Multilingualism and artistic ability

Posted by in Ask Dr. Van

Hello, My name is Allison and I am a senior at [school]. I am in the process of completing my senior project, and one of the requirements is to interview an expert on my subject. I have a passion for the arts and have been taking French since my freshman year so my topic combines two of my passions. I am trying to find a connection between knowing multiple languages and artistic ability. 

My essential question is:
What kind of benefits come from knowing more than one language, and is there a connection between artistic ability and bilingualism (or multilingualism)?

If you are willing to be my expert, please email me back when you get the chance. Thank you so much for reading my email!

Hi Allison,
A question: When you’re thinking about the arts and artistic ability, what do you have in mind? Musical ability? The physical arts (painting/sculpting/drawing)? Those are really different things.
-Dr. Van

Dr. Van,   That is a very good question that I unfortunately don’t have a great answer for. Personally, I am a singer and actor so it would be nice to touch on performance arts for my project, but it doesn’t matter too much to me. 
Thank you for responding so quickly! You’re the best!

This isn’t exactly my research area, but I did a little digging and found some things that may be helpful.

There is evidence that speaking more than one language can enhance cognitive capacities. There’s also evidence that creative thinking comes from general cognitive functioning. So the argument thus goes that if bilingualism has cognitive benefits, those benefits may extend into creative thinking. However, apparently there isn’t a lot of research that has been able to directly prove this relationship. One problem is that the terms aren’t actually well defined — as we’ve already found, it’s hard to decide what quantifies as “creativity” — is it music making? Art making? Culinary creativity? There’s creativity involved in mathematics and sciences, as well as things like computer programming — it takes creativity to solve difficult problems! So the lack of definition of the word “creativity” is one of the biggest issues.

One of the other issues is what is meant by “bilingual” or “multilingualism” — how well does one have to know a language to be considered bi/multilingual? Some would argue that a couple of years studying a language doesn’t necessarily qualify you as bilingual, and that it requires fluency in both languages developed from birth or very early childhood; otherwise one language is the “dominant” language. Since it’s difficult to define when someone is truly bi/multilingual, that’s a challenge with the question also.
What I’ve found in some quick research is that there’s some evidence that in some types of verbal tasks, bilingual or multilingual children and college-level students may have had an advantage over monolinguals. There’s research tying that to the ability to “code switch,” or alternate or mix different languages quickly and regularly; the bi/multilingual people may have a more developed verbal network in their brain which may lead to more creativity in certain types of tasks.

There’s also a cultural component that complicates things. There’s research that shows that people who live in diverse cultures or diverse socioeconomic settings tend to exhibit more creativity; it may be that because more multi/bilingual people live in those diverse cultural/socioeconomic environments, that the increase in creativity is due to t hose sociocultural factors. 

So the answer is that it certainly seems possible that bi/multilingualism may increase creativity — but there’s a lot of undefined terms and other factors that are tied into it, and there really hasn’t been a lot of research done to test how each of those factors is involved. 

I don’t know if you need to cite sources for your project, but the author I found who seems to have done most of the work on this topic is a fellow named Anatoliy Kharkhurin. I found a chapter he wrote in a book called “The Handbook of Bilingual and Multilingual Education,” published in 2015, and it has a lot more information and specific references to studies. He certainly seems to believe that there’s a relationship between bi/multilingualism and creativity, but he also acknowledges that the research isn’t really there to prove it yet.

-Dr. Van