Language, Innovation and the First Nations

Like many in Quebec, and abroad, I watched the 2nd debate of the Québec party leaders last week. The discussions centred on a number of issues of which one was the protection of the French language in this sea (ocean) of English speaking people.

Personally, I am firmly in agreement with Bill 101. This bill has contributed protecting the French language in Quebec. Having stated that, it is difficult for me to assess whether Bill 101 has to be strengthened as it is not my Mother tongue (which is Polish) that is in need of protection. If it was, I am sure that I would be a bit more sensitive to the subtleties of any threats to it.

On the other hand, I also believe that across Canada, the development of French immersion classes have contributed to helping protect the French language in Canada and maybe even contributed in increasing our collective abilities in creativity and potentially in innovation.

OK. That is a bit of a stretch. Sorry about that.

But bear with me a bit.

As mentioned in the “About“, I came to Quebec for a summer French language immersion program some 30 years ago after completing a BASc in mechanical engineering. Completing graduate studies in engineering and in French, I had this growing feeling that having learnt a 2nd (actually a 3rd) language increased my abilities in looking at problems from different angles. Although, I had no empirical data, I truly felt that learning a 2nd and 3rd language contributed in increasing my abilities to perform in engineering design especially with respect to exploring and developing alternative solutions to a particular problem.

It is only recently that I came upon an article (Ghonsooly, Showqi, 2012, The Effects of Foreign Language Learning on Creativity) that provides some data to support what was only a feeling. Essentially, the article “investigates the possible influence of foreign language learning on individuals’ divergent thinking abilities”. “Divergent thinking” is an expression of creativity. It is of course the contrary to “convergent thinking”.

An example of convergent thinking is what Scott, Parsons & Seat (2002) observe: “…the predominant engineering student wants his instructor to work examples and give exams that look like those examples. The students have been successful by learning a set of rules and want to repeat that experience.”

However, in the context of design, creative problem solving and even innovation, every problem is different and therefore requires “divergent thinking” abilities and skills to meet that particular design challenge. There are of course tools such as functional decomposition, concept maps and morphological charts that can help to expand the design space.

As a result of the work of Ghonsooly and Showqi, I am comfortable in suggesting that learning a foreign language should be added to any design and innovation tool box.

Having stated that, it is important to understand that design and innovation is not limited to engineers, architects, animation programmers, etc. All of us practice to some extent design and innovation in our lives although we probably describe it differently. As an example, the mere act of verbalising an idea is a creative design activity where the need is the desire to express that idea. The alternative means (result of divergent thought process) to expressing that idea are the different ways one can assemble words, verbs, adjectives as well as applying rules of grammar, intonation, body language, etc. The different alternatives are evaluated in an instant, selected and implemented.

If one accepts this observation, one would need then to consider that learning a foreign language would also help us all in developing greater skill in design and innovation by whatever name you wish to call it (“What’s in a name?”).

Let’s take a step back and consider that over the years or rather decades, research and development, creation and innovation has been the center of a number of different reports, policies and programs to stimulate and support Canada’s economic development. These programs have helped the development of centre of excellence and technology across the country. However, today we are still looking to further improve our economic competitively as can be illustrated by the Innovation Canada initiative and a number of recent articles (Chakma, 2014, Hirsch, 2013, Hodgkinson, 2014).

Most if not all of these initiatives aim to engage Canadian industry and bring it together with academia. Few, if any, of these initiatives suggest that there might be a wider initiative that can support the development of a climate supporting design and innovation in the general population.

However, as illustrated, adding the pursuit of a second language to the list of innovation initiatives can increase the general level of creativity of our population. Such a measure has the potential to touch all Canadians and engage all of us in innovation.

Technically, one such measure, the Explore program, has already to a large extent been initiated and has been running for over 40 years. The Explore program, previously known as the Summer Language Bursary Program, has promoted and supported learning our two Founder’s Nation languages (French to Anglophones; English to Francophones).

I guess now, the appropriately named Explore program could be considered as a means to increase our collective creativity. The graduates of this program could also be the focus of a survey to explore if their creativity skills increase after taking such a program. This could be an interesting study.

However, why, today, do we limit the Explore program to just the languages of the Founding Nations?

Why not see if we could extend the Explore program (or create a separate program) to address language immersion in First Nations’ languages and culture as a means to increase our collective creativity and support innovation?

A thought…

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