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Card File: Plurilingual Creativity

How a knowledge of other languages and cultures contributes to creativity

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Fluency in foreign languages has multiple advantages in terms of cognitive abilities, communication skills, cultural awareness, and career advancement. But can bilingualism and plurilingualism (knowledge of multiple languages and related cultural contexts) contribute to creative thinking and one's ability to generate new ideas? Creativity is an essential soft skill, and its development is highly valued. Studies have shown that linguistic, intercultural and creative competencies are interrelated, and their synergy can give rise to plurilingual creativity. The following overview is based on several papers by Anatoly Kharkhurin, Director of the HSE Laboratory for Linguistic, Intercultural and Creative Competencies.

What is plurilingual creativity?

Plurilingual creativity is the product of an interconnection of creative thinking, plurilingualism, multicultural experience from having engaged in communication with people from other cultures, and intercultural competencies. Plurilingualism involves speaking multiple languages—defined as one's linguistic repertoire—albeit with varying degrees of confidence. Plurilingual individuals can easily switch between languages and act as intermediaries to facilitate communication across languages and cultures. Being skilled in relating to members of other cultures, plurilingual persons can successfully adapt to new contexts.

Generally, plurilingualism is considered a competence of a higher order than bilingualism. In the bilingual model, a learner’s knowledge of a foreign language complements their competencies in the primary language. In contrast, plurilingualism involves a synergy of linguistic competencies rather than their combination.

What is meant by intercultural competencies?

These are defined as cognitive, behavioural and other abilities that plurilingual individuals rely upon to communicate with members of other cultures. Such competencies include:

 intercultural stability, which is a manifestation of emotional stability in the context of intercultural communication

 intercultural interest, or being willing to engage with members of other cultures and to explore cultural differences

 the absence of ethnocentrism and an acceptance of cultural diversity

 having the communication skills needed to manage intercultural interaction

What are some of the personal characteristics of plurilingual individuals?

They are usually characterised by creativity, metalinguistic consciousness (defined as the ability to perform mental operations, such as comparison, generalisation or interpretation, in multiple languages), and intercultural competence that incorporates:

 flexibility, or the ability to adjust one's cognitive structures and behaviour

 intercultural empathy, or the ability to connect emotionally with members of other cultures during communication

 tolerance for uncertainty

 mindfulness, or awareness of differences in cultural perspectives

How is creativity interpreted in this context?

In the plurilingual framework, creativity is interpreted as a complex concept. The 7Ps model of creativity considers it in terms of process, personality, product, place where creative expression occurs, packaging (the ability to convince others of a creative product's legitimacy), potential for creative involvement, and creative perception.

Additionally, creative thinking can be defined within the framework proposed by the American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford as consisting of three key aspects:

 divergent thinking, or the ability to generate a variety of ideas and alternative solutions

 convergent thinking, or extracting productive ideas from the pool of those generated by divergent thinking

 creative thinking understood as launching multiple cycles of divergent and convergent thinking

What are the typical characteristics of creative individuals?

These normally include:

 cognitive flexibility, or the ability to embrace different perspectives, switch between them, and think outside the box

 high tolerance of ambiguity

 open-mindedness, meaning acceptance of different sociocultural constructs, unprejudiced attitudes towards members of other cultures, and openness to new ideas and experiences

 preference for complexity—indeed, plurilingual individuals often choose to live in complex linguistic and sociocultural settings

 intrinsic motivation driven by personal interest

How are linguistic and intercultural competencies related to creativity?

In a recent study by Anatoly Kharkhurin, Valeriya Koncha and Morteza Charkhabi, aspects of divergent thinking such as fluency, flexibility and originality were used as dependent variables, while intercultural competencies, multicultural experience, and language proficiency were chosen as independent variables. The study sample included people from 14 countries, mainly from Russia and Kazakhstan, each of whom spoke at least one foreign language.

The study found intercultural competencies and exposure to multicultural experiences to predict divergent thinking. The authors also discovered an interactive effect of the subjects' linguistic repertoire, intercultural competence and multicultural experience on the magnitude of certain aspects of divergent thinking.

In other words, linguistic, intercultural and creative competencies are closely interrelated, highlighting the relevance of plurilingual creativity.

What exactly allows these competencies to interact?

There are a variety of cognitive mechanisms that underly plurilingual creativity, and they include language-mediated concept activation. The assumption is that semantic equivalents in different languages can automatically activate each other through shared conceptual representations. For example, the English idiom 'to buy a pig in a poke', its French equivalent 'acheter chat en poche' and the Russian 'kupit' kota v meshke' all mean 'to purchase without seeing the object in question or knowing its quality'. Different conceptual representations of the phrase in different languages may result in simultaneous activation of additional concepts. Thus, 'a cat in a bag' may trigger associations with a 'dark horse' or perhaps with a 'cat burglar'. This leads to unrelated ideas, which is exactly what divergent thinking is about.

Similarly, the language repertoire, according to the study by Kharkhurin, Koncha and Charkhabi, can contribute to divergent thinking (which can also be influenced by other factors, such as linguistic proficiency and the age of second language acquisition). Compared to monolingual or bilingual individuals, polyglots were found to demonstrate higher tolerance for ambiguity, which, as mentioned earlier, is characteristic of a creative personality. Speakers of multiple languages are additionally characterised by open-mindedness and flexibility, both of which facilitate creativity.

Multicultural experience can enhance creativity, as confirmed in a number of studies. The reason may be that exposure to multiple cultures triggers creativity-supporting cognitive processes, such as retrieval of unconventional knowledge, recruitment of ideas from unfamiliar cultures, or the generation of novel associations. Being immersed in a new socio-cultural context, a person's thinking tends to become broader and less trivial, which is an outlook that fosters creativity.

Specifically, in what ways can intercultural competence influence creativity?

Plurilingual individuals can try out different strategies in managing their cross-cultural interactions. This kind of manoeuvring for the sake of cultural adaptation is something they are skilled at. This, in turn, promotes mental flexibility and the ability to generate multiple ideas quickly.

Intercultural interest exposes people to norms and values which are different from their own and thereby expands their thinking.

How can school and university students develop plurilingual creativity?

The Plurilingual Intercultural Creative Keys (PICK) learning system developed at HSE University offers continuing professional education programmes. Previously, certain educational programmes only focused on foreign languages, some others aimed to help students develop their creative abilities, while intercultural competencies were hardly addressed at all. By taking advantage of the connection between language learning, cultural awareness and creativity, PICK combines the best features of all programmes and uses an integrated approach to help students develop flexible skills as well as subject knowledge for a synergistic effect.


Study author:
Anatoly Kharkhurin, Director, HSE Laboratory of Linguistic, Intercultural and Creative Competencies; Associate Professor, School of Psychology, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences; Project Head, Plurilingual Intercultural Creative Keys, at the Human Capital Multidisciplinary Research Centre
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, April 04, 2023