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Creativity and Language Learning

Creativity and Language Learning

“Creativity is not a capacity of special people but a special capacity of all people. It shows speakers as language makers and not simply as language users” (Prof Ron Carter)

I find this conclusion absolutely fantastic!

It comes at the end of the book titled: “Language and Creativity: the Art of Common Talk” written by Ron Carter -professor at Nottingham University- and published by Routeledge (second edition, 2016).

Two fundamental points of this statement deserve to be highlighted: 1) “Creativity is a special capacity of all people” and 2) “Creativity shows speakers as language makers not simply language users

In fact creativity does not belong to great artists only like Shakespeare, Yeats, Leonardo da Vinci, William Turner etc. They expressed their creativity at the highest level or -as someone says- they revealed Creativity with capital “C”. However ordinary people can also bring to light their creativity -with the ordinary small “c”- while completing their ordinary daily routine for instance while cooking a meal, mending a jumper, walking the dog, saying hello or goodbye to another human being.

Or -to add on more great example- “ordinary” creativity is the one that children practise everyday when playing or inventing or building something. Or -as the second point of Ron Carter’s conclusion says- when we speak and become language makers! We create when we speak every word: it is actually wonderful if we thoroughly think of this human capacity!

Well, you might argue that the creativity of little children playing or the creativity of mothers or cooks is not comparable with the one of the geniuses. I may partly agree, but just a bit. What is relevant in this context is not the level of creativity revealed in each individual, but the fact that creativity is a capacity of every human being and can open up  the potentials of human beings especially in time of education .

It is quite significant that creativity has been investigated as never before in the last fifty years and is still under attention of scientists and researchers who want to explore creativity as well the relation between creativity and learning other languages or bilingualism.

I would like to mention here a research carried out at Ferdowsi University Mashhad (Iran) in 2012. The research aimed to investigate the performances of young people learning English as foreign language compared to monolinguals. To achieve this target the Author chose to test the participants on mental functions related to divergent thinking that is a component of creativity.

All the participants were selected amid the same gender, social and cultural status and same IQ level to avoid interferences from other factors and focus only on the effects of language learning on those functions of divergent thinking.

The findings revealed that learning English as foreign language at an advanced level significantly enhances all four divergent thinking abilities: fluency, elaboration, originality and flexibility.

It was discovered that learning English has two consequences: the first effect is that bilinguals outperform monolinguals in all precincts. The reason of this is that bilinguals have the possibility of using two language systems, thus they must maintain a constant vigilance in order to prevent one language to interfere with the other. They are therefore stronger in managing multiple tasks, in flexibility on switching attention between different tasks, in avoiding distractions and holding concentration on their newly acquired information.

A second effect was found during the test: learners of English as second language are necessarily exposed to “cultures, customs and beliefs distinctive from their own“, hence leading them to see the world from new perspectives. This condition enables bilinguals to find out more answers in problem solving and a better understanding of people expressing different points of view. 

In addition to the cognitive development of divergent thinking revealed by the research in learners of English as foreign language, students come to the UK to improve their English have further stimulus to their creativity: they have to face a non-routinary, unknown environment that stimulates creative abilities through practising flexibility, solving problems linked to the adaptation, getting familiar with different mentality, traditions and conceptual forms.

When I started the AEL project, this relation between language learning and creativity seemed to me quite evident but my only motivation for this statement was that creativity springs up from the deepest essence of human beings and permeates every human activity, including all aspects of learning, especially learning another language. Learning itself may be an expression of creativity to some extent. Twenty years later I find myself beside more companions having developed a clear mind on why activity-based courses and creative programmes might be effective. This is a good fact.

In his talk “Changing education paradigms” (see video), the British educationalist Sir Ken Robinson shows simply and clearly how our education system is based on old principles, drilling conformity into the learners, an education system that has been tailored on the requirements of the Industrial Revolution which needed people developing a dummy level of convergent thinking rather than creative.

Sir Ken Robinson -also chair of the UK Government’s report on creativity, education and economy- mentions a research that showed that young people lost their ability to think in “divergent or non-linear ways”, a key component of creativity, because of the principles on which the school system is based.

“We have to think of the fundamental principles on which we are educating our children” (Sir Ken Robinson)

He reveals that “of 1,600 children aged 3 to 5 who were tested, 98% showed they could think in divergent ways. By the time they were aged 8 to 10, 32% could think divergently. When the same test was applied to 13 to 15-year-olds, only 10% could think in this way. And when the test was used with 200,000 25-year-olds, only 2% could think divergently! [source:  click here]

Ken’s conclusion is therefore that “We have to think of the fundamental principles on which we are educating our children”.

How do we do that? Changing legislation? and principles will be valid for the future?

I was very lucky to find the book “Study of Man” by Rudolf Steiner (published by Rudolf Steiner Press) that was deeply inspiring and also to cross the work of enthusiastic and dedicated Authors like Ken Robinson and Ron Carter in the UKHoward Gardner and his work on Multiple Intelligence in the USA and other recent educationalists and psychologists who are giving a great contribution to open fresh windows on education.

May I finish these notes on the relation between creativity and language learning with an image representing the topic of this article: the image of creativity as a ballerina who reveals forms and movements in the air on the flow of the music!

Should teaching English be the music, then the music will move the students creativity, will move their hearts and minds  into a fresh, flexible, beautiful dance. We have to shape our teaching not just to inoculate unnecessary dry information but to developing their confidence, courage and enthusiasm.

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