Some rights (CC) reserved by Paul Anglada via flickr

If you speak English, the world is yours, whether in business, academics, technology or on public internet forums. If you were born into an English speaking country, good for you. If not, you probably had to work hard to acquire the English language, or you are still working on it.

Today I want to talk a bit about how I learned English and why I’m convinced that storytelling is one of the best ways to learn English, or any language, for that matter.

Also, the collaboratively published book I spoke about last week “Learn English Through Storytelling: 8 Stories for intermediate and advanced learners” is now officially released, and you can get it for free for the next three days (update: offer expired). Skip to the bottom for the download links.

Coffee, Cigarettes and Hemingway

I had many English teachers in high school. Most of them spent their time having us fill in worksheets, conjugate tenses “sit, sat, sat — sleep, slept, slept …” and so on and so forth. It’s important to learn about grammar, to get a glimpse into structures and expressive varieties within a language, but grammar alone does not a language make.

My breakthrough in English happened when we got a new teacher from America who was actually a professor specialized on Hemingway. Not only didn’t he speak a single word of German (our mother tongue), but he had a completely different teaching method. There were the occasional worksheets, but his practice mainly consisted of two things: letting us watch movies in class and urging us to borrow books from his private library.

Outwardly, this method didn’t look like much. When he switched on the television, he generally left the classroom for the rest of the lesson to seclude himself in the teacher’s room with cigarettes and black coffee, only to return minutes before the bell rang. On the other hand, no other teacher could have left the classroom and not have us explode in complete anarchy. In English class, however, we sat silently like lambs, enthralled by the latest Hollywood blockbuster on the screen in front of us.

With his books it was similar. The more books a student borrowed, the better his grade became, regardless of whether anyone had actually read them. And yet, many of us did. For me, it was the beginning of a long line of English reading which continues up to this day.

From Gibberish To Greatness

In Germany most movies are dubbed, so when I watched my first movies in English as a teenager, I didn’t understand much. The actors were speaking too fast, using words I didn’t know, their voices laced with heavy accents from Cockney to Texan. With reading it was very similar. When I went through my first English books, I understood only parts of each sentence. The rest was hovering between vague hunches and complete gibberish.

And yet, I continued watching movies and reading English books. Why? For a simple reason — I wanted to see what would happen next. It sounds very simple, but it can be a great motivating force. Everyone who has ever learned a language knows that motivation is key. And so I continued on my way, making sense of parts of a story, putting the pieces together in my mind as I went along.

Eventually, the movies and books started making more sense. When I watched or read them a second and third time I often experienced a completely different story, because I had missed many parts the first time and replaced them with my imagination. In fact, some books had been a lot better when I read them in poor English, because I’d been making the parts I didn’t understand more interesting than they actually were.

From Learner To Teacher

The experience of learning English with books and movies has been so powerful that I’ve adopted storytelling as a primary teaching method in my work as a German language instructor.

Since last year I published three detective stories and an interactive fantasy trilogy, all designed for German learners. The feedback I received so far was overwhelmingly positive. People are tired of doing yet another “fill-in-the-gap” exercise, they want to experience a language, not just dissect it under a grammarian’s microscope.

So in May this year I decided to invite some of my colleagues to write a storytelling book together for English learners. You can find out more about this project here and here. Starting today, the book is available for free (until August, 1st) (update: expired) on Amazon as a digital download for your smartphones, e-readers, tablets and desktop computers.

Share it with your friends, and if you like it, leave us a quick review! Here are the links:

Click here or on the country code of your local Amazon: US | UK | DE | FR | ES | IT | CA | IN | JP

photography: Some rights (CC) reserved by Paul Anglada via flickr