June 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Drama and intrigue keep readers hooked on detective novels -- but the stories can also be assets for language learners. Mengmeng Tu finds out how.

(By Mengmeng Tu on September 4th, 2023)

While many of us have embarked on the journey of learning a new language through the pages of textbooks, have you ever considered learning from detective stories?

“Detective fiction is all about everyday life,” says Dr. Ruth Herd, the coordinator of Mandarin Chinese at the Horizon Programme, Imperial College London. “What was the suspect wearing? Where was the body found? Just details of everyday life. And that’s especially useful when you’re not in the language.”

Diverging from the complexity often found in literary works, detective narratives offer refreshing accessibility while staying deeply intertwined with daily experiences.

Ruth points to Can I dance with you 我可以请你跳舞吗(a textbook in Chinese Breeze Series, 300 words level). The text tells a story about a man who works for a bank unexpectedly falling in love with a young woman, only to find that suddenly the police knock at his door and suspect him of stealing ten million Chinese yuan (approximately £1.09 million) from the bank. The man is forced to leave his lover and then take an adventure to vindicate his name.

Ruth did a detailed analysis of the lexis in this story: for the 366 distinct characters composing the text, a remarkable 65% appear five times or more, allowing ample opportunity for learners to consolidate knowledge through repetition. “The detective story, unlike many other forms of literature, tolerates a degree of repetition that in the context of other literary genres would most probably render the writing style tedious and bland, ” writes Ruth in her research paper.

Though consolidating the existing character knowledge and expanding the vocabulary are both important and inextricably linked in learning knowledge, Ruth thinks the former is more helpful to learning Chinese and believes the relatively low occurrence of new characters should help students who tire from memorizing a totally unfamiliar script. What’s more, detective stories also consist of many dialogues, which is suitable for students to practice oral Chinese.

Ellie Bruce is a Chinese learner from the University College of London. She also thinks that learning Chinese from detective stories is a great idea. “Some text in tutorials is sometimes too boring,” she says. Ellie remembers an entire textbook chapter centered on a photography competition, the aim of which was originally to teach terms about photography, but it’s tedious for an average learner. “If you have a story, like detective stories will be more fun, ” said Ellie. She is a devoted fan of detective stories, and enjoys the Chinese TV crime drama, The Bad Kids (隐秘的角落) very much. The drama tells a story about three children who unintentionally film a murder scene and therefore they are inadvertently entangled in the chase with the murderer.

It is not solely in the realm of Mandarin that detective stories wield their enchanting pedagogical potential. Texts like Troll i Ord for Norwegian and Mord Am Morgen for German also stand as parallel examples, encouraging language learners to try this fascinating approach. Therefore, no matter what the language is, reading detective stories may always be an enthralling way to practice.