by Fran Stallings, Sharing the Fire 2017 Presenter


Storytellers are artists of the spoken word. When we seek new material, it’s often the words that call to us first. But when we tell, we bring much more.

Psycholiguist Suzette Haden Elgin once told me that face-to-face storytelling is like a musical theater performance in which the words are just the Lyrics. She said that our vocal intonations, character voices, sound effects constitute the Melody, while gestures, postures, and facial expressions provide the Dance.

I think this is especially true when we tell to audiences who may have difficulty with our language. Thanks to the Melody and the Dance, they don’t need all the Lyrics to enjoy the story.

I saw this repeatedly during my work with traditional Japanese folkteller Hiroko Fujita. I introduced her tales in twenty-two US states where almost nobody spoke Japanese. In turn, she introduced my storytelling at schools, libraries, community centers and festivals across Japan where adults apologized for their rusty English, little-used since highschool classes, and youngsters hadn’t learned any yet. But we developed methods that had people on both sides of the Pacific remarking afterwards, “I didn’t understand a word–but I understood the story!” — thanks to the Melody and the Dance.

Fujita-san and I both grew up entertaining rambunctious younger siblings whose attention wandered if we focused on the Lyrics. They trained us to get physical, make wacky noises, and involve them in gestures and sounds. When we did the Melody and Dance with them, the meaning behind the words soaked in effortlessly! And we found that these methods helped us to share our stories without line-by-line translation that would interrupt the flow of our telling and deprive listeners of that “I can do it!” satisfaction.

Youngsters were often unaware that they had been listening to (and following!) a foreign language. Fujita-san told me that in Tokyo she once invited a girl to come hear that English-speaking storyteller she had enjoyed two years before. The girl was puzzled. “Do you mean ‘Big… hungry…BEAR!’ was English?” In the US, adults and children as young as preschool happily listened and played along with Fujita-san’s telling all in Japanese, laughing or gasping at the right moments.

In my solo work in the States, I now use many of these methods for working with English-learner audiences and have trained second-language instructors to adapt stories, songs, and games in similar ways. We need the words. But storytelling involves so much more!

Interested in learning new methods for sharing storytelling with English language learners.  Sign up Fran’s STF workshop

Leaping the Language Barrier with Stories and Games

from 3:30 to 5:00 pm on Saturday, March 25th. Visit the STF Conference Details page to register for the conference.

Have personal experience of your own to share on this topic? Leave a comment.

Fran Stallings at STF 2017

Interpreting for traditional Japanese folkteller Hiroko Fujita since 1995, Fran Stallings saw how Americans in 22 states “didn’t understand a word, but understood the story!” They taught tellers and educators in US and Japan to use these techniques, and Fran has taken them nationwide as well as to Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore.



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