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Being Bilingual Sparks Creativity

Bilingualism Can Generate Creative Problem Solving

Personally, I love the sounds and musicality of all languages. I was raised in a bi-lingual household. I spoke English outside the home when I was with people who did not speak Italian. This was particularly at school and at activities that had some connection to school – e.g. cub scouts, athletics, music etc. But at home it was Italian all the way.

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with a wide range of bilingual individuals in my creativity workshops. Many of these individuals demonstrated some high quality creative skill in their choice of art, and it was clear they were able to transfer that mindset into the success of other life endeavors. Interestingly, a lot of these individuals do not attribute their wonderful aptitudes to the fact that they were raised under the effects of two different languages – as I myself did not, especially as a young man.

Yet, I believe this kind of linguistic influence can spark early patterns of creative skill, thinking and vision that then snowball throughout life, so long as the pipeline stays on – all the more reason to involve one’s self in making art (any art) at any level. Just enjoy yourself and do it, doesn’t matter what the art or if you play like Mozart or paint like Van Gogh, and the pipeline is on.

You might think, offhand, that the interplay of two or more languages can sometimes frustrate an individual. There is some truth to that. At times, as a young person, I would start thinking in Italian when I was talking to someone who spoke English. I would know, for example, the Italian word for one thing or another, and not the English word. It was a little frustrating until I (as most bilingual kids do) learned to make the shift more smoothly. But this experience was well worth the bump up in creativity.

Allowing yourself to be influenced by a particular language’s mechanics, especially in regard to the syntax and the formations of its figurative language, with emphasis here on the metaphor – contributes to the establishment of creativity and complex thinking as well as one’s understanding regarding the natures and relationships of things. Bilingualism helps you drill even deeper into these components, and then, snowballs further as you move from one discipline (and life situation) to the next, strengthening the mind along the way. These strengths can come out in terms of creative problem solving and flow.

Beat writer William Burroughs was keenly onto this idea back in the fifties. Convinced that human language which gave us new freedom as a species later came back to restrict us in a number of ways; Burroughs created something called a “cutout” to help re-open the mind creatively and philosophically. At the end of this post, I will give you an exercise based on his cutout so you can try one of your own. But first, let’s look a little closer.

What was Burroughs cutting? The sentence, the syntax he blamed for the restrictions. The point was that: Disembodied language can allow you to understand the world in dazzling new ways. And therein is the connection to creativity as well as philosophy – and to creative benefits bilingualism. This is to say that syntactical and structural language patterns eventually restrict the mind. For example, see the following sentence: The sky is _________. You will notice that there are a limited number of possibilities the language conventionally allows. So in many ways you are restricted in what you see and think as you look to “the sky.”

Burroughs wasn’t alone with thought that language restricts your vision and understanding of the world. Gertrude Stein, Nietzsche, and a whole legacy of poets and linguists have said similar things.

The hope in disembodying the language is that by breaking down its uniformity and conformity, you will see what your native tongue would previously not allow you to see, experience, and think about. Knowing a second language is similar in effect. You develop new experience, new thought, new vision, and new solutions. It is good to remember, as well, that there is a wide variety of communication beyond verbal and symbolic – e.g. touch, sound, color, and so on. Sometimes a hug or pat on the back can say more than our word-language could ever convey at a specific moment.

The following is an adaptation based on the Burroughs cutouts. I call it The Word Bag. By the way, I have had colleagues who have used Word Bags with their students (secondary and higher education) in a variety of world languages. They have reported fun, thought provoking results. Here’s how you can make yours:

The Word Bag:

1. Gather a large number of sample pages from the widest, most diverse types of print media possible. You can take these samples from online sources or from old magazines, books, journals, etc. you have around the house. The key is to have a lot of sources and make them as diverse as possible (i.e. science magazines/books, history, fiction, poetry, health, culinary, philosophy, fashion – you get the picture.

2. Then cut (or tear) upward so that you are cutting the sentences in half. Cut the pages in eighths or preferable even smaller pieces. Be sure the sentences are split.

3. Put the pieces you have cut in a bag. Try to get about 2,000 pieces. Sounds like a lot but once you get cutting, it won’t take long at all. Remember diversity of subject material is vital.

4. Then, take the pieces out of your bag one at a time and start lining them up alongside one another to see sentences they can make. Most won’t make sense. That’s okay. When you get one that sounds really “different,” yet makes some new and interesting sense when you “think” about it, write that one down on a separate sheet of paper. You can even keep a journal of these cutouts. Every once in a while you will find one that is amazing.

When you make your cutouts, remember: A lot of it will be play, incomprehensible at times – doesn’t matter – just rediscover the raw fun of playing with words. But somewhere in your play is the possibility of finding a crown jewel. It’s like panning for gold. You’ll know it when you find it. You will eventually see a phrase that will have an exciting and very different meaning from anything you have ever heard before – BUT – it will make total (and new) sense, be a totally new and original idea, one you couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

As an aside, if you like writing poems (or song lyrics) you can almost effortlessly write some terrific lines and/or whole pieces this way. Fiction takes a little more doing, but with practice you can do that too.

The good news is that by re-discovering the play and natural diversity in language, you will be exercising your own creative flow with regard to language. You will strengthen your creative and psychic energy.

Diversity in all of nature is what keeps us strong in mind and body. Diversity fuels creativity. Bilingualism is one great way to experience diversity. If you are not bilingual, The Word Bag is one exercise you can use to open up the original diversity of your own language and enjoy the creativity it will spark in you.

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