C is for Creativity

26 11 2017

I’ve just come back from a conference, the theme of which was creativity – a conference for teachers of Arabic, as it happens. I’m not a speaker of Arabic, much less a teacher. But I have a long association with the Arab world – I calculate I’ve done work in 14 of the 22 states that belong to the Arab League. Moreover, irrespective of the language they are teaching, language teachers share many of the same challenges and experience many of the same successes. For me it is both salutary and enlightening to be able to exchange stories about these challenges and successes. It was appropriate, therefore, that the organization that hosted the conference – in conjunction with the University of Westminster – is an Arabic language school whose mission statement is “We believe language & culture are better shared than taught.”

sharek conference Mahammed Bouabdallah

Sharek Centre Conference at the University of Westminster (photo courtesy Mahammed Bouabdallah)

 

What, then, of creativity? For me, a constant challenge has been trying to balance the twin poles of conformity and creativity. My initial training erred on the side of the former, where language learning was all about conforming to existing patterns and models and where creativity, if it was encouraged at all, seemed seriously constrained.

first things firstSuch a view was enshrined in the first coursebook I ever used, Louis Alexander’s aptly titled First Things First (1967), whose philosophy is laid out in no uncertain terms: ‘The student should be trained to learn by making as few mistakes as possible. He should never be required to do anything which is beyond his capacity… If the student is to make the most of his abilities he must be trained to adopt correct learning habits right from the start’ (Alexander 1967: xii).

This ‘late-stage’ behaviourist credo sat uncomfortably with the Chomskyan view that creativity is the essence of language use: ‘Ordinary linguistic behaviour characteristically involves innovation, formation of new sentences and new patterns in accordance with rules of great abstractness and intricacy’ (1966, quoted in Stern, 1983, p. 300).  And he added, for good measure, that ‘repetition of fixed phrases is a rarity….’ (ibid.)

Corpus linguistics has, of course, shown him to be wildly wrong: a great deal of real language use does in fact consist of fixed phrases – more than 50%, according to some estimates. The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin had long since anticipated this: ‘Our speech, that is, all our utterances (including our creative works), is filled with others’ words, varying degrees of otherness or varying degrees of “our-own-ness”’ (1986: 89).

Language use, it seems, involves an equal measure of conformity and creativity, a tension that finds expression in John Sinclair’s distinction between the ‘idiom principle’ and the ‘open choice principle’. With regard to the former, ‘a language user has available to him or her a large number of semi-preconstructed phrases that constitute single choices, even though they might appear to be analysable into segments’ (Sinclair 1991:110). This contrasts with the ‘open choice principle’, whereby ‘words are treated as independent items of meaning. Each of them represents a separate choice’ (op. cit.: 175).

For Bakhtin, this tension between conformity and creativity was construed as a tug-of-war between centripetal and centrifugal forces.  As Braxley (2013: 15) describes it: ‘On the one hand, centripetal forces play a normative role, ensuring that speakers of the language will be able to understand one another. On the other hand, centrifugal forces keep the language alive and allow for the creation of new genres’. In fact, Bakhtin theorized that these opposing forces could be reconciled, and that conformity, far from being antithetical to creativity, might indeed be a precondition for it. As he put it, ‘The better our command of genres, the more freely we employ them… The more flexibly and precisely we reflect the unrepeatable situation of communication – in a word, the more perfectly we implement our free-speech plan’ (1986:80).

‘The unrepeatable situation of communication’ reminds us that even imitation is a form of creativity, since a copy is never the same as the original. This is well exemplified by the hip-hop practice of sampling, i.e. the re-using of a segment of a recording in the creation of a new composition. Pennycook (2007: 149), writing about ‘transcultural flows’, quotes the musician DJ Spooky who describes sampling as ‘”a new way of doing something that’s been with us for a long time: creating with found objects…”. As he goes on to argue, “creativity rests in how you re-contextualise the previous expressions of others…”’ Pennycook comments that ‘this argument challenges notions of authorship, originality and creativity’ (ibid.)

