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What does creativity mean in language learning?

The word "creative" is bandied about a good deal in teaching and creativity is generally thought to be a good thing. But what does it mean in language learning and teaching?

Maybe a dictionary definition is a reasonable place to start. Oxford Dictionaries online supplies this: "the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness".

That definition sits very naturally with subjects such as art, music and English. How relevant or useful is it to us linguists?

Firstly, for language teachers, creativity has to relate above all to what we would label "output" activities. I am referring here to speaking and writing tasks. By the literal definition of creativity we can envisage, for example, speaking or writing tasks which involve use of the imagination, such as dialogue or story writing, sketches or mini-plays. Technology, for example online programmes and apps, has created some appealing new outlets in this context, some more gimmicky than others, no doubt. I daresay a degree of creativity can come into advanced level essay writing. Teachers themselves can, of course, be creative by coming up with original ways of presenting and practising material.

That said, I have the feeling that the word creativity has taken on a different and particular meaning in language teaching circles. I may be wrong, but my impression is that when teachers talk of "creative" use of language, what they mean is the capacity of pupils to produce original utterances, not just learned phrases. Teachers and inspectors want to hear students using the language "spontaneously" ("creatively") i.e. they want students to be able to apply their tacit grammatical knowledge to produce their own utterances or sentences on paper. It is clear that this is a quite specific, yet useful, way of employing the term creativity.

This is, of course, our goal. How do we teach lessons which allow pupils to internalise the grammar and vocabulary of the language so that they can create their own utterances, use the language "creatively"?

Paradoxically, designing "creative" lessons (by the traditional use of the word) may be detrimental to long term acquisition if it ends up severely limiting the already limited classroom time for high quality input tasks and controlled practice. Creating a Voki, recording a talk, making a film, designing a poster, writing a sketch or producing an online comic story may be motivational and generate very useful output, but if it takes so long that listening and reading are neglected, then it may be ultimately counter-productive. Students need all the time we can afford to keep hearing and reading the target language. This is how language becomes embedded.

I rather like the emphasis on "creativity" as the ability to create original utterances based on tacit knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. This is the holy grail. Only a smallish minority of our students get to that level. So I would suggest that we should keep the focus strongly on large amounts of high quality target language input with a sensible amount of traditional creativity. In this way we can produce the "creative" linguists we seek.


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