Stories Bring It Home

Kate Nguyen and Nile Stanley research resilience in language learners and its relationship to storytelling

International students who study a second language abroad may experience more adjustment problems than their domestic peers (Narra-Tumma & Claudius, 2013). The challenges they face can include problems with immigration/visa status, separation from family, limited financial resources, isolation due to difficulty speaking a new language and learning unfamiliar customs, and negotiating a new educational system. Di Maria and Kwai (2014) explored the attitudes toward foreign students of staff members in student-affairs offices at colleges and found that as many as 64% said their offices were not doing anything specifically to accommodate the international student population, and 90% said they wanted more training on how to help such students be successful. The researchers concluded that the conversation for international educators should shift from recruit.

To succeed and maintain their wellbeing, foreign language learners must be resilient. Benson, Bodycott, and Brown (2013) emphasized that study abroad is a holistic experience with a variety of potential benefits including linguistic, cultural, personal, professional, and intercultural. Achieving personal outcomes of language proficiency and competence requires individuals to overcome challenges, and to form and project a new second-language identity.

Storytelling is an educational technique that may play an important role in the process of language development. Not enough is known about the relationship between storytelling and the psychological resilience of the adult learner. Adults draw upon stories for strength in multiple contexts.

“Stories make life coherent; they give us a sense of who we are and where we’ve come from, and they give us a picture of the future that we can either work toward or avoid,” writes H. B. Harvey (2013, p5). The stories our language learners tell reveal their deepest longings, hopes, and fears.

One can recall the stories of childhood; one can recall the past and present stories of adulthood; and one can tell stories, and some learn to teach through stories. Storytelling forces learners to self-reflect on what makes learning a language easy or difficult. Listening to our students’ stories is therapeutic and can help us get a handle on the trajectories of their lives.

The purpose of this research study is to produce information about the relationships between experiencing storytelling as a child and adult resilience in language learning. A narrative interview technique, informed by the research, is discussed for language teachers to diagnose and nurture their students’ resilience.

Researchers stated that while debate continues as to what constitutes resilient behavior and how best to measure adaption to hardship, certain trends have emerged (Zolkoski & Bullock, 2012). Psychologists have moved away from vulnerability/deficit models of resilience. A paradigm shift has occurred that focuses on strengths as opposed to deficits and on health as opposed to illness. Resilience is viewed as part of ordinary healthy development, rather than as extraordinary. Resilience is not viewed as a one-dimensional trait that an individual either has or has not. Resilient behaviors are often expressed in various degrees, depending on the context of the challenging circumstances. Further research should focus on finding assets and resources that promote healthy outcomes.

Resilience and Storytelling
Storytelling plays an important part in the development of identity and autobiographical memories as children mature into adults (Dingfielder, 2008). Storytelling creates a sense of belonging and connectedness. Family histories are an important vehicle through which to create meaning and a sense of intergenerational self. Storytelling links past experiences to the present, while providing a rich resource for emotional coping and psychological resilience to face life’s events. Researchers (Duke, Lazarus, & Fivush, 2008) discovered that knowledge of family history, specifically from family storytelling, can be a predictor of a person’s ability to overcome psychological challenges. Children who knew more about their family histories had 1) lower anxiety and behavioral problems and 2) greater self-esteem, internal control, family functioning, and family cohesion. Knowing family stories, when facing the negative events of life, was significantly correlated with increased resilience, better adjustment, and improved chances of good clinical outcomes.

Trees and Kellas (2009) indicated there were two primary functions of storytelling: 1) narratives help people make sense of difficult experiences, and 2) stories provide insight into people’s conceptualizations of the world, including their understandings of their family relationships.

Storytelling can help people form new identities in times of conflict, recall old wisdom, and transform endings to challenges of life. This helps develop resilience, a way to face the challenges of life, facilitated by the deep and personal meaning of storytelling (Dingfielder, 2008).

The following research question was addressed: What are the protective factors or coping strategies adult language learners use for resilience?

To address this question, the researchers used interviews with a narrative analysis to attempt to understand the protective factors of resilience. The focus on the lived experiences of students employed the qualitative research approach steeped in phenomenological methodology. Writing and telling a story revealed a deeper understanding of the participant, the person they had been in younger years, and the person they would like to be in the future. Responses to adversity involved understanding emotions which are best explored through the safety of reflecting and reframing the stories of our lives.

Participants were 19 adult learners (18–35 years old), of which 15 were studying Chinese as a second language and four were studying English as a second language at Shaanxi Normal University (Xi’an, China). The learners came from different countries and spoke different primary languages.

The narrative interviews (n=19) were conducted in English by a multilingual female Vietnamese doctoral psychology candidate fluent in English, Mandarin Chinese, and Vietnamese. Clarification of questions was provided in the participants’ first languages, or in English.

