image by  K. Peter Schmidt via flickr (Creative Commons)

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” the poet Muriel Rukeyser once stated. Human beings are storytelling creatures. We use stories to make sense of both ancient history and daily experience. While stories are often specific to a certain culture or language, the power of storytelling is universal.

The art of storytelling is much older than formalized language. Even 40,000 years ago human beings told their stories in the form of cave paintings, portraying their own experience to themselves and transmitting it through the ages.

Precisely because the principle of storytelling is so much older than language and much more ingrained in our being, we can use it as a pleasant and effective boost for language learning.

1. How Stories Create “Mirror Worlds”

Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds. – Jonathan Gottschall

In the 1980s and 1990s, scientists at the University of Parma Italy made an interesting discovery by monitoring the brain activity of monkeys. What they found was that when a researcher, observed by the monkey, picked up a banana, the same neurons were activated as when the monkey picked up the banana itself.

These so called “mirror neurons” are a key component of effective storytelling. They recreate a certain experience or action in our own brains just from observing it in another person. When we read a great novel or watch an engaging movie, our brains sync with the story, causing us to experience the protagonist’s fear, sadness or joy as if it were our own.

In that sense, storytelling is the original HoloDeck, a primordial virtual reality which is always accessible.

By reading and listening to stories in a foreign language, we are not just learning about the target language and culture from the outside, we are actually experiencing it from the inside. Pulled along by the arc of storytelling (we want to know what’s next) and our empathy with the characters in the story, we quickly start recognizing patterns, picking up on phrases and pronunciation just as if we were in a “real” situation.

Storytelling Changes Our Brain

Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but, in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry — and that’s what it means to be a social creature. – Paul Zak

Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, once conducted an experiment in which he showed participants a short animated story about a boy and a father struggling with cancer. The researchers took blood from the participants before and after showing the clip, and found that watching the story raised both cortisol and oxytocin levels in the brains of participants.

Cortisol is a chemical that focuses our attention and is also linked to experiencing distress. Oxytocin is connected with care, connection and the feeling of empathy.

Researchers asked participants to donate money to strangers in the lab and they found that those who produced both cortisol and oxytocin were more likely to donate generously.

This experiment shows that storytelling can create real behavioral change by altering our brain chemistry. Anyone who has ever committed themselves to learning a foreign language or brooded over grammar books and vocabulary lists knows that acquiring a new language is a lot of work. Regular large doses of caffeine might help to keep us awake, but cortisol and oxytocin (produced by our own brains) may be much more effective, not to mention healthier.

3. Stories Make Us Feel Connected

Keith Oatley, Canadian novelist and professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, found that “people who read a lot of fiction tend to have higher levels of empathy and better social skills than those who don’t.”

When learning a foreign language, we sometimes forget that language is embedded into specific social situations and culture.

Through storytelling we cannot only recreate “virtual” social situations in our brain but actively develop our social skills through cooperation and empathy, broaden our awareness of cultural peculiarities and find a sense of belonging.

img: CC by K. Peter Schmidt / sources: Brain Pickings, British Council