Is bilingualism related to creativity?

Are bilinguals more creative than monolinguals? A recent study from the Austerweil Lab published today examined the relationship between an individual’s knowledge representation and their creativity. It supports the null hypothesis that bilingualism offers no advantage for creativity.

Assistant Professor Joe Austerweil

Conceived between then-junior Kendra Lange ‘18 and Assistant Professor of Psychology Joe Austerweil, the project was brought to life when Lange received funding from the L&S Honors Program to conduct the study. With her expertise in language and bilingualism, graduate student Elise Hopman joined the project as a mentor.

Of the 92 University of Wisconsin–Madison participants analyzed, 41 were bilingual and 41 monolingual. To measure creativity, the research team used the Guilford Alternative Uses Task in which participants are instructed to type in as many alternative uses as they can think of for common object prompts like ‘pencil.’ It was then hand-coded by three psychology undergraduates with high interrater reliability.

Using best practices for estimating knowledge representations, they did not replicate a previously found relation between bilingualism, creativity, and knowledge. Further, using modern statistical analyses, it is the first study to find support for there being no relations between bilingualism, creativity, and the structure of a person’s knowledge. As they note in their paper, this “contradicts some recent work in this area, and suggests that researchers finding a relation between semantic network structure [a measure of knowledge representation] and creativity may have done so due to methodological issues or idiosyncrasies.”

Should this discourage those interested in pursuing bilingualism? No, says Austerweil. “I would say that if someone’s goal is to be more creative or intelligent, they should focus on that directly. Doing the hard work to become bilingual should really be because you want to understand and be fluent in another language.”

The study contributes to the growing body of research questioning relations between bilingualism and different cognitive and other psychological factors, and is essential for ensuring that these important questions are tested in a rigorous manner.

June 24, 2020

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