Semi Structured Narrative Interview
The researchers developed the narrative interview to identify and to describe the role of storytelling in fostering resilient behavior among adult language learners at a foreign university. The purpose of the narrative interview was to explore the unique experiences of international second language learners in China. Participants related detailed and complex stories about how they overcame adversity to learn a second language. The interview consisted of a list of eight “catalyst” questions (Ungar et al, 2009) which stimulated the participants to tell their stories about learning a second language:

1. When did you start studying Chinese or English language?
2. Why did you choose to study this language?
3. Has someone influenced your choice to study this language?
4. Did that person tell you his or her own stories related to Chinese (or English) study? Do you remember certain stories? What did they teach? How did they make you feel?
5. Have you had any challenges while studying a second language? If you have had challenges, what are they?
6. How do you overcome the challenges of studying a second language? What are your solutions?
7. Is your study of a second language difficult? Why? What important things make studying the language successful?
8. Who has played an important role in your achievement of learning Chinese (English) language?

Qualitative Analysis
Both sensitizing concepts derived from previous studies (Bernard, 1993, 1995; Nguyen, Stanley, and Stanley, 2014), and indigenous concepts that arose directly from the data were used to identify common themes in the present study. To gain deeper understanding of the data, both researchers listened to the recordings of the participants’ narratives, transcribed the data, and read the transcripts multiple times. The themes of the narratives were also analyzed using the Coding Analysis Toolkit (Lu, 2008). This was used to code raw text data of each participant’s narrative and measure inter-rater reliability of the two researchers. It helped to understand the role of the factors that lead to different language-identity outcomes for second language learners.

The researchers developed a scoring rubric (see Table 1) based on the research of Bernard (1993, 1995) to categorize and evaluate the emerging themes of the narratives, which were then analyzed for the presence of these traits: (1) social competence, (2) problem-solving skills, (3) autonomy, (4) sense of purpose, and (5) use of storytelling. The two researchers reread the narratives, looking to code statements representative of the five traits (Bernard, 1993, 1995) and noting other indigenous concepts found in the data. Using the rubric, a score was assigned from 1 (“absent”) to 5 (“clearly stated”) for each of the five factors with a total possible score rating of 25. The total score was then divided by five to the familiar Likert-Type 1-to-5 scale. The average score for the 19 participants, using the narrative scoring rubric, was 18 or 18/5 = 3.6.

Data analysis revealed that the five traits identified by previous researchers (social competence, problem solving, autonomy, sense of purpose, and use of storytelling) were generally present in the narratives of 16 respondents. The qualitative findings were quantified using a scoring rubric. The five traits and other concepts and selected participants’ illustrative responses for each trait or concept are summarized in the following sections.

Challenges/Adversity (n=19)
All of the participants reported feeling anxiety about the challenges of moving to another country by themselves and not speaking the language fluently. They expressed experiences of social isolation and of missing family and friends.
This response captures the adversity second language learners face when studying abroad: “They stare at you because your skin color is different and they can tell you are not from here. Language instruction classes can often be boring. Instructor quality can be very uneven.”

“You have to study long hours. You have limited resources. If you can get a job, then you don’t have enough time to study. The weather seems to be either very cold or very hot.”

Social Competence (n=17)
Most of the participants expressed seeking social interaction to make friends and to practice their language skills and moving between two or more cultures, e.g., “The only way that I can overcome the problems is to keep studying very hard and try to talk as much as possible to Chinese classmates. Also, I like to meet new people and share our stories.”

Problem Solving (n=14)
Most participants developed strategies to compensate for the shortcomings of their language program, e.g., “My instructor wasn’t effective. I wasn’t learning. I started watching Chinese TV and listening to language audio-tapes. I would force myself to write to my friends every day in Chinese on Facebook and RenRen.”

Autonomy (n=12)
Most of the participants had a clear sense of identity and self-direction, e.g., “I know whether I learn Chinese is totally up to me. I will succeed, I have set my mind to it. I believe in my abilities.”

Sense of Purpose (n=10)
Half the students had clear personal and career goals for studying a second language, while the other half of students did not express clear goals, priorities, or the focus of their studies.
“I started studying Chinese in high school because it’s a fast-growing economy and America is trading with it more. I want to become an American diplomat to China.”

Use of Storytelling (n=11)
About half of the participants reported recalling favorite personal family stories from childhood from which they could draw strength and life lessons. This finding is commensurate with the authors’ two previous studies (Stanley & Dilliligham, 2013; Nguyen, Stanley, & Stanley, 2014).

“My mom told me stories of women who were infatuated with brand-name fashion. When I asked my mom to buy me some brand-name clothes, my mom got very angry with me. Her reason is she did not want me to be someone else’s brand, she wanted me to be my own brand. I learned always to be true to myself.”

Three participants displayed reframing (Wilson, 2011), which capitalizes on the subjective nature of personal stories to uncover underlying, underemphasized themes in people’s stories that are potentially helpful. Its purpose is to arrive at an authentic and helpful story, one that does not eliminate the pain that hardship can cause, but that also includes the strength that is forged in the struggle to prevail.

