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Can Learning a New Language Boost Your Creativity?

Did Hemmingway's foreign language abilities help him write books likeand win a Nobel Prize in literature? Research suggests it certainly didn't hurt. Creativity, though, is ultimately what you make of it.
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I became fascinated with the question of what relationship exists, if any, between foreign language ability and creativity after reading Earnest Hemmingway's The Sun Also Rises this past summer. The novel takes its readers on a trilingual adventure from the cafés of Paris to the bullfighting rings of Pamplona. Hemmingway himself spoke both French and Spanish, in addition to his native English, and though his exact ability in each is a matter for debate, it is clear from clips like this one that he was at least fully bilingual.

We already know that bilinguals, like Hemmingway, reap a variety of benefits. Learning a second language can help you stave off the deleterious effects of Alzheimer's disease and dementia as we age; it can help you become better at multi-tasking; it can help you make better financial choices; and it can even help you improve your English language skills.

But what about creativity? It seems to be all the rage right now. Hardly a day goes by without someone on my Twitter feed telling me about how I should exercise or daydream more if I'd like to boost my creativity.

The problem that we encounter while attempting to answer this question is that creativity is both a relatively recent topic of scientific interest and also a rather subjective one. Rex Jung, a research scientist at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, did his best Potter Stewart rendition during an interview with the New York Times in 2010 when he said, "Creativity is kind of like pornography -- you know it when you see it."

Nevertheless, researchers do have some tools at their disposal with which they can attempt quantify creative ability. One of the most widely used of those tools is a test known as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). The TTCT, which was first introduced by Ellis Paul Torrance in 1962, measures a participant's capacity for what's known as "divergent thinking" in four key areas: fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration.

Just what is "divergent thinking?" Put simply, it's your mind's ability to generate a variety of solutions to a given problem. To measure that ability, researchers often prompt participants to do things like list as many uses as they can think of for a brick in under a minute. The more uses you can list, the better a divergent thinker you are.

A 2012 study conducted by researchers at the University of Mashhad in Iran compared how a group of advanced language leaners aged 16 to 18 fared on the TTCT compared with their monolingual counterparts. The advanced language learners were Iranian students who had studied English at language institutes for at least six years.

In selecting participants, the researchers controlled for factors like socioeconomic status and IQ level so that the "participants had everything in common but the experience of learning a foreign language in language institutes." The results were decisive: the bilinguals outperformed the monolinguals in every one of the TTCT's four measures.

The researchers posit two possible explanations for their findings. The first is that because bilinguals, as has been shown in other studies, have two language systems at their disposal, they must maintain constant vigilance in order to prevent one system from interfering with the other. Consequently, bilinguals have been shown to outperform monolinguals in tasks that require them to switch attention between tasks, ignore distractions, and hold newly acquired information in mind. The second is that as a consequence of their language studies, the bilinguals are necessarily exposed to "cultures, customs, and beliefs distinctive from their own," thus forcing them to see the world from a new perspective.

That the languages we speak can affect our worldview is not a new idea. As I've noted previously, "Recent research has shown that speakers of "non-futured" languages, like Finnish or German, are more likely to save more money for retirement and are less likely to smoke or be obese than speakers of "futured" languages like French or English."

Why? Linguists theorize it's because speakers of non-futured languages think of the future as being indistinguishable from the present, and thus they are more willing to take steps in the present to improve their future.

At a more basic level, learning a foreign language requires us to construct and negotiate the unique architecture in which it consists. Each new language we learn presents us with new barriers when trying to convey meaning. Turkish, for instance, has no equivalents for the English verbs "to be" or "to have"; Russian and other Slavic languages have retained grammatical cases that English shed long ago; and even "easy" languages like French or Spanish have aspects, like grammatical gender, that are entirely foreign to English speakers. As your mind generates possibilities in order to negotiate these barriers, it engages in a potent form of divergent thinking -- the very divergent thinking that drives creativity.

Before you go out and sign up for that Italian language course you've eyeing, you should know that not all language-learning methods are created equally. According to the study's authors, the method you use may be a determining factor in just how much of a creative boost you receive. They note that the participants in their study attended language institutes, which generally tend to have smaller class sizes and encourage a more collaborative atmosphere -- one that is more conducive to divergent thinking -- than traditional academic courses.

Academic courses, by contrast, often stress convergent thinking, which is the sort of thinking you engage in while trying to select the "correct" answer to a given problem from a number of possible choices via a logical, methodical process. If you're curious about how this plays out in real life, think back to the time you spent parsing through right and wrong answer choices while taking the SAT.

Indeed, one need not look very far in order to find instances of how academic courses discourage divergent thinking in favor of its stuffy counterpart, convergent thinking. The grammar exercises and tests that are part and parcel of those courses place, more often than not, an emphasis on finding the "correct" answer to a given prompt. Either you arrive at that answer or you don't, and if you don't, you are often penalized. To give you an example, I remember back to my middle and high school Spanish classes in which we were often penalized half a point or more on our exams for missing accents or using them incorrectly.

Language, however, is primarily a means of communication, and communication is not inherently given to right and wrong answers as tests are. Every language has, of course, its own grammar, and, yes, grammatically speaking, there are right and wrong answers, but achieving grammatical perfection is, at best, a secondary goal to conveying meaning. Therein lies the relevant distinction as far as creativity is concerned: not only is conveying meaning the most important goal of speaking a language, it is also the primary driver of creativity because it forces us to think divergently.

As academic thinker Sir Ken Robertson has noted, our education system has become obsessed with the notion of avoiding mistakes. Said Robertson during a 2006 talk on the subject, "We're now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make." The end result of this, he says, "is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities."

So just how should you go about learning a new language without educating yourself out of your creative capacity? I'm a huge fan of the "Speak from Day One" approach advanced by professional language-hacker and polyglot Benny Lewis. His approach stresses, as its name implies, the importance of speaking your new language from the very first day you begin learning it, no matter how few words you know.

Whereas grammar exercises often focus your attention on just one or two concepts at a time, speaking with others requires your mind to fire on all cylinders as you assimilate new information and cycle between familiar and unfamiliar concepts. It's just more fun and more practical. As I've mentioned to readers of my language learning blog, The Linguisticlast, I still remember words from my Spanish classes in school, like patinar (meaning "to skate"), that I've only used a handful of times in my life. It wasn't until my final year of high school Spanish, however, that I learned the conditional mood and the present perfect tense, both of which are vitally important in everyday speech.

So, back to my original question: Did Hemmingway's foreign language abilities help him write books like The Sun Also Rises and win a Nobel Prize in literature? Research suggests it certainly didn't hurt. Creativity, though, is ultimately what you make of it. So go ahead, be your own test subject, and try learning another language.

This post first appeared on The Linguisticlast, a blog dedicated to language learning and all things language. You can follow The Linguisticlast on Twitter at @linguisticlast.