Living Abroad–Learning Languages?–Enhances Creativity

Some research indicates that living abroad and deep multicultural experiences enhance creativity.  My gut has told me this, but recent science is demonstrating it.  These studies are informative, but I would like to know more about how namely the experiences enhance creativity.  My anecdotal evidence suggests that language-study contributes to creativity.

The depth of experience living abroad contributes to creativity in ways that travel does not.  The first study I found is entitled, “Cultural borders and mental barriers: the relationship between living abroad and creativity.”  The second is called, “Multicultural experience enhances creativity: the when and how.”  The abstract of the second study suggests that as one become open to new cultures, one becomes more creative: “The serendipitous creative benefits resulting from multicultural experiences may depend on the extent to which individuals open themselves to foreign cultures.”  Depth of and openness to foreign experience contributes to creativity.

Learning the language of the culture opens oneself up more than anything (except maybe eating the food).  One who learns a language has to be ready to sound dumb–which requires extreme openness–and to see life in a new way.  The old categories no longer work.  If you speak Spanish, you have to think about whether an action was completed or not before you conjugate your past tense.  If you speak Chinese you have to think about the pitch of your voice on every syllable.  If you speak Arabic, you have to think of which word for “love” you’re going to use.  You have to think in someone else’s categories–until those categories become your own and completeness, tone, and vocabulary are second-nature.  The normal way of thinking will no longer work; openness changes and broadens how you think.

I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, but I would like one to run an experiment to answer the following question: Among those who have lived abroad, how much does language-learning contribute to creativity?  Does the creativity of those who live in country where their own language dominates benefit as much as those who have to speak another language?  Does level of fluency affect creativity?  If so, then language-study may enhance the creative benefits offered by “openness” to the other culture.  I’m also interested to understand what other sorts of openness enhances creativity.

Do you find that you are more creative because of your time in another culture or with another language?  What is it about other cultures that improves our creativity?  In what concrete ways does creativity change?


4 thoughts on “Living Abroad–Learning Languages?–Enhances Creativity

  1. It’s an interesting question! I think learning a language and living abroad gives you more material to use in creative production – words to describe sensations or feelings that have no equivalent in one’s native language, different ways of looking at things, different modes of expression or written forms for example.

    It definitely makes you more open and flexible and therefore perhaps, more able/willing to absorb new ideas or concepts. As to whether this can be abstracted or applied creatively, I think this depends on the individual.

    I think the inherently creative person is probably suited to language learning anyway, as they are often able to ‘join the dots’ – make the connections between words and concepts or signs. Perhaps they are more likely to actively seek out new experiences and world views by going abroad too? It definitely does give you more to play with and discover, though!


    1. Thanks for the comment! I think you’re right when you ask how one might apply newly-acquired (or improved) openness and flexibility. As these articles show, the question of how one applies creativity is an open one among psychologists. The question for me is how creativity plays out in everyday life. How does a musician work more creatively? a physician? an intellectual property lawyer? Each can approach problems in new ways, seeking more creative solutions.

      Maybe it’s easier to think outside the box once you have lived there a while. LOL


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