Words… Sentences… Stories

What is language for? When children learn a language, they use it for different purposes than adults. They are not learning English–for example–to further their career prospects. They don’t know what such a thing is. When you listen to children talk, it also becomes clear that they actually use language much less to request things, to ask for things, than one might expect. Children are too proud to spend most of their time! Instead, they use language to tell stories.

Our teaching here at Gaia Language is built around the importance of stories. For us adults, it may be hard to remember the importance that stories once had in our lives. Fortunately, these days we have a reminder from science about the importance of stories. Medical researchers have studied the effect of reading a novel on the brain, with some startling results:

On the mornings after the reading sessions, the researchers observed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, which is an area of the brain linked to receptivity for language… this heightened connectivity remained, even though the students were not reading the book while they were being scanned..

“The investigators also noticed heightened connectivity in an area of the brain known as the central sulcus. This is a main sensory motor region of the brain, which is associated with making representations of sensation for the body. They explain that, for example, when we merely think about running, we can activate neurons in the brain that are associated with the actual physical motion of running.”

Read the rest here:


This study suggests that reading stories has profound and lasting effects on the formation of the brain. Just as reading, comprehending, and identifying with characters is a more profound activity than merely the memorizing of words and grammar patterns, so the effect of reading is more extensive, and maybe more enduring, than the effect of memorization.

As adults, the closest we get to stories is in the newspapers. But we hardly identify with the characters in them. Still, for the sake of our children, we should remember that our minds get something from stories that they cannot get from any other source.

Two Views of Learning

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to understand how we learn. The most common way is to see the student as an empty vessel, to be filled with knowledge. This is the view behind 99% of language instruction in Hong Kong. But is it really an accurate model of how we come to know something?

Imagine that you are learning an entirely new language. You start with the first words… it may seem that you are introducing these words into the empty space of your mind. And yet, this is not quite what is happening. When you learn the word “table”, you already know what a table is. You have not only the first, Chinese word for “table”, you also have a sense, a mental picture, an idea of what a table is. The new word for “table” fits with what you already know.

Hong Kong’s model of instruction ignores this dimension of fitting in, of recognition, in learning new things. In Hong Kong (and in Asia generally), we learn by instruction (from the Latin “instruere”, to build in; this verb also has a military meaning: to line up the troops!).

However, there is also an older sense of learning, which reflects a sense of drawing out the student’s knowledge from himself. The concept goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, such as Plato, but the word for it is from Latin, and it’s an unexpectedly familiar word: education: “e” or “ex” means “out”, and “ducere” means to draw, to pull, to lead. Literally, “education” means pulling knowledge out of the student, not pushing it in.

At Gaia Language, we think long and hard about what education really means, and as our thoughts and experiences develop–as they will, thanks to you–we invite you to this blog.