Using Personal Narrative to Kickstart Learning a New Language

Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada. I love this place

Note: the examples given here are from English to German but the source and target languages don’t matter. The process is the same.

Writing personal narrative is done for many reasons. However here we’re interested to understand how it is useful in language learning. Story is the natural currency of human communication. It’s how friends talk to each other. Here we are practicing to collect a few of our stories, so that in a few months we are able to ‘tell’ them (i.e. speak). Our objective is to speak the language. We are using writing as a bridge to our ultimate goal.

We have language in order to express something. If we have nothing to express, then we can not practice the language beyond small talk. Small talk does not come close to exploring the breadth of language — instead we can use our own stories as source material to prepare us for speaking.

This is more than a translation exercise. You could take a random piece of text and translate it; you don’t need to write a story. But that’s not the point. With something randomly chosen to translate you have no emotional connection to the text. It is not written in your ‘voice’. It is a sterile exercise. Given that you write in the style that you speak, the complexity of the text is appropriate to translation and will prepare you for speaking. The relationship between the written work and the spoken word is established. The task is appropriate to the real objective — confidence in speaking.

The complexity of the story you initially write in your mother tongue is probably going to be more complicated than it needs to be. Before you begin to translate the text it should be simplified.

The process can be described like this:

Stage 1 — Write your story

  • Write your story in your native language
  • Simplify it
  • Translate it — do it in a word processing application. Don’t write directly in Google Translate. As you translate your piece check individual sentences in Translate. Also use an online dictionary to double check everything you do. (Recommend: Reverso)
  • When you are done, copy the whole text into Translate and view the results.
  • Revise it but remember Translate is not perfect and where it shows an error, you may in fact be right. (Of course, you may be wrong and need to revise). Remember that the relationship between English and German means that one English word may have many German possibilities.

Stage 2 — Have your story checked

Either use a tutor, a friend, or you can use Lang-8. In any case you want to get back a corrected version of your story.

Stage 3 — Absorb the learning points

Make a new A4 landscape document in a word processing document. Insert a table with 4 columns.

  • Column 1: original story in native language
  • Column 2: your translation
  • Column 3: the corrected version of your story
  • Column 4: the learning points you can take from an analysis of the difference between column 2 and column 3.

When you’ve done this you are going to share your written work with somebody else. This is an ideal input to a language tandem. It’s a good idea to structure this so the person listening will ask you questions. If the questions begin with the familiar structure of [how, who, when, where, why] this will get the ball rolling. You will now go ‘off script’ and the conversation begins. This is how personal narrative contributes to confidence in acquiring confidence in speech.

Here a few pointers about style and content of personal narrative

Don’t judge it before you begin. Don’t think about who will read it. It’s not important. Don’t worry if it’s interesting enough. The fact that it stays in your mind shows us that there is something there. We’re not writing a book. We’re practicing our language skills. We do this because our stories are not boring to us. You are the only one who matters.

Keep it short. We’re looking for (as a guide) three paragraphs. Each paragraph is perhaps three sentences long.

Only say what happened. State facts. No analysis. You don’t need to say how you felt. No summary. Give us the details. No feeling words — they are unnecessary.

Write in the present tense. This gives the story immediacy. (Later you can put the story in the past tense.)

  • Focus on a single event (short time span)
  • Something should go wrong in the story
  • Tell us where the action is happening
  • Give us the facts of how, who, when and where and what. Why and how are not so important here.
  • Add some little details based on sense perception (smell, touch, sound etc.)
  • Move chronologically through the story from beginning to end

Stories of failure or struggle are best. Stories about the following are a good place to start

  • a road trip
  • getting locked out of your house
  • loosing something or getting robbed
  • first day in a strange place

If you don’t want to tell it you don’t have to.

  • holiday trip
  • fight with a friend
  • a day I got scared
  • going to the doctor

If you already have the habit of writing then this approach is immediately available to you. If you do not have the habit of writing, you can still do it. One way is to sit down and record yourself telling a story to a friend and then ‘transcribe’ it. This should not be word for word however. The written story will always likely be ‘neater’ than the spoken word. Otherwise find a writer and ask them to listen to your story and then to write it up for you. This works perfectly well, because it’s still your story. That’s what matters.

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I’m a teacher of English, German and Creative Writing. If you’re in Berlin and are learning German you can find out more at languagegym.net

peterjmerrick@gmail.com

I’m a Canadian living in Berlin. I hold a Ph.D and did my teacher training in the U.K.