The project is led by Professor Katrin Kohl of Oxford University

Punch Records, Birmingham

Oxford researchers to investigate the connection between languages and creativity

A new Oxford-led research programme will explore the crucial role of creativity in the use of languages and investigate more creative forms of language learning, providing a forum for universities, schools and other partners to forge a new and more cohesive identity  for modern foreign languages (MFL).

The programme entitled Creative Multilingualism is led by Professor Katrin Kohl of the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

In an innovative collaboration between colleagues in Modern Languages, Linguistics, English, Anthropology and Biology, it will act as a research hub that draws on methodologies from disciplines including neuroscience, comparative literature, translation studies, theatre studies, music and education in order to gain an enhanced understanding of the vital part linguistic diversity plays in our thinking, social interaction, cultural life and global engagement.

Researchers from six universities including London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) will pool their expertise in over 40 languages to unlock the varied kinds of creativity we use at different stages of the linguistic process.

The Oxford Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages will bring their expertise in literary and cultural research into dialogue with the work of colleagues from a range of other disciplines and institutions in order to analyse the relationship between multilingualism and the creative imagination.

In partnership with the British Council and schools, arts organisations and business, the researchers involved across the project will explore how creativity meets language diversity in classrooms and theatres, community contexts and the workplace.

Researchers will question whether learning languages only in isolation from each other might be too limiting. 'At the moment, a French class is expected to be Little France and a German class is expected to be Little Germany,' said Professor Kohl.

'We believe MFL could benefit from using the linguistic expertise children already have as a creative resource, whether it’s English or another language. Some schools in Oxford have found that collectively, their pupils speak around 90 languages. This is similar across the UK. We believe there’s huge potential in this area – for stimulating language learning, understanding our richly diverse culture, and increasing our creative potential.'

The researchers will collaborate with artists and writers, theatres and festival organisations to investigate how people use languages to create identities and expand their mental horizons.

Professor Martin Maiden from Oxford's Faculty of Linguistics will investigate ways in which we create understanding across similar languages, while Professor Rajinder Dudrah from Birmingham City University will work with Punch Records to find out how aspiring Black British and British Asian artists incorporate languages and dialects from English, Caribbean patois, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu in popular music.

'We're seeing a crisis in language learning in UK schools,' said Professor Kohl. 'This is partly because current GCSE and A-level assessment objectives are focused exclusively on practical language skills, and there’s too much learning by rote.

'Our project will encourage more engagement with cultural context, and find ways of putting intellectual challenge and creativity at the heart of language learning.'

Professor Suzanne Graham at Reading and Dr Linda Fisher at Cambridge will use empirical methods to investigate whether activities such as drama and shared creative responses to literary texts can improve language learning.

'If we find that working with stories, drama and creative writing are more effective in generating motivation and stimulating language learning than purely functional tasks, then it would follow that creative activities are not just a nice-to-have extra, but functionally useful,' said Professor Kohl.

'It would help to establish a broader understanding of MFL as a subject which connects practical skills with the creative arts and many other kinds of creativity.'

The areas investigated include scientific creativity – Oxford biologist Dr Andy Gosler will enable children across the world to find out the different names of the barn swallow along its global migratory path.

The researchers will also address the career benefits of languages in an era of globalisation. 'At the moment, languages are seen mainly as useful instruments for practical transactions, such as shopping or booking a hotel. That makes them seem irrelevant at a time when other people increasingly use English, and we can get an app to give us translations,' said Professor Kohl.

'We're going to join forces with our partners to explore how professionals across the career spectrum draw on their experience of language learning in deeper ways. At GCHQ, for instance, the work of decoding requires practical knowledge of languages – but creativity comes into play when accessing that knowledge and interpreting the linguistic data.

The interdisciplinary research programme is part of the AHRC’s Open World Research Initiative, which is also funding programmes led by the University of Cambridge, King’s College London and the University of Manchester.

Together with over one hundred partners, the researchers will investigate the role of languages in relation to key contemporary issues such as social cohesion, migration, security, health, business and diplomacy. The initiative is designed to give a significant impetus to the study of modern languages in the UK.