Multilingualism is generally assumed to entail creativity. This raises the very interesting issue of whether becoming multilingual makes us become creative, and suggests the even more interesting conclusion that most of the world’s population, being multilingual, must also be creative.
At the same time, since I find it quite difficult to discern the effects of so much global creativity on the continued design and implementation of, say, our global economic, political or educational systems, a closer inspection of what we actually know (as opposed to believe) about this might be in order. A sample of studies from the past decade shows mixed (un)certainty about correlating multilingualism with creativity, let alone asserting that multilingualism causes (or enhances, favours, develops, etc.) creativity, as follows.
Olusola O. Adesope and colleagues assessed findings from previous research in A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism, and concluded for positive correlations between multilingualism and increased cognitive outcomes on, for example, memory, attention and abstract skills. Bernhard Hommel and colleagues, in Bilingualism and creativity: Benefits in convergent thinking come with losses in divergent thinking, compared the creative performance of low-proficient and high-proficient bilinguals, finding that “bilingualism should not be related to ‘creativity’ as a unitary concept but, rather, to the specific processes and mechanisms that underlie creativity”. Hangeun Lee and Kyung Hee Kim, in Can speaking more languages enhance your creativity? likewise examined the relationship between creativity and “degree of bilingualism”, taken to reflect “multicultural experiences”, to find that “degree of bilingualism and creativity are positively correlated”. Mark Leikin, in The effect of bilingualism on creativity, reported that “both early bilingualism and some form of bilingual education” appear to affect (non)mathematical creativity, concluding that there are “differences between two types of creative ability in the context of bilingual and monolingual development.” Anatoliy Kharkhurin and colleagues’ study, On the possible relationships between bilingualism, biculturalism, and creativity: A cognitive perspective, in turn, offered evidence to dampen any blanket statement that multilingualism necessarily implies creativity.
It becomes obvious from the research literature that there simply are too many variables at stake, whether linguistic, cognitive, cultural, educational, and so on, to allow clear-cut isolation of multilingualism as a factor of creativity. These variables, however, aren’t inherent to multilingualism: they have absolutely *nothing* to do with its purported ‘complexity’, and all to do with our choices to study them in relation to multilingualism. As much complexity, of the exact same kinds, would emerge if we ever decided to compare creativity among low-proficient vs. high-proficient monolinguals, for example, or among degrees of monolingualism.
But we don’t do this. Why we don’t study monolingualism in the same way that we study multilingualism only proves our assumption that monolingualism is ‘simple’. It doesn’t prove that monolingualism is simple. This assumption is ideological, not empirical, as Li Wei and Chao-Jung Wu observe in Polite Chinese children revisited: Creativity and the use of codeswitching in the Chinese complementary school classroom: “The ideology of monolingualism prevails throughout society, including within minority ethnic communities who are bilingual and multilingual.” My take is that if we wish to answer apparently straightforward questions about multilingualism and creativity in any useful way, we must first make sure that we understand what exactly we’re asking, and from within which premises.
Li Wei and Chao-Jung Wu’s topic, codeswitching (sometimes also called code-mixing or simply, mixing), lays bare another very relevant take on multilingualism and creativity. This is the double standard in our theoretical stances about multilingualism, on the one hand, which nowadays is unquestionably ‘good’, against our practical management of being multilingual, on the other, which may not be so good after all, as I pointed out here. Li Wei and Chao-Jung Wu’s statement that “There is still widespread fear of bilingual and multilingual practices such as codeswitching” remains as cogent. So why isn’t codeswitching ‘creative’ (and therefore ‘good’), since it is evidence of multilingualism?
The answer may have to do with what we mean by creativity. Does it have to do with how we use things and languages, or with how many things and languages we use? Quality or quantity? Learning to use what we need to use, for example languages, means learning how they work – their rules, in the descriptive, procedural sense of this word. These rules don’t exist in nature, they emerge from everyday behaviour. But learning rules entails learning how to break them, too, and not playing by the rules is as good a definition of being creative as any. ‘Creativity’, however, depends on who’s deciding which rules – or rather whose rules – can and cannot be broken. This is why we award literary and other prizes to certain rule-breakers: we praise them for doing things outside the box. And this is why multilinguals don’t get prizes for breaking rules when they mix languages: we don’t praise those who do things outside the language.
I’ve dealt before with this misconception that multilingualism is best approached by investigating the languages of multilinguals instead of the language users themselves, and I’ll return to it next time.
© MCF 2016
Next post: Switching languages, mixing languages – or using languages? Saturday 28th May 2016.