Telling good stories in different languages
Bilingual children’s styles of story construction and their linguistic and educational implications
There are many ways to tell a story, but whether a story is good or bad depends on whether or not the listener/reader can comprehend all that the speaker/writer wants to convey in his or her story. This study examines the characteristics of stories that native speakers of given languages consider to be good. Forty English-Japanese bilingual children ages six to twelve were asked to narrate a picture storybook in both English and Japanese. Also involved in the study were 16 adult native Japanese speakers and 16 adult native English speakers who evaluated the stories produced by the bilingual children. An analysis of narratives receiving high ratings from evaluators shows that most stories considered good in English or Japanese should be lengthy stories with a large and varied vocabulary, and should be told in the past tense. In addition to those similarities in effective stories told in the two languages, we also found dissimilarities between “good” stories in English and “good” stories in Japanese. English evaluators felt that relating a series of events in chronological order is only one part of a good story. Providing evaluative comments (i.e., statements or words that tell the listener/reader what the narrator thinks about a person, place, thing, or event) is an indispensable part of telling good stories. So, in stories in English, aside from the standard expectation of a sequential series of events, providing the listener with emotional information is considered equally important. On the other hand, Japanese speakers accepted stories that emphasize a temporal sequence of action with less emphasis on nonsequential information, especially evaluative descriptions, and which effectively use passive forms and subject-referencing markers to enable a clear chronological sequence of events. Because the standards of what makes a good story may differ in the home and school languages/cultures, and because of the complex nature of such differences as shown in this study, it seems advisable that schools intervene and support the development of bilingual children’s skills in the use of the mainstream culture’s standards.