Listening in a Foreign Language

A class of ten-year-olds is listening to a story. You can feel the concentration in the air, the focused stares. This is nothing unusual in a primary school classroom; every teacher knows the power of a good story.

Here’s the catch: the story is in Finnish, a language spoken by none of these Anglophone children. What’s more, the author of the story is a child.

The children from a Scottish school are participants in a story exchange with Finnish peers. They tell stories using the storycrafting method, send them to a partner class in Finland and receive stories in return. (In between the teachers get to try their hand at a translator’s job – not always easy!) Once the children have heard the translated version, the teacher then reads aloud the original story.

This is where the children listen really hard.

“Why do they speak so fast?”

“Can you read it again, but reeeeally slow this time?”

The teacher reads the story again, carefully enunciating every word.

“It sounds more easy to understand, even though I can’t understand it at all!”

I reflect over these wonderings that were delved into with the honest curiosity of childhood. What made the children want to hear the story again in a language that they did not understand? They had already heard the translated version; they knew what the story was about. Yet they insisted to hear it again in the original language, with a yearning to understand.

I wonder if I met someone whose mother tongue was foreign to me, that if I stopped to listen really carefully – would I begin to understand? Perhaps not the individual words, but I think the children taking part in the exchange weren’t too worried about picking up the words either. I think their curiosity was aroused by something less functional than words. Like music, they listened to the rhythms and sounds of the Finnish language. And somehow, hearing it the second time made it sound a little easier to understand. It began, in short, to sound like a language that someone somewhere might be able to use for communicating with someone else. Just like English was to them, Finnish must be to these Finnish peers.

These children intuitively knew that there was more to the story than its English translation. What can we know about a culture that is not our own, unless we make the effort to really listen?


Oona Piipponen

Primary School Teacher

Doctoral Student in Education

University of Eastern Finland


For more information on the storycrafting method, click here.

Tietoja Oona Piipponen

I am a doctoral student in Education with the University of Eastern Finland. I have also worked as a primary teacher at an international school in Finland. My research interests lie in intercultural education, Storycrafting, and studies on the child perspective. Olen väitöskirjatutkija Itä-Suomen Yliopistossa ja entinen luokanopettaja kansainvälisessä koulussa Suomessa. Tutkimusintresseihini kuuluvat kulttuurienväliset kohtaamiset, sadutus- ja lapsinäkökulmainen tutkimus.
Kategoria(t): Kuuntelu, Lasten näkemykset. Lisää kestolinkki kirjanmerkkeihisi.

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