From William Shakespeare to Amy Tan: Do bilinguals make better writers? (1)

IMG_7123Do bilinguals make better writers? Are people who speak more than one language better at carving out a sentence, finding an apt metaphor, or using words in new and exciting ways? Are they better at telling stories that move us, at presenting ideas that excite us, at rendering dialogue that speaks to us?

Or, in more scientific terms, is there any causal link between individual bilingualism and linguistic creativity?

Creativity more broadly – which can be defined as the ability to produce novel and useful ideas – is just one component of our mental capacities. There have been decades of debate as to whether bilingualism has any bearing on our cognitive capabilities and, over the years, the pendulum of evidence has swung back and forth.

At first, it was thought that kids who grew up speaking more than one language would be at an intellectual disadvantage over their monolingual counterparts. Then, a whole range of research emerged to suggest that there were instead potential cognitive advantages of being bilingual, particularly in terms of increased “executive control” – that is, the ability to focus on certain information while inhibiting others while undertaking certain specific tasks. (There is also evidence to suggest that being bilingual may reduce the risk of developing dementia in later life.) Now, the pendulum has swung back towards the middle ground, as some of the findings on the so-called bilingual advantage have been called into question.

But what about the more specific question of whether bilinguals are more creative, linguistically speaking?

Well, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that they indeed are. Just look at the bookshelves of your local library, or lists of the “greatest novels of all time”, and you’ll find plenty of bilingual authors.

First of all, there are those authors who grew up bilingual. Novelist and diarist, Anaïs Nin was of Cuban and French descent, grew up in both Paris and the US and, although Spanish was her first language, wrote her famous journals in French and then English. Of Henry Miller, she once wrote: “There are words in other tongues I must use when I talk about you. In my own, I think of: ardiente, salvaje, hombre.” At about the same time, Jack Kerouac was growing up in Massachusetts, but the language he spoke at home with his family was French-Canadian. Throughout his life, Kerouac was aware of his bi-cultural identity. In a diary entry from 1945, he congratulated himself for being at least “half American”. He also wrote: “Quand je suis fâché, je sacre souvent en français. Quand je dors, je rêve souvent en français” (“When I’m annoyed, I often swear in French. When I sleep, I often dream in French”).

Much contemporary, Western fiction represents the second- or third-generation immigrant experience of their bilingual authors – that of being between (and beyond) two or more languages and cultures. For example, Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was born in the Dominican Republic but raised in New Jersey. His novel, rich with Spanish-English code-switching starts as it means to go on:

“Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everyone’s always going on about – he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock.”

Fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, Jhumpa Lahiri, was born in London to Bengali parents, and grew up in USA. Lahiri has bravely written her forthcoming novel in Italian, the language of the country in which she now lives. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, was born in Afghanistan but emigrated to California with his family when he was 15. And Amy Tan, author The Joy Luck Club, was born in California, and raised bilingual, speaking English and Mandarin. She has written about how she makes use of all of her “Englishes” in writing her fiction, including the “broken” or “fractured” English (what linguists call the interlanguage) of her Chinese immigrant mother.

Then, there are the authors who grew up speaking languages other than English, but who ended up writing classic works of the English language. Perhaps most famously, Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness in English, his second language after Polish. Nigerian novelists Chinua Achebe and Gabriel Okara wrote in English, albeit in an English that was deliberately tailored to their own, unique African identities. And I’ve written recently about contemporary author Xiaolu Guo, named one of Britain’s Best Young Novelists by Grant Magazine, who began writing in English because she couldn’t find translators to translate her novels from Chinese.

Then, there are native speakers of English, who wrote in English, but who learned other languages either at school or while living abroad – and whose experience in these languages had obvious influences on their work. Perhaps most prominently, William Shakespeare would have spent most of his time at grammar school in Stratford-Upon-Avon wrestling with the six noun cases of Latin. Shakespeare wrote whole passages of his plays in French, and was rare among Elizabethan playwrights to do so. Ernest Hemingway was born in Illinois, but spent most of his life outside of the US, living in Paris and Cuba and elsewhere. His writing is littered with Italian, French and Spanish. In The Old Man And The Sea, for example, the novella which earned him the Nobel Prize for literature, Hemingway alludes to the Cuban setting:

“But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky […].”

