I’ve been working on a book recently. It’s about my experiences in Vietnam and going on a reality TV show.
One of the show’s rules was that we had to write a diary about our feelings towards other participants on the show. Well, I have to admit, my Vietnamese wasn’t as good back then. I needed a lot of help. But something in me enjoyed the process of writing in another language.
The show ended in October 2014, but the more I reflect on this experience, the more I miss going back and forth between writing in Vietnamese and English. I’ve also realised that language learning really helps me become a better writer. Learning other languages, you discover how to say the same thing in many different ways. In other words, you become more creative.
Don’t believe me? Keep reading and I’ll show you how languages can boost your creativity.
1. Language Learning Gives You a New Way of Seeing the World
In English we say “Goodnight” or “Sweet dreams”. In Hebrew people say ליילה טוב, which also means “Goodnight”. In Vietnamese, people say “Chúc ngủ ngon”, which means “have a delicious sleep”. When I think about the word “delicious” I think pineapple pizza, chocolate chip cookie cake, and coconut ice-cream. I don’t think about going to sleep.
Looking at it another way: if you are learning English for the first time, it maybe weird to say, “this fruit is melting in my mouth”, because it’s a bit odd if you translate it literally back to your native language.
So depending on the language, different phrases will flex your creativity and force you to think about how to say things in a different way.
The more you learn languages, the more creative you get in describing situations and saying things.
2. Language Learning Helps You Say the Unsayable
There are thousands of words in other languages that have no equivalent in English. Discovering these words broadens your overall vocabulary and gives you a bigger worldview.
Along the same lines, English is a mongrel language, made up of many tongues. When you learn another language, chances are that you’ll pick up some “English” words you never knew before.
You’ll also discover new ways of using English words. Take the German word for cell phone – “handy”. I love it!
3. Language Learning Gives You a “Sense of Humour” Transplant
Learning a second language is a lot of fun. When you can have a good time with it, it’s even better.
Studying a new language, you will notice that you have to learn a new sense of humour that comes along with the culture of that language.
Sometimes, jokes that work in English won’t work in French or Japanese. But sometimes cheesy things that nobody would laugh in English work in Vietnamese. I learned this when I performed stand up comedy in Vietnam. A lot of my non-Vietnamese speaking friends would ask me to translate the jokes for them, but when I translated back to English, no one laughed.
Even I think that some of the jokes I tell in Vietnamese aren’t funny. But that’s okay. I’m forced to stretch my creativity by finding my sense of humour not only in English but in Vietnamese as well. You can do this too!
4. Language Learning Improves Your Body Language
When you are not sure what word to use, body language, including some hand gestures, will help get the point across. Likewise, when you know the right word but your pronunciation is off, you have to use your body language to make it clear what it is you are trying to say.
Some people call this game “charades”, but other people (such as myself) use this regularly when they are learning a second language. The truth is, the more you can use your body language when you’re learning a new language, the better.
And don’t shy away from trying to convey difficult words, as that’s the best way to put your creativity to work. The harder the word, the more creative you are going to be with your emotions and actions. Getting someone to understand that you can to say “call” is easy. Getting them to guess “responsibility” isn’t so much.
5. Language Learning Makes You Better at Improv
When you learn a second language you don’t really have time to sit and translate one word at a time. Sometimes you have to act on impulse and just go with what you know.
You’ll have to use words you know to explain a word you don’t know. “A bird that swims” (duck/penguin). Or “really, really cold milk” (ice cream).
If you have ever had a conversation in another language, you will know exactly what I mean! (If not, don’t worry, your day will come soon). It’s not easy. It forces you to be quick. You have to think extra hard when you speak in a second language. It’s like playing an improv game.
6. Language Learning Improves Your Memory
When you learn a new language you have to learn a lot of vocabulary, new grammar structures, idioms, and much more besides.
Doing this this, you have to learn memorisation tactics. These could be flashcards, watching movies, using recall methods, or building a memory palace.
Whatever memorisation tactic you use, it will boost helps your creativity. Plus, research shows that memorisation helps you become more creative simply by exercising your brain.
7. Language Learning Makes You Comfortable With Failure
Being creative is tough. Whether you are producing movies, writing, or doing stand-up comedy – most of your ideas will end up in the trash can. Even the ideas that continue past that stage will most likely be ignored or rejected.
Creative people have to get comfortable with failure. You have to be okay if your ideas are not accepted.
When you learn a second language, you are forced to fail everyday again and again. In fact, the more you fail, the faster you’ll make progress.
You’ll make all kinds of mistakes. You’ll use the wrong word. People won’t understand your accent. You’ll mess up the stucture of a sentence.
You’ll fail. And that’s okay. Because every time you fail, you can learn from it. And you can improve from the failures. Each failure is just one more stepping stone toward success.
This helps you with your creativity because the more you fail as a creative, the more you are creating,. If you can accept failure, then you can keep being persistent and continue to put out creative work, or any work of that matter!
The Endless Feedback Loop of Creativity and Language Learning
Learning languages can be as fun as you want. The more creative you get with it, the better your experience will be. And since language learning boosts your creativity, the more you learn a language, the better you’ll get at coming up with creative ideas for language learning.
It turns out to be one big feedback loop. That’s why many people get better at language learning over time.
Next time you meet someone who speaks several languages, before you think that they have something special going on in their brain, take a step back and think. Maybe they do. But maybe they’ve got that special thing because they’ve made the effort to learn several languages. And effort is something we can all give.
If you are on a fence and wondering that if you should learn a new language, I think you should give it a try. It has more benefits than you’d ever imagine.
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.