Yes, (in case you wondered after my “learn from failure” post) I’m still taking French. For fun. This semester I’m taking a conversation class in which we do a variety of activities to attempt to communicate in “spontaneous French.” Easier said than done! But during class we ended up discussing the challenges of the process and I found myself thinking repeatedly, “That is so much like creativity research.” In order to speak spontaneously in a second language there is no choice but to muddle forward. We need to recognize errors as part of the process, feel supported in the learning environment, and continually try new things.
This made me curious about research that relates creativity to language learning. I knew that travel and other multicultural experiences can build creativity. It turns out that learning a second language, too, has the potential to interact with creativity in interesting ways. Learning new ways of expression and being exposed to differing perspectives in culture and conversation seem likely to enhance flexible thinking. But also, the ability to think flexibility, and the attitudes of risk taking and tolerance for ambiguity could support novice language learners in their efforts toward conversation. For me, as I’ve returned to French learning after decades away, I’ve found that while reading a second language feels like a typical academic task, engaging in conversation requires many of the same affective qualities I’ve needed other creative activities.
In fact, there is research that may support this reciprocal relationship. While Ghonsooly and Showqi (2012) found that students who studied a second language scored higher on creativity measures than peers who didn’t, Ottó (1998) found that second language students who scored higher on measures of creativity were more successful their language learning than those with lower creativity scores. Because the research is limited, it is impossible to fully sort out the chicken-or-egg dilemma. Did language learning build creativity or were more creative people more inclined (or perhaps less fearful) to study a second language? Or both? In either case, the flexible perspectives built in learning a second language are likely to be associated with creativity. And the same kinds of emotional supports and psychological safety necessary for creativity seem just as essential in second language learning.
So, as I muddle forward in my fractured French, I’m working to keep my mind in creative-problem-solving mode. My first ideas will seldom be my best, I will learn from my mistakes, and thinking in new ways is fun. That last one is easy—it really is.
Second language teachers, thanks for helping create a more creative space for students. You might be doing more than you know.
Ghonsooly, B. & Showqi, S. (2012). The effects of foreign language learning on creativity. English Language Teaching, 5(4), 161-167.
Ottó, I. (1998). The relationship between individual differences in learner creativity and language learning success. TESOL Quarterly, 32(4), 763-773.