Saturday, 30 April 2016

Multilinguals and creativity

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 very soon. Meanwhile, still on the topic of creativity, I’ll have to qualify what I say in my second paragraph, above. The next post, a guest post, offers evidence that rethinking approaches to teaching, and implementing novel methodologies, have more than welcome effects on how we engage with our new languages.


© MCF 2016

Next post: =Guest post= Teaching languages through drama/theatre positively impacts oral fluency, by Angelica Galante and Ron I. Thomson. Saturday 28th May 2016.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Attitudes to multilingualism – or to multilinguals?

The human understanding, once it has adopted an opinion, collects any instances that confirm it, and though the contrary instances may be more numerous and more weighty, it either does not notice them or else rejects them, in order that this opinion will remain unshaken.
            Francis Bacon (1620), Novum Organon 1: XLVI

Few of us might nowadays wish to voice out loud doubts about the ‘benefits’ of multilingualism, or about how and why this current choir of praise came to be. Not all that long ago, however, equally loud choirs were as adamant about the ‘disadvantages’ of multilingualism.

The pendular backlash that we witness today comes from realisation that research supporting multilingualism-is-bad vogues was in fact no research at all, in that it failed to control variables. For example, it compared multilingual children from lower socio-economic strata with monolingual children from higher ones. The turning point dates from 1962, and is credited to Elizabeth Peal and Wallace E. Lambert’s study The relation of bilingualism to intelligence. It also compared multilinguals to monolinguals, but it removed confounding variables to find that “bilinguals performed significantly better than their monolingual controls” on intelligence tests.

From then on, we seem to have decided that if multilingualism isn’t bad after all, then it must be good. Why? Because it doesn’t seem to cross our minds that multilingualism can simply be. Because we can’t but find deviation, which we then label as good or bad, when we randomly take one instance of natural behaviour as ‘the’ instance of natural behaviour: monolingualism has served as this benchmark for far too long. Because when we compare, we look for what’s not there. Multilingualism is bad when we look for what’s not there in multilinguals. Compared to monolinguals, they ‘lack’ vocabulary, for example. Human beings also lack four legs, compared to horses. In contrast, multilingualism is good when we look for what’s not there in monolinguals. Multilinguals ‘outperform’ monolinguals in social empathy, for example. Human beings also outperform horses in vertical locomotion. I find this habit of listing absences a bit like putting in our CV what we haven’t done: not very enlightening, and probably quite wordy.

The question then arises of whether this seesawing of opinions about multilingualism calls into question Francis Bacon’s insight about our understanding. I don’t think so, for two reasons. First, because we go on mistaking opinions for facts which, to me, is the core of Bacon’s observation: we seem to find it exceedingly difficult to look at things without judging them. And second, because the view that multilingualism is special, that is, not normal, and therefore in need of ‘special’ treatment, remains unshaken: we remain comforted that the current ‘findings’ nicely confirm our current expectations, and blissfully immune to whatever facts may shatter our convictions – in which connection I must hail the inclusion of faktaresistens in the list of new Swedish words for 2015, courtesy of Språkrådet.

The current consensual ‘goodness’ of multilingualism, however, doesn’t somehow seem to extend to multilinguals. If it did, why would so many of us keep advising multilinguals to become monolinguals, or treating them like disordered or failed (multi-)monolinguals, or all of the above? Multilingualism is good, but being multilingual apparently isn’t.

This intriguing paradox is rooted in an equally intriguing refusal to deal with multilingualism from a multilingual perspective. Evidence? Look for the sources of judgements about multilingualism and check whether and how they refer to real-life multilinguals. Look for the resonators of these judgements and check their familiarity with real-life multilinguals. Not least, look for the languages in which these sound bites originate and propagate, and check their relationship to real-life multilinguals. Does it show that research on multilingualism (as on virtually anything else) goes on being published and disseminated in a single preferential language? As Anthony J. Liddicoat argues in Multilingualism research in Anglophone contexts as a discursive construction of multilingual practice, this gives “the impression that research communicated in other languages is of marginal relevance for researching the multilingual world. [...] The monolingualism that exists within the research field is not only a linguistic phenomenon, but can also be understood as the development of a monoculture of knowledge [my emphasis].” Liddicoat concludes that “research into multilingualism largely constructs multilingualism as a subject to be studied from a perspective that lies outside the phenomenon of multilingualism itself”. That is, outside of what multilinguals do.

This is why we’re not being multilingual, we’re being rude, or showing off, or refusing to answer ‘simple’ questions like in which language do we think, dream, swear or count, or like which country (or better still, nationality) do we plead allegiance to. This is why schools favour curricular multilingualism in the (desirable) languages that matter to the school over actual multilingualism in the (real-life) languages that matter to the children, as Jasone Cenoz showed in a guest post to this blog, and I’ve also discussed here.

This is why having to ‘deal with’ multilinguals appears to raise adrenaline to such levels that intelligent, sensible people lose their linguistic bearings – and their commonsense. One example: my family’s friends, speakers of either Portuguese or Swedish, knew that our children, then aged 2 or 3, were being raised in both languages. The children naturally used Swedish or Portuguese according to interlocutor and, as naturally, used 2-3-year-old versions of each language. But, because the children were known to be ‘special’, being multilingual, some of these friends used to apologise to them for not being able to use “their language” (i.e., ‘the other one’), and they did this in English, a language that they also knew wasn’t part of the children’s repertoire at the time. The persuasion that multilinguals must have one and only one ‘good’ language, which never is the one that they are using at any given time, was shared by our relatives, and unsurprising to me. But I had to marvel at the additional assumption that English might well be a sort of innate language that everyone who acts linguistically less conventionally understands by default.

Such attitudes to multilinguals stem from judgemental discussions of multilingualism which pay lip service to the stylised -ism contraption that results from dysfunctional reverse engineering of bits and pieces of imaginary multilinguals. From there to assuming that real-life multilinguals must abide by idealised conceptions of multilingualism is but a small step indeed. We keep looking at what’s not there.

Which reminds me of another quote, this time from my fellow countryman and Nobel laureate José Saramago, in his novel about the death of one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis: “não somos o que dizemos, somos o crédito que nos dão” (‘we aren’t what we say, we are the credit we’re given’ [my translation]).

Paul Klee, O! die Gerüchte! 
(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Next time, I’ll deal with creativity. Are multilinguals also ‘specially’ creative?


© MCF 2016

Next post: Multilinguals and creativity. Saturday 30th April 2016.

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