A Listening Activity That Teaches Culture Too

Language learning starts with good input. Students need to hear the target language, and understand its meaning, if they are going to be able to retain it for later use. Story listening is a great way to combine Mandarin listening with information about Chinese culture. Conveniently, Chinese culture is rich with stories that explain the origin of holidays and festivals, teach traditional values, and also explain the numerous Chinese sayings known as chengyu. There are hundreds of options to chose from for a story listening activity in Mandarin Chinese.

What is Story Listening?

Beniko Mason, a professor in Tokyo, developed story listening as a way to help her students learn English. Story listening involves using simple vocabulary, short sentences, pictures and occasional translation to tell a story. Mason originally told her students folktales using this method. Critics of story listening might say that it is too teacher-centered. True, the teacher is often at the front of the class talking to her students. This does not mean that this listening activity is teacher-centered, however. Rather, everything that she says is specifically tailored for her students’ comprehension.

The goal of story listening is not to have students learn every single word in the story by heart. It is important to note that language learning is a slow, piecemeal process. Story listening is just one way to give students the comprehensible input that they need as part of this process. If chosen carefully, students will get both the language input that they need in order to learn and some cultural knowledge.

Story Listening in Mandarin Chinese

With 5,000 years of history, Chinese civilization is a rich source of myths, folktales, origin stories and more. By using these stories as a basis for a story listening activity, a lesson becomes a two-for-one. Students get both the input in Mandarin that they need to learn the language, and they also learn about the culture. The story of the cowherd and the weaving girl explains the origin of Qixi (Chinese Valentine’s Day). The story of the Empty Flower Pot (link to English version of the story) is a good jumping off point for discussing cultural values.

The Empty Flower Pot

The key to making story listening a beneficial and enjoyable for the students it to make sure the language is pitched right to their level. For example, in telling the story of The Empty Flower Pot to beginners, the teacher should repeat key structures frequently. Beginner students should hear the verb “to have” used in context many, many times so they can acquire this structure and use it themselves. Working with the story of the Empty Flower Pot, a teacher can say: “The king did not have a child. He did not have a child. Did the king have a child? No, he did not have a child.”

Looking at this in English, the story seems a bit boring and repetitive, but this is exactly the type of language that students need to hear in order to learn. It does not seem boring to them. On the contrary, this type of storytelling holds their attention because they can easily follow along.


photo of white board from story listening activity
In story listening, a teacher explains new words with photos, drawings, and sometimes translations.

Chinese Valentine’s Day

Using a story such as the origin story of Qixi (Chinese Valentine’s Day) can be challenging. The story uses many words that are not very common. How often do we talk about cowhers, the Milky Way, spirits and weavers in our everyday lives? Probably not very often. To make this story appropriate for story listening, especially at the beginner levels, teachers need to tell it with frequently used words. “He likes her” and “she likes him” are good phrases to repeat with this story. “To like” is one of the super seven words and the phrase is appropriate for the story. As long as the focus is on more common structures like this one, the story will be a good use of class time.

Recently, I’ve begun to tell a story only, to have the students tell me that they already know it. This really is not a problem. If students already know the story in English, they will have an easier time understanding it in Mandarin Chinese. Furthermore, this can be a jumping off point for further discussion. After the students hear the story in Mandarin Chinese, the teacher can ask how each version is different. As with everything that we do in class, comprehension is the goal. Knowing the story already actually just makes it easier.

An article from Language Magazine on how story listening works to help students acquire a second language is here.

Check out a previous post on story listening.

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