Another example is Cormac McCarthy, who was born in Rhode Island, but who lived for a while in Ibiza. His classic Blood Meridian is similarly sprinkled with Spanish words and Spanish dialogue. In fact, the list of famous English-language authors that spent significant amounts of time living in non English-speaking countries is remarkably long. James Joyce wrote mostly about Dublin, but lived for most of his life outside of Ireland – in Trieste, Zurich, and in Paris, where Ulysses was first published. George Orwell famously went Down And Out In Paris And London, and wrote about his experiences. Capturer of post-war, kitchen-sink life (and fellow Nottingham-lad) Alan Sillitoe lived for six years in France and Spain, writing Saturday Night, Sunday Morning in Majorca. And, another famous writer from Nottingham, D H Lawrence, spent most of his life in voluntary exile, in Europe and elsewhere.

Then, there are authors who have looked to dead languages to spice up their fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, was famously a scholar of Anglo-Saxon. Sticking to the world of fantasy and science-fiction, Frank Herbert borrowed heavily from a variety of languages, including French and Arabic, to find the new words he needed for his Dune universe. And George R. R. Martin may not be a linguist himself, but he still shows a remarkable sensitivity to multilingualism in his world of Dragons and White Walkers.

Of course, this list doesn’t include authors writing in languages other than English. For example, Alexander Pushkin was the Russian language’s first great poet, but he grew up speaking French with his parents, like most Russian aristocrats of the time, and only learned Russian vernacular from servants. Marcel Proust spoke English, even if not fluently. In A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, for example, he makes code-switching to English a particular affectation of Odette, Swann’s lover and later wife.

And, of course, this is a pretty Western-centric selection. However, if you were to look at the bookshelves of China, or India, or South America, I’m sure you would find a similar story – or possibly an even greater prominence of bilingual authors.

What I’ve presented so far is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that there is a link between bilingualism and linguistic creativity – in crude terms, that speaking more than one language, does indeed make you a better writer.

But, of course, such evidence is hardly scientific. It hardly points to a measurable, quantifiable correlation between bilingualism and linguistic creativity.

And, even as anecdotal evidence, presenting a list of famous bilingual authors is problematic in other ways too. What I could have done instead, to try and argue the opposite case, is to present a list of famous authors who are certifiable monolingual. But finding anyone, even in ostensibly monolingual countries like the US and the UK, who doesn’t have some degree of proficiency in a foreign language like French or Spanish is actually pretty difficult. That’s important because, with the list above, I’m not making any distinction between people who have grown up with two different languages, those that learned a second language at school, and those that have lived with a second language abroad. All, of course, reflect slightly different flavours of being “bilingual” and – inseparable from this – different levels of individual experience with more than one culture. You could certainly ask, if it exists at all, where does the “bilingual effect” on creativity start and end?

Importantly, even if there is a correlation between linguistic creativity and bilingualism, that doesn’t prove any kind of direct causation – that being bilingual causes people to be more creative writers.

For example, for the authors who learned languages later in life, what’s to say that the thing that drove them to move abroad and learn foreign languages wasn’t the same thing that drove them to write fiction – that is, some deeper love of language? What’s to say the two things aren’t just facets of the same phenomenon that inspires me to write this blog, for example, or that Amy Tan wrote about in her essay Mother Tongue?:

“I am a writer. And by that definition, I am someone who has always loved language. I am fascinated by language in daily life. I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language – the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth. Language is the tool of my trade.”

But even if the causation is not clear, the correlation is interesting enough. And it turns out there is scientific evidence, from research in psychology and linguistics, to suggest that there really is a positive correlation between bilingualism and creativity.

And that’s going to be the subject of the next part of this blog.


17 thoughts on “From William Shakespeare to Amy Tan: Do bilinguals make better writers? (1)

  1. But finding anyone, even in ostensibly monolingual countries like the US and the UK, who doesn’t have some degree of proficiency in a foreign language like French or Spanish is actually pretty difficult.

    Well, not for me. I, my wife, my daughter, and my grandson, who all live with me, are all English-only. I know quite a bit about other languages, but have no proficiency in any of them.

    I note that your photograph above makes a fairly decent book spine poem, which I would punctuate thus:

    Interpreter of maladies,
    a farewell to arms:
    a concise Chinese-English
    dictionary for lovers Henry and June.
    The brief wondrous life
    of Oscar Wao on the road.