“At first I was sad when I came to study in China because I separated from my boyfriend and did not see my mother. Most of my decisions had depended on my Mum and my boyfriend. Whenever I had a difficulty, I would ask my Mum or my boyfriend to help me to make a decision or for advice on what to do. I realize now they were very controlling and I was immature. I have had to learn to be more independent and that is a good thing, and I am stronger.”

The qualitative analysis has helped us understand the role of the factors derived from previous resilience studies ( Bernard, 1993, 1995) in the context of different language-identity outcomes for second language learners (Nguyen, Stanley, & Stanley, 2014).

Researchers observe that qualitative research allows for a more in-depth report of lived experiences (Benson, Bodycott, & Brown, 2013; Narra-Tumma, & Claudius, 2013). Language teachers should encourage their students to tell their stories by using the eight “catalyst” questions (Ungar et al, 2009) previously discussed. The Narrative Resilience Rating rubric in Table 1 can assist in the scoring and interpretation of student-written or student-dictated narratives.

Despite the small sample size, the findings suggest important implications for using storytelling as both a research method for studying resilience and a practical intervention for promoting resilience. Di Maria and Kwai (2014) observed that educators need to ensure that international students succeed academically, because retention is so important. Understanding the role of resilience for retention can provide better training for both faculty and staff members. Using the narrative storytelling and scoring rubric expands students’ resilience and awareness of storytelling’s role for promoting resilience. This activity itself may be beneficial in reducing stress and identifying coping strategies. The act of students discussing and telling stories about how they are overcoming struggles not only promotes the use of a second language, but may be therapeutic and motivates social connections that will hopefully continue outside of class.

Previous research (Nguyen, Stanley, & Stanley, 2014) found instructors and learners reported using storytelling in the classroom, but the researchers concluded storytelling is not used as it could be and its full potential has not been realized. Further research is needed to focus on finding psychological aspects of tellers and listeners during the storytelling process. Research needs to illuminate the principles/guidelines that would better inform instructors how to use storytelling for teaching and therapeutic psychological benefit. However, using storytelling in the classroom in China is still viewed as something separate, less esteemed as academic content, despite its many benefits.

As Harvey (2013, p. 9) stated, “Stories act on us invisibly. Many of the ideas we have about what is truly important in life — ideas and values that motivate decisions — come from stories.”

Benson, F., Bodycott, P., & Brown, J. (2013). Second language identity in narratives of study abroad. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. eBook.
Bernard, B. (1993). “Fostering resiliency in kids” Educational Leadership, 51 (3). 44–48.
Bernard, B. (1995). “Fostering resilience in children.” Retrieved from ERIC database.
Di Maria, D. L., & Kwai, C. K. (2014, February). “Developing an international student retention
strategy.” Paper presented at the annual conference of the Association of International
Education Administrators, Washington, D.C. PowerPoint retrieved from
Dingfielder, S. (2008). “Storytelling, American style.” Monitor, 38, 10. Retrieved from
Dube, C. (2009). “Chinese language study is rising fast.” USC US-China Institute. Retrieved from
Duke, M. L., Lazarus, A., & Fivush, R. (2008). “Knowledge of family history as a clinically useful index of psychological well-being and prognosis: A brief report.” Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice,Training, 45, 268-272. DOI: 10.1037/0033-3204.45.2.268
Harvey, H.B. (2013). The art of storytelling: From parents to professionals. [Course Audiobook Guide] Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.
Lu, Chi-Jung (2008). Coding Analysis Toolkit. [Software]. Available from
Narra-Tumma, P. & Claudius, M. (2013). “A qualitative examination of Muslim graduate international student’s experiences in the United States.” International Perspectives in Psychology: Research, Practice, Consultation, 2. 132–147. DOI: 10. 1037/ipp0000003
Nguyen, K. and Stanley, N. ( 2014) “Narrative resilience rating scale.” Unpublished survey.
Nguyen, K., Stanley, N., & Stanley, L. (2014). “Storytelling in teaching Chinese as a second/foreign Language.” Linguistic and Literature Studies, 2 (1) 29-38.
Stanley, N.,& Dillingham, B. (2013, April). “Family storytelling: A powerful parenting strategy for developing intellect, language, literacy, and values.” Language Magazine. Retrieved from
Trees, A. R., &Kellas, J. K. (2009). “Telling tales: Enacting family relationships in joint storytelling about difficult family experiences.” Western Journal of Communication, 73, 91–111. DOI: 10.1080/10570310802635021
Ungar, M., Brown, M., Liebenberg, L. Othman, R., Kwong, W. M, Armstrong M, & Gilgun, J. (2007). “Unique pathways to resilience across cultures.” Adolescence, 42, 287–310.
Wilson, T. (2011). Redirect: The surprising new science of psychological change. London, Penguin Books.
Zolkoski, S. M., & Bullock, L. (2012). Resilience in children and youth: A review. Children and Youth Services Review, 34, 2295–2303. doi.10.1016/j.childyouth.2012.08.009

Kate Nguyen,, is a doctoral candidate in educational psychology at Shaanxi Normal University, Xi’an, China.

Dr. Nile Stanley, nstanley@, is an associate professor of childhood education, literacy, and TESOL.