30 Apr 2017
Can language learning boost our creativity?

Can there be too much of a good thing? Certainly not with languages! As I mentioned in my previous post “Why do we study foreign languages?” there are many useful cognitive skills we can develop, aside from the known benefits of learning a new language.

But could we also claim that language learning develops our creativity significantly?

innovation idea creativity vision

If we ask this question to language teachers, students, translators, interpreters and texters, as well as anyone else seriously involved with languages, they will all give us a resounding “yes”. The problem is that although anecdotal evidence abounds, there are surprisingly few scientific studies available that have tested the correlation between language learning and creativity. Besides, the concept of creativity can be subjective. For this reason, scientists use an alternative term called “divergent thinking,” which — in broad terms — means our capacity to find different ways to solve a problem.

In the case of language learning, divergent thinking refers to our ability to convey meaning, or put simply: to be able to say the same thing in many different ways independently of grammar correctness.

So, what clear connections can we make as language users between language learning and creativity? These should be the obvious ones:

  1. Language learning gives us a new lens through which we see our world and that of others
    There really are new ideas and concepts in the new languages we learn, not merely new words to say what we can say in our own language.
    Kann-Sprachenlernen-unsere-Kreativitat-fordern-2Philosophers, linguists and poets have pondered about the limits that our own languages impose in our world view. That is why knowing more than one language can expand that initial view and, thus, foster our creativity.
  2. Language learning helps us say the unsayable even in our own language
    A classic example is the more than 14 words that Inuits have to express snow, such as: aput (snow on the ground), qana (falling snow) and piqsirpoq (drifting) snow.
  3. Language learning helps us acquire a new sense of humor
    That explains why a joke in one language is not necessarily funny in another one, even when the translation may be “flawless.”Kann-Sprachenlernen-unsere-Kreativitat-fordern-3Some Austrians (only them?) think that Germans don´t have a sense of humor, even though both speak basically the same language. That may not have anything to do with the language itself, but with differences in their world view.
  4. Language learning improves our body language
    The popular game charades can take many forms. In my case, I can tell from a bus station away, if my German-speaking students are speaking Spanish with each other at that moment or not. If they are, they are standing much closer to each other and using their hands and facial gestures much more to express their ideas.
  5. Language learning helps us improvise
    If we don´t have the word for car in a foreign language on the spot, we can try to describe it, mention its function, size, or what it is not (e.g. it is not a motorcycle).
  6. Language learning helps us be more comfortable with failure
    Good language learners experiment with the new language through constant trial and error. For this reason, a learning environment that maximizes rewards for even small successes and minimizes the costs of making errors will be a boost to creativity.Kann-Sprachenlernen-unsere-Kreativitat-fordern-4
  7. The connection between language learning strategies and creativity
    There are many language teaching methods, but what works for some may not work for others. That is why the language learning strategies that students actually use are often much more creative and personally rewarding.

So, let’s get out of our comfort zone, stretch our brain muscles and get seriously involved with languages. We will become more creative and, thus, better problem solvers. Guaranteed!

How has language learning helped you become more creative?


About the author: Carlos Aleson is the director of i-diom, an institute specialized in language and communications training in Austria.