‘Being a Person Means Having a Personal Story to Tell’
The new online course 'Tell Me a Story: Storytelling for Russian Language Learners' has started on HSE's National Open Education Platform. The course author, Ksenia Demeneva, Associate Professor of the School of Literature and Intercultural Communication at the Faculty of Humanities at HSE University-Nizhny Novgorod, discusses how to capture your audience's attention and make you story unforgettable.
— When did storytelling begin?
— One could say it first appeared at the same time as human speech. Storytelling was essential in the pre-writing era. In those days, people did not know how to record information and kept it all in their heads. If forgotten, information was lost and impossible to recover, as it went in one ear and out the other. To make sure important things were not easily forgotten, people began to shape mundane, boring narratives into stories with interesting plots and details. Over time, such stories evolved into fairy tales, epics, legends and other genres of spoken folk art. Today, we continue to use a variety of techniques, including storytelling, to have our messages remembered. Storytelling can transform a tedious academic lecture into a memorable story or make a seemingly banal presentation of a service or product unforgettable.
— When did storytelling come to Russia and what made it so popular?
— We sometimes underestimate what is already there and borrow things from other cultures while they exist in ours as well. The term 'storytelling' comes from English, but we had already been practicing it without giving it a name, taking the telling of stories for granted as part of everyday life.
The concept of storytelling took hold so well in Russia because we had been practicing it all along both as a method and as an integrator of several speech genres
Globally, interest in personal stories emerged when the value of individuality began to be recognised in the late 19th–early 20th centuries. It is essential to preserve not only the collective but also each individual experience, because together they weave the fabric of our common history. Even a single missing thread can cause a tear in the fabric. By telling stories, we preserve ourselves and others in history. It is a 'humanistic place' in culture. Being a person means having a personal story to tell.
— Since storytelling is an important communicative practice, how has it changed the way we communicate? Have people become more attuned to the manner and form of communication?
— Of course! Pessimists like to say that we are all on a downward path. But that's not true. Most people strive to unlock their creative potential, including through verbal expression. Just think of fan fiction! People write gigabytes of text every day. This includes texting via messengers as well as creating a variety of speech products, both oral and written, in several functional styles. Let's rewind a hundred years. Would this have been possible back in 1923?
The idea that everyone needs to develop their own linguistic personality is widely accepted today. We want our speech to be impressive as well as functional. Of course, failures do happen. But one thing is important: in Russian tradition, the spoken word has been associated with immortality. Saying the words that you need to say is more important than living a comfortable life.
— Is there a storyteller community in Russia? If so, what is it like?
— My favourite is 'Podslushano' ['Overheard', a public page on VK]. It is a community of storytellers who are not in the least interested in analysing storytelling methods. Their stories are the best: naive, simple, but reflecting the key aspects of today’s culture. There are other platforms for users to share stories, such as 'Kill Me Plz!', 'Zadolbali', etc. But increasingly, instead of sharing via online communities, people choose to start a channel of their own. Singing in a choir is one thing, but singing solo is another. Some people want both. Thanks to the internet, anyone can stand on a stool and stumblingly recite a poem—and even get a round of applause. It fascinates me to see how responsive people are to the spoken word. They may be antagonistic or accepting, but never indifferent.
— Will your students master storytelling techniques?
— Our course will help non-Russian students learn how to tell engaging stories in Russian. They will discover what make a good story, how listeners and readers tend to anticipate what happens next in a story, what issues and themes are of particular interest to Russian internet users, and why some stories go viral and become memes.
The purpose of this course is to use storytelling to teach Russian at the intermediate level. The idea behind designing the course was to teach Russian as a foreign language at the B1+ level, not storytelling per se. But storytelling can greatly facilitate knowledge retention by adding a real-world aspect to the learning activity. Active practice is what helps people learn better. Therefore, language learning benefits from telling stories, preferably ones that trigger an emotional response. Emotions are the key to memory.
HSE University will start enrolment in all full-time online Master's programmes on April 1, 2023, and in full-time online Bachelor's programmes on June 15, 2023. See more information and sign up for a consultation here.
— What communicative situations are covered in your course?
— The course focuses on six popular topics of communication, such as 'Animals and Pets', 'Loss', 'Robinsonade', 'Psychology and Magic', 'Literature', and 'Strong People'. Students will learn which animals are particularly often mentioned in Russian texts and why, how to use suffixes to form new words (such as terms for females and cubs of various animals), and what makes social media users share so many videos featuring animals. We will discuss the experiences of grief and loss. This topic is not featured in any Russian as a Foreign Language (RFL) textbook. There is an assumption that talking about sad things must be avoided when learning a foreign language. But in addition to helping us remember things, sharing stories can make our life easier and support our mental wellbeing. When we speak about sad and challenging things we have experienced, others can share our emotional burden and express sympathy. Students will practice discussing loss and failure and will be introduced to the genre of epitaph.
In contrast, 'Robinsonade' is a fun topic. Students will learn how to tell stories about travel and master the travelogue genre. Urban legends, village stories—bylichki—about mystical creatures, folk anecdotes, wedding and student rituals and more will be covered under 'Psychology and Magic'. Part five of the course is about a popular topic of conversation in Russia—classical Russian literature and its stories. In a sense, Russians can be said to be programmed by Russian literature to act in a certain way: unconsciously, we tend to implement parts of these stories in our lives. In the final part of the course, we will discuss strong people and what makes them special. But we will not sing the praises of prominent Russians who are already widely known and acclaimed. Instead, we will look at ordinary people, their family roles, everyday work and everyday feats. In addition, we will examine how one can draw up a genetic family history.
As a result, students will learn B2-level Russian vocabulary alongside some lesser-known aspects of Russian culture, such as folklore and post-folklore, and will be introduced to advanced word-formation models in Russian. At the end of the course, students will be required to take a test consisting of 100 questions.
Text: Ekaterina Zinkovskaya, HSE Online Learning Directorate