  2. You seem to have researched a wide range of authors to answer your question, and I think at the end of the day you’ll find it hard to generalize. I’m totally mother-tongue bilingual English/French but also fluent in other languages. I learned them without effort, living in different countries, but preferred maths at school. When I felt the urge to write, my bi-linguism or multi-linguism was actually a problem. I wasn’t sure which language I felt more comfortable and creative in. Gorgeous English won out for many reasons, but I have to work at constantly enriching my expressions by reading and reading as I live in a non-English environment.

  3. Bea, John, thanks for the counterpoints. They rightly highlight the difficulties of doing any reliable research on creativity and multilingualism because they are such complex constructs, and rich personal histories and circumstances are very difficult to reduce to meaningful points on a graph. Bea, your example makes me think of an interview with Henry Miller who said that being saturated with French while living in Paris sharpened his awareness of the nuances of English (and Gertrude Stein even said that living in Paris ‘purified’ her English).

  4. Alternatively: perhaps multicultural people are more interesting and have more to say? Can you pull language and culture apart? I’m wary of a lot of the bilingual “showing off” articles being shared on social media in the last year. The cognitive advantages may well be marginal. Also, I’ve been given to understand that multilingualism of some form is actually the norm for the most of the planet’s population, so does it make sense to talk about “bilingual advantages” when in fact it’s just the relatively rare monolinguals like Brits and Americans who are at a *disadvantage*. But sharing articles about “how monolinguals have a cognitive deficit” doesn’t generate as many clicks …

    • Sorry for the slow reply, Matt. All fair points. I think much of the research of the last forty years was motivated by the previous anti-bilingual education lobby, and did its best to address that. Researchers now seem to be swinging back towards a more balanced middle ground. The difficulties in finding true monolinguals and in pulling apart the effects of language and culture make this sort of research very difficult.

  5. As you say, there is real and solid evidence of bilingual speakers/writers using their brain differently/different parts of their brain to communicate more than monolinguals. More cross brain actions. Will be interested to see what you’ve found
    In young children/ k-3 students in bilingual type/immersion programs exposed to multiple languages tend to have a broader vocabulary and easily understand that there are multiple words with the same meaning so their writing/word choice is often better that same age monolingual students. Fine tuned to differences. (Of course some languages such as Spanish, Italian, and French cherish creative traditions in speech with a musical sound with their phrasing which heard by kids acquiring language even preverbal). Bilingual kids tend to use body language, problem solving, cognates as clues when absorbing languages. Brain exercise can’t hurt.
    True bilinguals are rather rare – ones who are on completely solid footing in both languages – most now tend to be bilingual in certain vocabulary areas such as general daily use, specific career terms/topics, business usage and such.
    In the past, to be thought truly educated and intellectual, a person was expected to speak several languages – maybe it’s true?

    • Sorry for the slow reply and thanks for all your thoughts. I think they are all valid. Reasons for positive correlations between B/L and creativity are likely to be multiple and complex.

  6. Hmmmm.. So does this mean that because I speak Spanish, Jamaican patois, and grew up around Portuguese communities in London, I’m more likely to be able to write well? Maybe due to exposure to different cultures?

  7. Pingback: From William Shakespeare to Amy Tan: Do bilinguals make better writers? (2) | Word Jazz

  8. I’m not sure bilingualism increases possibility of better metaphors or writing in general. However, language offers how to perceive a world differently through word structures. I think it may offer to a bilingual person (who may be imperfectly bilingual), simply more linguistic resources for same concept/idea and 2 perspectives to view certain facets of the world. The harder part is command of 1 preferred language and crafting a good poem or story.

    For immigrant children (I’m Canadian born but of immigrant parents), it at least offers, a richer world of nuances and appreciation how words needs to be used to help oneself navigate cross-culturally and across differerent relationships.

    • Many thanks for your comments, Jean- great to get your thoughts. I definitely agree that knowing another language, even at least some of another language, enriches your knowledge and understanding about the world. It’s of course very difficult to prove any link between bilingualism and ability to write a good novel, especially in terms of the basic need to come up with a good plot, but there does seem to be a lot of anecdotal evidence. I think it must have something to do with an interest in words – which is common to language learning and creative writing.

  9. Pingback: How do bilingual writers express themselves better? – Urania Sarri

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