Fairy Tales and Foreign Languages: Ever the Twain Shall Meet

By Davidheiser, James C. | Foreign Language Annals, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Fairy Tales and Foreign Languages: Ever the Twain Shall Meet


Davidheiser, James C., Foreign Language Annals


Abstract:

Fairy tales are certainly not new to foreign language instructors, but on occasion they have been considered either exoteric or unworthy of class time. Yet today there is a resurgence of interest in fairy tales and a rebirth of their use in the arts, which may serve foreign language instructors. This article presents historical background to inform instructors of the origin and development of European fairy tales, while also providing them with necessary information to answer students' questions on fairy tales. It further describes how the author weaves fairy tales into classes on several levels and illustrates how well the tales lend themselves to the learning of other languages and cultures. Course details offer instructors some essentials that may prove beneficial in designing their own courses.

Key words: culture, fairy tales, second language instruction, university curriculum, world languages

Language: Relevant to all languages

Introduction

The fairy tale-foreign language connection is a natural in the current cultural climate marked by newfound interest in the works of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault.1 Whether at the elementary foreign language level or in more advanced courses, fairy tales provide an avenue for coming to good terms with both the structure and the culture of the target language. Moreover, since most students are familiar with fairy tale topics and themes, their affective filter, tantamount to the level of fear students may have in approaching foreign languages, is lowered and learning can take place in a nonthreatening environment.

The Historical/Cultural Background of European Fairy Tales

To be able to teach fairy tales successfully, it is not only important to know the tales themselves but also to be aware of their cultural and historical context. Instructors may even want to ask their students, perhaps at the beginning of the course, if they were aware of the historical background of fairy tales, in particular, their oral background. People often are surprised by the fact that fairy tales were an oral tradition long before they ever were put to paper. Tales were told to wile away the hours and to entertain people following a day of grueling work. The fireplace was a popular gathering place for the oral tales and adults delighted in the often bawdy nature of the narration. These oral tales are sometimes referred to as folktales to differentiate them from their literary versions, which soon became the norm for fairy tales.

Literary fairy tales are an excellent way to approach European culture because they seem to have sprung up all over Europe following many centuries of oral narration. Boccaccio's 14th century Decameron was a collection of stories told by merchants at the fireplace as they rested from their daily trade trips. Decameron influenced European literature and can in some ways be considered a precursor of fairy tales. Fairy tales, as we known them, made their advent in 16th century Europe, and Giovanni Francesco Straparola is generally credited with the first European collection of fairy tales, Le piacevoli notti [The Pleasant Nights], published 1550 to 1553. In the collection, an ex-bishop and a group of aristocrats tell tales over a period of 13 days. Straparola's countryman, Giambattista Basile, the next well-known collector of fairy tales, published Lo cunto de li cunti [The Pentamerone] in 1634 to 1636. The collections 50 Neapolitan stories are bound together by a framework story. These Italian writers and their European successors were, of course, highly influenced by Thousand and One Nights, which was of Arab, Indian, and Persian origin and dates in written form to as early as the 9th century. Its stories of King Shahryar and Scheherazade also were immortalized by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's 19th century The Scheherazade, which evokes fantasy through music.

Two female authors were among the first to publish fairy tales in France: Marie-Jeanne L'héritier with Oeuvres meslées [Assorted Works] in 1696, and MarieCatherine d'Aulnoy with Les Contes de fées [Fairy Tales] in 1697. …

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