Imagine two tribes of humans living in the same part of prehistoric Africa. One tribe is called the Story People, and the other tribe is called the Practical People. Times are tough, and both tribes are competing for the same scarce resources. They are equal in every way, except after the Story People come home from hunting and gathering they make up stories to tell each other before going to sleep. The Practical People do not. They keep hunting and gathering until bed. Which tribe do you think will succeed and which tribe will die off? That is the question posed in The Storytelling Animal, a book by Jonathan Gottschall. We already know the answer, says Gottschall, because the Story People survived. We are the Story People. The Practical People, if they ever existed, do not exist now. Almost certainly, storytelling has evolved to ensure our survival.
Stories are like flight-simulators, says Gottschall. They prepare us for the problems of real life. Instead of teaching us to land a jet on an aircraft carrier during a storm, stories give us practice thinking about the problems of being human. The more we engage in narrative (another word for storytelling) whether in conversation, books or film, the better able we are at understanding others and at modelling ways to respond to life’s problems. Psychologists have found that people who read a lot of fiction have better social skills and more empathy than people who read a lot of nonfiction. Stories are a kind of ancient virtual reality technology that simulates the big dilemmas of life. Stories, in short, are good for us.
Now, imagine two low-intermediate English Second Language classes. One class, called the Narrative Class learns English by writing narratives while the other class, the Academic Class, writes academic essays. Which class learns more English? Evolution cannot help us here because language courses are designed by teachers, not evolution. However, there is research that points to an answer.
Corpus Linguistics research (Biber et al., 1999) reveals that academic writing and conversation have stark differences in the frequency of the grammatical forms and vocabulary employed. Clauses in conversation are much shorter, so verbs are more frequent. Of the verbs used, modals, the Present Perfect tense and progressive (-ing) forms are much more common in conversation than in academic writing. Negatives, contractions and pronouns are also much more common in conversation. Since narratives contain a large amount of quoted speech, narrative writing tasks provide practice using many of the linguistic features needed for oral communication.
Applied Linguistics research suggests that narrative writing could be more helpful to students learning English in another way. A study conducted by Dr. Norman Segalowitz at McGill University in 1976 found that an over-emphasis on formal registers in language learning had a negative effect on learners’ self-confidence. The study showed that non-fluent second language learners believed themselves to appear less intelligent, less self-confident, and less friendly during casual speech situations than formal situations because their Second Language courses had consistently prioritized academic forms of expression over conversational forms. Courses that combine the formal aspects of writing with the informal language of conversation through narrative writing should, therefore, have the opposite effect on self-confidence in speaking English. Increasing self-confidence in lower proficiency learners has been shown to have a direct positive effect on the frequency of communication (MacIntyre & Charos, 1996), and we all know that the more you practice speaking English the better you get in the long run.
This is not to suggest that no one should ever learn academic English. Fluent bilinguals who already know enough English to feel confident making casual conversation could very well benefit from a course in academic English, especially if they intend to go to an English language university. According to Lamarre (2008), 8% of students at English language universities in Quebec are Francophones. These advanced students most certainly need some training in academic English to succeed.
Nevertheless, of our two hypothetical classes, the science seems to suggest that the Story Class is likely to learn more English than the Academic Class. Narrative writing with its emphasis on informal English will help students feel better prepared for real-life encounters with Anglophones. More self-confidence will lead to more contact, which will lead to more meaningful practice. The range of conversational grammar and vocabulary contained in stories will also give those learners practice with forms that they rarely or never appear in academic writing tasks. In this way, narrative writing is a kind of linguistic virtual reality technology. It helps us safely prepare for the most challenging aspects of language learning in a meaningful and entertaining way.