Essays on English in Japan

Once upon a time

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"Once upon a time…" is one of the greatest phrases ever. It signals the beginning of a story, a switch in thinking and feeling, and a chance for fun and learning. People love stories from the time they are born. Stories are one of the first things we hear as human beings, whether as a lullaby, a baby book, a mother's chatting, or the age-old "you're going to be president some day, " as Americans tell their babies. We learn to listen to stories before we can even walk.

Try reading a story to a small child and when you get to the end, the child's hands will reach out and push the pages back to the beginning to hear the same story again. And again and again and again. This repetition can drive even the most loving adult absolutely crazy. I still remember the super-simple story, "Goodnight Moon," that I read to my nephews 15 years ago about a hundred times. Why is it that kids can listen over and over and over to the same stories, push in the same cartoon DVD, and never, ever get bored?

 

Humans love stories. It is one of the most basic and common parts in mental life. Humans think in stories, live in stories, organize the world in stories, and learn in stories. Recently, theorists of the brain have begun to look again at the importance of stories as an organizational principle in our lives, and in our evolution. Language evolved out of a need to communicate around the night fires of ancient times. After language helped to ensure survival, it turned to telling stories, about the hunt, about people and places and the mystery of life that surrounded them.

Yet, somehow, in the global explosion of English study in the 1970s and 80s, the quickly expanding ESL industry removed stories from textbooks, classrooms and curriculums, and replaced it with grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and bits and pieces of disconnected language. English language study was shifted from literature to linguistics, from plots to grammar, from story narratives to language structures. A great deal was lost in that shift, but among the most important losses was the coherence and meaning stories provide, and their very human focus.

That trend toward pieces of language, though, is at last starting to be discarded all around the world. Even Japan has begun to use stories in their English classes again to engage learners, give them independence and promote higher order thinking, not to mention feeling. All around the country at high schools and colleges, drills, fill-in-the-blank exercises, memorization and other linguistics-influenced approaches are being set aside to let students read good stories in English.

Most libraries in Japan now have sections devoted to storybooks in English at all levels. Publishers have found that they can rewrite famous novels, plays and other stories by simplifying the level, reducing the length, and clarifying difficult parts. The result is that all over Japan, students are now reading Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" or Laura Ingalls Wilder "Little House on the Prairie." These great works are reduced to a quarter of the original sometimes, but they still have the effect of all stories—to make people keep reading naturally.

And it is not just classics, but film adaptations, mysteries, plays, myths, folk tales, love stories, popular novels, biographies, history, and teenage fiction, in short, stories of every kind. Students also can choose their own books, write their opinion in a book report, tell other students, develop their own interests, and in general, enjoy reading great stories with whatever level English they have. Teachers and learners now have more real language, better quality language, in context language that is alive with human, dynamic, and exciting story situations. This is nothing short of a revolution.

Actually, up until the pseudo-science of linguistics and the profit-oriented ESL industry took over language learning, people had always learned other languages through literature. They learned Greek by reading Homer, Chinese through its poetry and history, Sanskrit through the sacred books of the Upanishads, Hebrew through the Bible and so on. Until about thirty years ago or so, great literature was always the main textbook for language learners. It wasn't just language, it was the best language. It wasn't just stories, it was the world's best stories.

That little history lesson is fine, of course, but in this day and age of advanced computer mapping of language structures, why should English be learned through stories? What positive, practical advantages does narrative English, as opposed to structural English, offer to students?

First of all, stories are more interesting. That's a basic point, and it seems so easy, but students need quality, interesting materials. With a range of all kinds of stories, they can develop autonomy to choose, read and understand the stories in their own way.

Reading stories develops fluency of thought. Rather than breaking up short sentences into smaller grammatical pieces, stories attach language to bigger and bigger ideas about people and the world. This makes students think, even if only unconsciously, about larger ideas, deeper feelings, unknown settings and intriguing conflicts.  Stories offer lessons about life that no grammar exercise book can. Reading stories turns students to face the world as well, and asks them to think about it.

Stories are natural. We tell, and re-tell stories all the time. So, reading them in another language draws on what students already know. Everyone knows the basic form of adventure or love stories, so reading a romance novel lets students build up an abstract understanding in another language based on what they already know about these kinds of stories.

Stories help with language learning by distracting people from learning. They teach without making it obvious they are teaching. The flow of narrative helps instill language unconsciously. Stories offer language in context, and for this reason, they connect language to people and the world. Stories may not always be faster to teach one particular grammar point, but overall, in the long run, stories teach language more deeply and profoundly.

Already in Japan, the movement to use extensive reading of simplified graded readers is growing rapidly. Most libraries and all big bookstores have these readers, often with accompanying CDs. Students cannot learn only from stories, but stories fill in what is often missing in much language education. The more students study with stories, the fuller and stronger their English will become. You can even put all THIS inside a story:

Once upon a time…students began again to learn language with stories…and they lived happily ever after.

 

 

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Michael is currently teaching at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan, in the American Literature section of the English Department. More information in the About Me page.