The Stories Children Tell

In Two Languages

I like to use stories to teach children language skills and also to assess children’s language. Stories are a good way to observe children’s vocabulary, grammar, and overall organization. By early school age we expect children to tell complete stories including a statement of the problem, attempts to solve the problem, and a resolution. What’s especially useful about narrative analysis is that stories are highly familiar to children from many different backgrounds. At the same time, it’s important to note that across cultures various aspects and kinds of stories are emphasized. What about bilingual children’s stories?

One important question is whether bilingual children organize and tell stories in the same way in both languages. Evidence thus far indicates that generally there are similarities, but there can be differences too. Three studies shed light on this question. One of the studies focuses on bilingual children, the other two focus on adults.

The first study is by Fiestas and Peña. In this study, Spanish-English bilingual children told stories based on the same wordless picture book. The children were between 4 and 7 years old and told the stories in each language. The stories were transcribed and analyzed using Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts (SALT). Children’s stories were equally complex in each language. They used similar numbers of words, different words, sentence length and story complexity. What was different though was that children tended to include slightly different sets of elements in each language. In Spanish more children included the problem and attempts to solve the problem. In English, the same children used more information about the consequence. These differences may be influenced by the culture represented by the language in which the story was told.

One of the studies that potentially shed’s light on this finding I discussed previouslyRamírez-Esparza and colleagues tested Spanish-English bilingual adults who lived in Mexico or the U.S. using a personality test. They found that when these college students responded to the items in English, their personality profiles were similar to personality profiles of monolingual English-speaking Americans . But, when they responded to the questionnaire in Spanish they found that their personality profiles shifted to be more like those of monolingual Spanish speaking Mexicans. In our study of children it seems that they shift the stories they tell to meet cultural expectations.

Another study that is very interesting is one on Russian-English bilinguals. In this study, Marian and Kaushanskaya examined the personal narratives that adults told in each language. Stories originally encoded in Russian and then told in Russian tended to focus on more negative aspects of the event than those encoded and told in English. The way narratives were told in each language also seemed to indicate different cultural orientations. Narratives told in Russian seemed to have a more collectivistic orientation. Specifically, these focused on the event in context of other people (such as family and friends). The stories told in English were more self-oriented reflecting an individualistic perspective.

Overall, bilingual children are able to tell stories in both their languages (assuming they are fluent enough in both). But, they may emphasize different elements in each language. I think that this different emphases can be due to cultural influences and cultural orientation. So, it’s fine to expect bilingual children to be able to tell complete stories in both their languages, just don’t expect those stories to be exactly the same.


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  1. #1 by Eve on April 28, 2009 - 11:35 am

    Very interesting! Goes along with the idea that cultural and language cannot be separated, even within our ownselves. Did you see the recent study by Lera Boroditsky (interviewed on NPR) on how the language(s) we speak shape our view of the world? Related to your discussion above. I link to the Boroditsky interview on my blog: – see April 6, 2009 post.

  2. #2 by salomé on May 2, 2009 - 2:17 pm

    Interesting article, and very true.

  3. #3 by Vreonica Salceda on May 17, 2009 - 7:02 pm

    Fascinating! I was brought up in Mexico City and learned both English and Spanish concurrently. However, my emotional language is English, my intellectual language is Spanish. I have a split personality! I am an example of your findings.

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