Writing Creatively in Another Language

Even beginner learners can be creative in the way they use language
By Gill James

When the National Curriculum for Modern Foreign Languages in Britain was first devised, it included a whole area called “creativity”. No one could quite decide what this was or how it should be delivered. That strand was taken out and was added back in as an extension of other areas of the curriculum. Still, most people were unsure how you could apply this to learning a language, which, especially in the early stages, can be somewhat mechanical and precise. There is a tendency to think one can only be creative with a language once one has full control. Control is achieved, we believe, by having a wide vocabulary and a full understanding of the mechanics of a language’s grammar.

This is actually a flawed argument. A learner can be creative with their language when they only have a little to play with. If they do that at the start, when they know more they will also make better use of that. We only have to think of how a child plays more imaginatively with a cardboard box than they do with the latest computer toy to realise this. Less can in fact become more. Look, too, at all those survival exercises where we have to work out the way to cross an electric fence safely with minimal equipment.
Look at how well this communicates. A learner has come across a man who has fallen off a bike:

“You okay?”
“Bike okay?”
“Phone ambulance, okay?”

Certainly, we could express all of that more eloquently. But in this case all needed communication was made and the learner did not hesitate because he did not have the form “Have you hurt yourself?” Or “Should I send for an ambulance?” on the tip of his brian or tongue.

The language learner sometimes feels constrained by a lack of knowledge. They emphasise what they don’t know rather than celebrating what they do know. They tend to want to think in their own language and translate into the target language. The real trick is to concentrate on what they do know in the target language. Of course “knowing” need not be restricted to what they can recall in that instant. It can include what they have in any note-book, what they can easily and quickly access from a dictionary – no more than a few seconds for any word - what they know they know, but momentarily have forgotten, and any language which surrounds them. Sitting writing in a café, as writers do, in the country of the target language, the learner is surrounded by words they can hear or read.
The learner should use new language creatively as soon as they can. Even after just a couple of lessons, they will have gathered enough vocabulary and learnt enough about the language’s sounds to be able to put together a short haiku:

From Norway, in Wales,
Blond hair, blue eyes, tall and slim,
My name is Sandra.

This contains the vocabulary and phrases often learn in the first few lessons. Haikus can also be used later on. Give the learner five minutes to jot down all they can think of on a given topic, and then to put together the best combination they can of the five, seven, five syllable combination, which is also supposed to create a strong image of nature truly to be a haiku. After learning about places in town, a learner wrote:

Trees, yellow with leaves,
Church near park, shops, cafés full,
Cold now, Christmas comes.

In creating haikus, the learner confirms what they know about an area of the language, gives some attention to the sounds of the language and creates something they own.

You can also give your learners practice with the dictionary. Bi-lingual dictionaries can be dangerous, as all language teachers know. However, a quick way of allowing learners to extend their vocabulary and still be in charge of the language is to ask them to write an acrostic poem about themselves. Allow them to use an English dictionary to look up words.
Here is one learner’s example. It took him ten minutes to write. These words went immediately into his active vocabulary.

Sanctimonious, seeking satisfaction
Angry, aggressive, active
Silent, silky, subtle
Cautious, caring, clever,
Haunting happy holidays
All right at last.

When learning grammar, we often come across patterns which repeat. In fact, we often learn those repetitive patterns to help us learn the form. Again, these can be made into something the learner owns. The creativity comes in selecting what makes sense to them and what sounds good.
Here is a “past participle poem.” The learner has consciously changed word order, recognising an English poetic form, and has taken the rhythm of some recently learnt grammar:

To London I have been.
The Tower I have seen,
Postcards I have sent,
For friends meant.
As tourists have swarmed
My heart has warmed.

Then we have a “future” one – also about London – that focuses on the letter “t”:

We shall see the Thames,
We shall climb the Tower,
We shall eat toffee,
We shall take the Tube,
We shall watch tourists,
We shall visit the Tate.

All very simple, but owned by the learner, effective in its simplicity and making good use of what they know.

Creative writing does not have to be grammatical. After a few lessons, a group of learners were asked to jot down words they could think of to do with a friend, and then shape them into a piece of work about them. They had ten minutes for the exercise:

“Marcelle, student of fashion, tall, swarthy, likes dogs, lives in a basement. Eats plums. Fine clothes. Lover of life.”

Slightly more advanced students can be asked to write with their senses. Take them somewhere to do this. They walk around, observing what they can see, hear, small, taste. There will be words around them which they can hear and see, and it is good to jot some words down at the scene. Later in class or for homework these can be worked up into a piece of writing. This is what came out of a visit to Winchester cathedral:

“Christmas figures, long, thin, wooden. Look human but not quite. Baby in straw. Red holly. Artificial flowers. Sounds of choir. Rain on my face like steel knives. Yellow lights. 'Don’t walk on the tile,' it said. But everybody does. Dead bishop. Curse. Not want grave inside. Now brings rain. Ugly faces on the wall outside.”

Even with less advanced learners, this sort of exercise can be quite effective, if they are given a few words to get them started. These should be words they have met, but may have forgotten. They will then be reminded of other words. English school children learning French did this exercise on the ramparts at Boulogne. They were given, in French, a few colours, weather expressions, and food items to remind them of what they knew. Here is one poem translated into English:

The picnic of the English
Crisps, coca cola, biscuits,
French sticks, cheese,
Paper everywhere
Where is the dustbin?
The wind arrives.
Papers like aeroplanes.

Another useful exercise is “cloning” language. An extreme example of this is taking a sentence and altering one word each time, taking notice of any grammatical changes needed, to produce many more sentences. This gives the learner a sense of knowing more than they thought they knew. The creativity comes in the fun of being witty. For example:

The cat sat on the mat.
The cat sat on the dustbin.
The cat sat on your dustbin.
The cat sat in your dustbin.
The cat ate in your dustbin.
The dog ate in your dustbin.
My dog ate in your dustbin.

With this one, it is also worth pointing out that with they could make sixty-four different sentences, just because they know twelve words.
It is most important that language learners should from the outset be allowed and encouraged to use their new language in an unrestricted way, so that that language can become truly theirs. Using learnt language creatively is a tool to reinforcing that language. As the learner constantly finds ways of using what they know effectively, they can do more with less language. It gives a type of added value to what they are learning. Working creatively with language is not something which can only be done after a vast quantity of the new language has been learnt. It is something which should be done at every step as language is acquired. The creativity comes in making the most of the language that is known.

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & Articles© Gill James 2006
Gill has been a teacher of foreign languages for over twenty years. She is a writer of language learning materials and children's and Young Adult fiction. She gives workshops in schools and universities about creative writing in other languages. She has an MA in Writing for Children and is currently studying for a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing.
Contact: gill.james [at] btinternet.com