lost-in-translation-hoffman-eva-paperback-cover-artIndeed, ‘re-contextualising the previous expressions of others’ might serve as a definition of language acquisition. As Eva Hoffman memorably put it, in her memoir of learning English: ‘Since I lack a voice of my own, the voices of others invade me is if I were a silent ventriloquist. They ricochet within me, carrying on conversations, lending me their modulations, intonations, rhythms. I do not yet possess them; they possess me… Eventually, the voices enter me; by assuming them, I gradually make them mine. I am being remade, fragment by fragment, like a patchwork quilt’ (Hoffman 1998: 220).

Sampling and patchwork: two images that neatly capture the intersection between conformity and creativity, and remind us that language learning is a process frequently involving – not just production – but RE-production. As Pennycook (2010) points out, ‘language learning also profoundly involves mimicry, and once we are open to a view of mimicry as an act that changes the original, then the concern that language imitation is stultifying is no longer credible… Language repetitions, imitations and re-localisations as creative acts may be at least as significant for language learning as acts of creative construction or individual difference’ (Pennycook 2010: 139).

All this makes me wonder if I had underestimated the creative potential of the tightly constrained methodology I was initially trained in. And it reminds me of Nora (see N is for Nora) and the way she created her own ‘substitution tables’ as she riffed on newly acquired phrases:

She said me that it wa’ not too raining by she house. She said it wa’ not too raining by she house. She said she not raining by she house.

This is not a million miles from the highly repetitive but undeniably creative word play of a writer like Gertrude Stein (1923):

No sense in no sense innocence of what of not and what of delight. In no sense innocence in no sense and what in delight and not, in no sense innocence in no sense no sense what, in no sense and delight, and in no sense and delight and not in no sense and delight and not, no sense in no sense innocence and delight.

In the end, as Rod Ellis (2016, p. 45) argues, ‘we need to conceive of L2 learners as striving for a balance between creativity and conformity… The task facing the language teacher, then, is to facilitate this process by allowing room for the natural process of creative construction while also facilitating conformity to target-language norms.’

The question, as always, is: How?

References

Alexander, L. G. (1967) New Concept English: First Things First (Teacher’s Book), Harlow: Longman.

Bakhtin,  M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Braxley, K. (2013) ‘Mastering academic English: international graduate students’ use of dialogue and speech genres to meet the writing demands of graduate school’ in J.K. Hall, G. Vitanova, and L. Marchenkova (eds) Dialogue with Bakhtin on Second and Foreign Language Learning: New Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 11-32.

Ellis, R. (2016) ‘Creativity and language learning.’ In Jones, R.H. & Richards, J.C. (eds) Creativity in language teaching: perspectives from research and practice. London: Routledge.

Pennycook, A. (2007) Global Englishes and transcultural flows. London: Routledge.

Pennycook, A. (2010) Language As a Local Practice. London: Routledge.

Sinclair, J. (1991) Corpus, Concordance, Collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stein, G. (1923) ‘Are there Arithmetics?’ in Kostelanetz, R. (ed.) (2002) The Gertrude Stein Reader. New York: Cooper Square Press.

Stern, H.H. (1983) Fundamental concepts of language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Consistent with the principles of sampling and patchwork, some of this post borrows from my preface to Creativity in English Language Teaching, edited by D. Xerri and O. Vassallo ( ElT Council, Malta, 2016).

 





I is for Imitation

25 03 2012

Listen!  Repeat! Understand! The sequence below comes from an advert for a self-study language course – an advert that I have used countless times on training sessions to (gently) mock the folk theory that language acquisition (both first and second) is primarily a process of imitation – and imitation in advance of understanding, no less. The text of the advert spells it out: ‘You probably can’t remember, but at that time [i.e. when you were a child]  you first reproduced sounds, then words, and then entire phrases without really understanding anything. Very quickly you were able to speak, understand and make yourself understood’.  And of course they add, ‘This is the best way to learn any language’.

