Folk tales from all cultures have universal themes and at the same time tell us about specific features that can illuminate and alter our perception of those other cultures, often through metaphor.
Insights into other cultures
I know of no other medium which can give language learners such insight into another culture as the sharing of stories. Storytelling acts as a celebration of cultural diversity, provides students with support in their language learning and builds self-esteem.
In this article some examples of my own experience of storytelling in the language-learning context will illustrate these assertions.
In my own language-teaching context I often teach groups of students who have recently arrived in the UK. In one group I teach, the majority of students are young adults from Chinese families while the minority are more mature Arabic speakers. Sometimes the students I teach are for the first time mingling socially with peers from cultures they know little about. For them to operate effectively as a group, one of my main roles as a teacher is to give them the chance to learn about each other’s culture on an equal footing, so mutual understanding needs to be nurtured. By giving the students the opportunity to tell short folk tales from their own cultures in English the cultural divide is often bridged through a blend of curiosity, close listening and the realization that they have a great deal in common. Wisdom tales feature prominently in both Chinese and Arabic traditional stories and sometimes the same stories are told in both parts of the world with only slight variations.
A typical activity involves students listening to me tell a short two- or three-minute tale and then preparing to tell tales themselves. Follow-up tasks work best when they focus on personal response and cultural awareness rather than check comprehension (see activity Storytelling response tasks).
Once students have done an activity like this, I invite them to prepare to tell a short story they know well from their own culture in a subsequent lesson. Their challenge is to be able to tell the story in their own words without reading from a text. Rehearsal time is encouraged outside the classroom and pronunciation practice tasks can be done during and outside class time. Students move around the classroom telling their first story to a few different partners, ideally including some from another culture. Each time they can give their partner follow-up response tasks. This active, responsive listening builds the storyteller’s self-esteem as they tell and retell their tales.
After that I ask students to prepare another story to tell. A short, regular story slot is allocated, so that every couple of classes a student tells a tale to the group.
Being able to tell a tale in English gives students confidence and is excellent preparation for extended speaking and giving presentations.
Sometimes we might be teaching a mono-cultural class with one student from a different heritage. I often work in state primary schools where this applies. It is vital to include and raise awareness of this student’s heritage and one way of doing this is through storytelling. If the student is reticent or unconfident about telling others a story, the teacher can tell a story from that student’s culture. The student might be able or willing to tell the teacher the story outside the classroom setting or direct the teacher to a popular story by translating the title into English and together searching for it on the Internet. Alternatively it is easy to find other suitable and simple stories written in English from any culture on the Internet (see links below). One Nigerian student called Ifeoma remarked at the end of the course how much she had been made to feel at home and welcomed into the community of students when I told an Igbo tale early on in the course. However it would seem advisable to tell a story only after making sure in advance that the student would feel comfortable with this.
Passing on stories
Stories I have been told by students in this way often become stories I tell to other students afterwards. This is in keeping with the oral tradition, where a story is passed on from one teller to the next from generation to generation, with each storyteller making it their own and modifying it slightly. When I tell students a story I have learnt from a former student, they often ask about that student and appreciate the possibility that their story might be passed on in this way. Rather than doing a task which is done to be assessed, this kind of teaching is humanistic and intrinsically motivating in that there is a responsive and appreciative audience and possible future audiences.
A mono-cultural group needs more than any other to learn about other cultures. Introducing another culture through its traditional stories is as important as teaching students about its geography, history, art, written literature or contemporary society because storytelling takes us deep into the imaginative landscape of that culture.
Last year Susana from the Urals of Russia told students the Snow Girl, a beautiful miracle tale from her homeland. This tale has been told to so many students and other people since then, Susana’s story lives on. I imagine her sitting in front of her fellow students every time I tell it www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjfmOAQHzSQ The Snow Girl
There are huge resources of folk and fairy tales from all over the world published in English on the internet – here are just a few of the ones that I recommend:
- http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html (huge resource)
- http://www.sacred-texts.com/ (huge resource)
Especially for children:
- https://www.storiestogrowby.org/choose-a-story/ (find by category)
By David Heathfield
David Heathfield is a storyteller and English teacher. Find more ideas in his teacher resource book Spontaneous Speaking: Drama Activities for Confidence and Fluency (DELTA Publishing).