Talking Languages
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Talking Languages

Languages and Creativity

A primary source of inspiration behind this campaign was Creative Multilingualism, a recent flagship research programme within Humanities at Oxford. The four-year , funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Open World Research Initiative (OWRI), investigated the interaction between linguistic diversity and creativity. It is now a in The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). We spoke to the project leader, Professor Katrin Kohl of the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages.

Multilingualism is about societies in which people commonly speak more than one language. So does that mean the phenomenon is irrelevant to the UK, where English is the main language?

The interdisciplinary research team drawn from six universities focused on two hypotheses: that human beings are fundamentally multilingual, and that this is intrinsic to human creativity. “If language diversity is in our DNA and connected with our creativity, it’s vital that we should value language learning as a fundamental part of education and lifelong learning,” she commented.

The team pursued its research in seven strands, investigating the interaction between language diversity and creativity — from the role of metaphor at the interface between thought and language, through to performance, literature and language learning. Professor Martin Maiden from Oxford’s Faculty of Linguistics led a strand that identified how communities create — or may actively block — understanding across ‘boundaries’ between closely related languages such as Italian and Romanian. Meanwhile a group combining expertise from Biology, Anthropology and Linguistics led by Oxford-based Professor Andrew Gosler worked with conservationists from BirdLife International to investigate the relationship between creativity in human languages and the creativity of a diverse biological world.

Multilingualism in our midst

So what is the research team’s understanding of “multilingualism”? The Slanguages project led by Professor Rajinder Dudrah from Birmingham City University goes to the heart of what multilingualism currently means in the UK. “We all vary our choice and pronunciation of words depending on who we’re talking to and the group we identify with,” commented Professor Kohl. “Some people’s linguistic resources extend to diverse dialects while others draw on more than one language.” The BCU-based project joined forces with Punch Records, an agency that works with black music, arts and culture in Birmingham to investigate how artists tap into their rich linguistic repertoire when they create performances. This includes slang, patois developed in diverse communities, and speech rhythms from jazz and rap.

Raising the status of languages in schools

The AHRC issued its Open World Research Initiative call against a backdrop of steadily declining numbers of UK schoolchildren opting for languages at GCSE and A-Level. “Invigorating the study of languages in schools is key”, comments Professor Kohl. “Young people are often sold short on language learning, particularly if the emphasis in education is on maths, sciences and technology.” The team therefore developed the schools-focused Multilingual Performance Project led by theatre director Daniel Tyler McTighe. He ran over 30 workshops for teachers across the country to give them the confidence to use drama techniques in the languages classroom.

Professor Suzanne Graham and Dr Linda Fisher from the Education departments at Reading and Cambridge respectively contributed a research strand on “Linguistic Creativity in Language Learning”. As discussed in an episode of the podcast series LinguaMania, they studied different ways of teaching languages in schools and identified how students could be made to feel more positive about language learning, with improved learning outcomes. In a study comparing outcomes for more functionally and more creatively oriented teaching approaches and tasks, they established that students differed in what they found motivating — teaching needs to take account of the fact that students are individuals with varying needs and preferences.

Home languages as a source of creativity

The story of languages in UK schools also offers some excitingly positive dimensions, however. These include the policy of bilingualism in Wales and the diversity of languages in local communities. The percentage of pupils in England speaking a language in the home other than English is now over 16% in secondary schools and over 20% in primary schools, with languages ranging from Polish and Gujarati to Portuguese and Swahili.

A research strand on world literature led by Wen-chin Ouyang from SOAS and a strand developing the innovative concept of “Prismatic Translation” led by Professor Matthew Reynolds from Oxford’s Faculty of English organized creative writing workshops in schools, encouraging students to draw on the languages they were learning and on their diverse home languages. The poet Kate Clanchy ran workshops that involved visiting poets writing in Polish, Arabic, Swahili and Yoruba. The students created poetry pamphlets, contributed to the anthology England, Poems from a School (Picador, 2018), won national poetry prizes and generated thousands of “likes” on Twitter. Kate Clanchy sees the high level of linguistic diversity in the schools as relevant to the students’ creative success: “Many of our best poets have another language at home, and they have a strikingly good ear for the musicality of English words.”

Use it or lose it

As Thomas Bak and Dina Mehmedbegovic from the Cambridge-led OWRI programme have highlighted, multilingualism is on the increase in the UK and “associated with better cognitive performance and higher academic achievement in children”. They also have for the other end of the age spectrum: active use of more than one language is associated with “delayed onset of dementia and better recovery from stroke”, with the benefits being evident in language learners of all ages. Our brains are built to be multilingual, and we need to keep them linguistically in trim.

Embracing diversity through languages

What message does the Creative Multilingualism team have for schoolchildren reading this article? “Young people are the future of our multilingual world and we want them to embrace and understand human diversity through languages,” says Professor Kohl.

And for parents? “We hope our research will encourage them to give their children every possible opportunity to learn more than one language and, if the home is bilingual, to exploit that opportunity to the full. Every language enriches our communicative capabilities, and can offer a valuable career opportunity.”

An intrinsic part of who we are

Creative Multilingualism is part of a concerted effort to change the UK’s attitude towards languages, and the team is set to continue its collaboration. “Our research complements the cross-sector campaign Towards a National Languages Strategy launched in July 2020 by the British Academy, AHRC and other partners,” says Professor Kohl. “Languages constitute an intrinsic part of who we are as human beings. We need to study them if we are to understand how vitally they contribute to all aspects of our society, to the economy, and of course to global cooperation.”

Want to find out more? You can:
Visit the
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Read the freely
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Listen to the podcast series
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a recent live discussion of Creative Multilingualism.

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Oxford Humanities

Bringing together expertise and research across the Humanities at Oxford University. This is our first campaign, which makes the case for languages.