It’s amazing how this notion has resisted the hatchet-job that Chomsky and his followers inflicted upon it so long ago. Mindless reproduction of the type described cannot of course account for the almost limitless creativity that even quite young children allegedly exhibit. Summing up the evidence, Lightbown and Spada (2006: 14) confidently declare that ‘imitation and practice alone cannot explain some of the forms created by children’, citing a figure of less than 10 per cent of children’s output as being directly imitative.

So, if, in Chomsky’s terms, language use is rule-based creativity, and if performance is contingent upon competence, then it follows that we should teach (or have learners figure out) the rules of the language, so that they can generate their own meanings, rather than have them simply imitate a model. The learning sequence might better be summed up as Listen! Understand! Figure it out! Create!

It’s something of a shock, therefore, to come up against this sentence in Vygotsky’s Thought and Language ([1934], 1986: 188, emphasis added): ‘In learning to speak, as in learning school subjects, imitation is indispensable’. Or, as Lantolf and Thorne (2006: 166) gloss it, ‘Imitation is the process through which socioculturally constructed forms of mediation are internalised’. That is to say, the transition from skills (including linguistic ones) that are initially other-regulated to those that are self-regulated is engineered by – hold your breath – imitation.

In fairness, and as Swain et al (2011: 58) point out, Vygotsky’s notion of imitation was a far cry from mindless parroting: ‘Vygotsky differentiated imitation from automatic copying.  In Vygotsky’s view, imitation is a potentially transformative mechanism that is applied consciously and is goal-directed. Intentionality of the imitation, the reflection and examination of the results, and the subsequent revisions differentiates the action from simple mimicry’. This is reminiscent of Bakhtin’s (1981: 428) claim that, to make an utterance is to ‘appropriate the words of others and populate them with one’s own intentions’.

Imitation, then, is like a benign form of plagiarism, in which the child cobbles utterances together, in a kind of cut-and-paste fashion, using whatever linguistic affordances are available in order to achieve their immediate communicative purposes.  These linguistic affordances include, not only words, but multi-word chunks, such as lemme-see, I-wanna-do-it, etc, that, initially at least, are unanalysed into their component parts (Tomasello 2003). In this sense, they constitute what one scholar (Clark 1974: 1) has called performance without competence: ‘The important question is no longer whether imitation can help children to acquire syntax, but precisely how a child gradually extracts grammatical information from the repertoire of imitated sequences at his [or her] disposal’.

So, to tweak our learning sequence yet again, maybe what’s happening is more like Listen! Imitate! Understand! Figure it out! – not a million miles from the Listen! Repeat! Understand! formula that I habitually mock.

The question then is (as ever): how does this apply to the learning of a second language? How does one ‘populate the words of others with one’s own intentions’?  Eva Hoffman (1998: 220), a Polish teenager learning English in the United States, describes the process of appropriation:  ‘Since I lack a voice of my own, the voices of others invade me… By assuming them, I gradually make them mine. I am being remade, fragment by fragment, like a patchwork quilt’.  In a similar, patchwork fashion, a student of academic writing will selectively imitate (or copy) features, both micro- and macro-, of a model text as a first step in discovering her own academic ‘voice’.

If imitation is fundamental to first language acquisition, should we be integrating more imitation-type activities into our second language classrooms? And how can we ensure that, in order to be ‘transformative’, imitation meets the criteria that Swain et al. establish (2011: 59), i.e. that it is ‘deliberate, reflective, and accompanied by some kind of instruction’?

References:

Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Clark, R. (1974) ‘Performing without competence’, Journal of Child Language, 1, 1.

Hoffman, E. (1998) Lost in Translation: A Life in a  New Language, London: Vintage.

Lantolf, J.P., and Thorne, S. (2006) Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lightbown, P.M. and Spada, N. (2006) How Languages are Learned (3rd edn.), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swain, M., Kinnear, P., and Steinman, L. (2011) Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education: An Introduction through Narratives, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A Usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition, London: Continuum.

Vygotsky, L. ([1934] 1986), Thought and Language, edited by Kozulin, A., Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.