happened to them. They can imagine themselves telling a friend this story and so their personal connection to the work makes spending time on it worthwhile.

Making the transition from the written story to the spoken story is the most interesting part. It starts with the learner reading their story aloud and it progresses to the learner speaking the story aloud. To begin the spoken story may be to one or two other students.

The natural conclusion of this work is for students to give a performance to a wider audience. This is not essential. The main objective is to allow students to make an improvement in language competence of an order of magnitude greater than they would do by conventional methods given the time invested.