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).

 





N is for Nora

19 11 2017

anonymous_girl_facebookIn a talk that I do on case studies in second language acquisition, one of the stars of what I call ‘The SLA Hall of Fame’ is Nora. She was one of the five immigrant children that Lily Wong Fillmore observed as they interacted and played with their English-speaking peers at a school in the US in the mid-70s (Wong Fillmore 1979). It’s a study that has deservedly been called ‘seminal’, and I never get tired of re-visiting it – not least because of the way Nora herself comes alive in the transcripts of her emergent L2. (Nora was barely 6 at the time, so would be approaching 50 now – I wonder how she’s getting along?).

The background:  The researcher paired five Spanish-speaking children, newly arrived from Mexico, with five English-speaking ’buddies’ and regularly observed them at play in a well-equipped playroom over three months – the purpose of which was ‘to discover what social processes might be involved when children who need to learn a new language come into contact with those from whom they are to learn it – but with whom they cannot communicate easily’ (p. 205).

Of the five non-English speaking children (three boys and two girls), Nora was the youngest; the eldest was just over 7. None of the children were receiving any formal English instruction during the period of the study. Wong-Fillmore comments that, ‘by the end of 3 months of observations, it became quite clear that there would be enormous differences among the five children in what they would achieve during the study year’ (p. 207). These individual differences were the primary focus of her study. Nevertheless, the children all seemed to share a number of social and cognitive strategies, albeit with varying degrees of success.

These she summarises in the following table – with the proviso that it’s difficult to separate the social from the cognitive, the cognitive being the way that language was enlisted to achieve the social:

Wong Fillmore

What was notable about Wong Fillmore’s study was that it was one of the first SLA studies to foreground the key role played by formulaic language: ‘All five [children] quickly acquired repertoires of expressions which they knew how to use more or less appropriately, and put them to immediate and frequent use… This new material was learnable and memorable by virtue of being embedded in current, interest-holding activities over which the learners had already acquired some mastery, and from which they have already received social rewards’ (p. 211). Typical expressions included:

Lookit. Wait a minute. Lemme see. Gimme. You know what? Shaddup your mouth. Knock it off.

As Wray (2002, p. 170) comments, ‘formulaic sequences are the key to being perceived as belonging, and making yourself understood’.

More interesting still was the way that these memorized strings were, in many cases, reanalysed into their constituents, and hence ‘provided  the data on which the children were to perform their analytical activities in figuring out the structure of the language’ (p.212). This was achieved in part by cognitive strategy #3: Look for recurring parts in the formulas you know. The way that, for example, Nora’s memorized formula How do you do dese? provides the ‘raw material’ for subsequent productivity is summarized in this table (from Ortega 2009):

Ortega on Nora

And it is often by means of language play that control of these formulae is achieved, with gains in both fluency and analysis. Here is Nora’s use of what has subsequently been called ‘private speech’ in which she plays with the pattern by creating her own substitution drill:

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.

Wong Fillmore comments that ‘Nora was especially quick in figuring out which parts of the expressions in her repertory of formulas could be varied, and in analysing them.’

Nora’s ultimate success (she outstripped her peers by the year’s end) was due to other factors too, not least her lack of inhibition in speaking English coupled with (or driven by?) her strong desire to be integrated into the English-speaking group – to the point of even anglicizing the pronunciation of her own name:

(Beginning of the session. As usual, the girls are asked to record the names on the tape-recorder:)

Observer:            Wait – say your name first.

Nora:                     Uh –

Observer:            You forgot?

Nora:                     N – un –

Observer:            What’s your name?

Nora:                     Nora. (English pronunciation – [noɹə])

Observer:            Nora?

Nelia:                    Nora! (Spanish pronunciation – [noɾa])

Nora:                     Nora! (English)

Observer:            Oh!

Nelia:                    Nora. (Spanish)

Observer:            ’Scuse me, Nora. (English)

Nora:                     No – no, but my, my, but my mother tomorrow she’s gonna give me another name, Lora.

Observer:            What? Lora? Is that what your mother’s gonna do, Nora?

Nora:                     Um-hum. Lora.

Observer:            Okay, so you wannabe –

Nora:                     Lora, Lora, not Nora (Spanish). Teacher, teacher, but, but, you can call me, are, by now, Orla.

What fascinates me about this study is that, while notionally about individual differences and learning strategies, it anticipates a number of key developments in SLA theory, notably what Block (2003) calls the ‘social turn’, i.e. a re-orientation towards the view that language learning is not only a cognitive activity but is both socially embedded and socially motivated, a view that, in turn, finds support in sociocultural theories of SLA (e.g. Lantolf 2000). Associated with the social turn is the key role that identity formation plays (e.g. Norton 2013), well-evidenced in the conversation above. And the formative role of formulaic speech that is learned and deployed in contexts of use prefigures both the ‘lexical turn’ (e.g. Nattinger and DeCarrico 1992) and usage-based approaches to SLA (e.g.  Cadierno and Eskildsen 2015). Finally, the playground context is a text-book example of ‘situated learning’ and what Lave and Wenger (1991) call ‘legitimate peripheral participation.’

Given the fact, though, that the study was based on non-instructed learning, the key question (for me, at least) is: How can the kinds of social skills and cognitive strategies that Nora displayed be developed and nourished in a classroom context?

References

Block, D. (2003) The social turn in second language acquisition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Cadierno, T. & Eskildsen, S. W. (Eds) (2015) Usage-based perspectives on language learning. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Lantolf, J.P.  (ed.) (2000) Sociocultural theory and second language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nattinger, J.R. & DeCarrico, J.S. (1992) Lexical phrases and language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Norton, B. (2013) Identity and language learning: Extending the conversation (2nd edn). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Ortega, L. (2009) Understanding second language acquisition. London: Hodder.

Wong Fillmore, L. (1979) ‘Individual differences in second language acquisition,’ in Fillmore, C., Kempler, D., & Wang, W. (eds) Individual Differences in Language Ability and Language Behavior, New York: Academic Press. p. 203 – 228.

Wray, A. (2002) Formulaic language and the lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.