After years of boring classes at school, the French bug bit me and its irresistible poison has remained in my veins ever since.
As an adult I suddenly discovered how much I loved the process of learning a language. Everything from buying a new notebook to going out into the jungle of the real world where I might be forced to use it to get out of a sticky situation (hopefully not involving a predator).
Although I’ve dabbled in various languages for enjoyment without the intention of becoming proficient, French has always reigned supreme and is now forming a part of my degree as a mature student.
I love fiction writing AND language learning so I decided to do a mashup post of how I’m using one to help the other. I’d watched so many YouTube polyglots promoting life journalling as a medium for improvement but I’d never come across fiction. Once I tried it, the bug bit twice.
There are numerous benefits to including this as part of your toolkit, but before that, a quick look at the system I use. It’s not life-changing, but is surprisingly effective. You could try this or come up with your own system that better suits your needs.
It can be adapted to any level from beginner to advanced and can be used to revise old vocabulary as well as introducing new concepts.
How it Works
I grab my pencil and start writing a story. Easy peasy. Yet somewhere along the sentence I’m going to hit the roadblock of a word I don’t know. I look it up in the dictionary, write it out, highlight the word and write the meaning in brackets.
Pour Maggie, le processus ennuyeux de chercher un mec en ligne s’est éternisé (dragged on) pendant un bon moment.
For Maggie, the tedious process of looking for a guy online dragged on for quite a while.
I now know the verb to drag on in French and each time I reread my story this vocabulary will be reinforced. You could even follow the principle that LingQ uses where you unhighlight the word when you feel you ‘know’ it.
Eventually the page will have fewer and fewer highlighted words, a good way to informally track your improvements and increase your motivation.
The 5 Benefits
It Allows You to Put Vocabulary in Context
I found programs such as Memrise to be very useful in the past but drifted away from when I realised that the individual units of vocabulary were not really helping me to ‘find’ words away from the computer.
Learning words in context is apparently better news for retention because of the way the brain associates similar words and stores more information about those items. So learning the basic Swedish sentence:
Äter ett äpple: to eat an apple.
Is going to be more beneficial that trying to learn the individual units of:
Äter: to eat
Ett äpple: an apple
Writing stories is therefore a great way to put the vocabulary you want to learn in the context of memorable sentences.
It Makes Grammar More Digestible
I’m not a grammar hater. The way that languages have evolved to form specific structures is a thing of beauty and a constant source of amazement. It doesn’t mean however that I always enjoy learning how to apply it and on top of that, using uninspiring textbooks to try and knock some grammatical sense out of me.
Like the previous point, writing creatively allows you to take a rule and apply it within a story, hiding something bitter inside something sweet; just like mashing broccoli into mashed potatoes to deceive a child.
I find a place to include it naturally, then make a note next to it; giving a very brief outline of the grammatical rule in a way that I understand and not necessarily the explanation from a textbook.
It May Help with Speaking
Only by speaking another language do you become a good speaker, no matter how much you write.
That being said, writing is speaking’s brother from another mother, the only other skill classed as ‘productive’ out of the four essential skills. A recent study by researchers at the University of Poitiers discovered that writing does have an influence on speech production.
In the same way that speaking requires us to pool all the information we’ve learned into a pot and come out with a fine meal, writing allows us to practice putting the jigsaw together.
Writing creatively may also have the added benefit of practising ‘creative thinking,’ an important part of fluidity in communication.
Revising Is so Much More Enjoyable
If you’re a flashcard person then by all means ignore what I have to say next. If like me you dislike them, then story writing might be for you.
Instead of drudgingly firing up Anki or sorting through uninspiring pieces of paper, all I need to do is go back to my exercise book and reread my story from whichever point I wish to revise from.
I’m having fun and my brain is taking in all the highlighted words with their definitions. I’m not going to remember new vocabulary the first, second or even third time around, but the more I reread the more I retain and the better I am at recalling the vocabulary.
It’s a lot less work and I’m actually enjoying revising!
It Gives You a Little Something to Be Proud of
There are lots of things that give us a sense of achievement when learning a foreign language.
Maybe it’s because story writing is my passion and gives me satisfaction anyway, but having written something meaningful in a foreign language gives me an enormous sense of achievement and motivation to continue. Especially as I want to know what happens next!
It’s not about plotting the perfect story, and it doesn’t even have to make sense to anyone but you (some of mine are really weird).
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I hope this post has inspired you to take a different approach to language learning if you love story writing as much as I do. Let me know how it goes and if you have any tips for me, feel free to jot them down in the comments section below!
Until next time,