Language, Memory and Storytelling

wp-1469704938576.jpgThe themes of sessions I chose to go to at the NATECLA conference, although they focused on different topics, seemed to have in common something to do with the roles identity and memory play in language learning: we want to use language to express ourselves and we need to remember what to say and how to say it in order to do so. Or perhaps I was looking for that connection having recently read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks. Either way, it has led me to think a lot about the vital role that storytelling can play in knowing a language and why I’m going to try to incorporate it a whole lot more.

This post will cover the following questions:

  • What role does storytelling play in communication?
  • How can it be used in the language classroom?
  • How can storytelling help students to remember language?

(For top tips on storytelling in class, I’d recommend lessonstream or going to see Jamie Keddie give a talk if you can. How you tell the story is relevant.)

A disclaimer: this post is not going to be as in-depth or comprehensive as I’d like, because I ain’t got the time. Also, I’m not a neuroscientist (except in my fantasy life) and know very little about memory. But I hope you find something to think about too, or respond to.  I’d welcome a discussion; it can be hard to pin down precisely what you mean without having to explain it or defend it to someone, can’t it?

  • What role does storytelling play in communication?

Telling stories, or to put it another way sharing anecdotes about experience, is something we all do to identify with a group, express ourselves and promote cohesion (Norrick, 2000:172).  Listening to someone else tell a story, we engage empathically and connect the experience to similar ones we may have had. McGilchrist, in his truly awesome non-ELT-related tome The Master And His Emissary, argues that indeed this ‘I-thou” relation is the purpose of all language (2010:123).

  • How can storytelling be used in the language classroom?

When you hear the word “storytelling”, you might first think of someone delivering a monologue, but, as Jamie Keddie said in his keynote talk at the NATECLA conference, the act can be dialogic and provide an interactive text for the class.

Learners can be engaged by stories, internalise what they’re hearing and relate it to their own experience. “One story told by the teacher leads to a class full of stories…Language is not the only resource the story provides” says Jamie Keddie. So stories can motivate the learner to understand, to empathise, to connect it to their own experience, to take on the relevant language and communicate a story of their own.

What if you don’t have any stories to tell? My problem with telling stories is that I never remember any good ones about me, but Jamie pointed out that we can use the ones in the text books. Telling the story interactively first engages the learners and gives them a first meeting of the language. It’s not unnatural for a story to be told more than once, and when they read or listen to the text in the book, they will get a lot from it in terms of recognising or noticing language. Jung was of the opinion that knowledge comes through recognising something we’ve already met: “All cognition is akin to recognition” (McGilchrist, 2010:97). It helps to think about a language where there are different words for know, e.g. wissen and kennen; saber and conocer.

  • How is memory involved?

jumperImagine we’re in a knitting circle, you and me, and I’m the teacher. If I showed you a lovely jumper I had knitted, you would recognise it as a jumper, you would likely have some sort of reaction to it and be inspired to make your own one, but you wouldn’t be able to reproduce it unless I showed you some details in the jumper-making process, such as a stitch, a pattern, or a seam. You might decide to draw the jumper and note down some of these detailed skills as well as practising them. You would then hopefully be able to manipulate the skills to make the same or your own jumper. The stitches, patterns and seams would be relevant to the jumper and therefore perhaps easier to remember than if you learnt them separately, as an end in themselves.

The jumper here is a metaphor for text (textere = to weave) and the stitch, pattern and seam are metaphors for language. Can learners better remember language when it is a meaningful ingredient of a personal story?

Both Joanna Stirling, in her very useful session on spelling, and Jamie Keddie suggested getting students to look for patterns as a way to enhance memorisation. “Generalisation saves your life,” says Jamie Keddie, and he’s not wrong. This brought to mind the quote “To think is to forget a difference” from the story Funes, The Memorious by my favourite author JL Borges (which is saying something because I generally refuse to be pinned down in this fashion and don’t have a favourite anything else).

In the story, Funes has the capacity to remember EVERYTHING after hitting his head in a fall, but has lost the ability to generalise, to abstract. Some speculate that he would have lost the concept of ‘self’ (Sturrock, in Helford). I suppose this is a bit like not being able to see the woods for the trees (I’d love to know how that idea is expressed in other languages).  Love (2014), in her article on Borges and knowing, relates this idea to language learning: “Part of learning a language, then, is learning to overlook the idiosyncrasies that make every instance of a word entirely, if unremarkably, unique.”

colored_tiling_by_patterns_stockSo, perhaps we should be asking students to think, to find a pattern that means something to them, whether it’s the shape of the word, the sound of the word, the morphology, the translation, etc. and use it to remember what they can.  A pattern is not just something you find, but something you can follow and manipulate.  Each student will remember something different: memory is a personal affair, and we shouldn’t expect them to remember everything. Neuroscientist Charles S. Sherrington (who used “enchanted loom” as a metaphor for the mind) said that the “patterns of meaning” we each weave are particular to ourselves (Sacks, 2011:155). Sacks describes these patterns as melodic, scenic or narrative (and not mechanical or schematic).* Should we be asking students what they are not going to remember?

Questions for any neuroscientists or brain-enthusiasts reading this: What kinds of memory are activated in learning a language, and in receptive and productive use of a language? How do they work?

So, it’s all a bit theoretical, but what ideas have we got? Storytelling can be used in language classes to share experiences, to make learning vital, and avoid the lesson being a meaningless flutter on the surface of learning (phrase blatantly stolen from Sacks). Memory and knowing are idiosyncratic, so each student can be encouraged to find whatever patterns they can to connect the story to the language or the language to the experience or the language to itself.  I’m definitely going to use more storytelling in my lessons.

Lastly, did you know that the word narrate is related to the word know?


*(Side question: if the computer metaphor is the wrong one for the brain, is systems the wrong metaphor for grammar, lexis, discourse and pronunciation?)



Helford, E.R (1988) Language and Memory in Borges’ “Funes, The Memorious”.  Iowa Journal of Literary Studies 9: 15-21

Love, J. (2014) What Jorge Luis Borges Knew About Knowing

McGilchrist, I. (2010) The Master And His Emissary. Yale University Press

Norrick, N. R. (2000) Conversational Narrative: Storytelling in Everyday Talk. John Benjamins Publishing

Sacks, O. (2011) The Man Who Mistook His Wife For  A Hat. Picador.



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