Language and intelligence

It’s good to be called “intelligent”, but many people need to learn another language no matter how clever they may be. If I say now that one can only become an advanced user of a language if one is proportionately intelligent, it will sound demotivating or maybe even offensive. But what exactly do I mean by that?

I’d like to start from what I DON’T mean. I don’t mean that if you are not intelligent you can’t learn the rules of a language or can’t learn new words. Indeed, much research has gone into a) what it takes to learn such things and b) how far that learning goes. More exactly, it takes short- and long-term memory, attention, the ability to notice things in the input etc. But I see such aptitudes as more related to our neurological abilities. “How far that learning goes” means if we can remember and reproduce the rules, or if we really apply them, and how stable our control over our output is. If someone says, if you’re not intelligent enough you can’t understand the rules of the language or learn new words, this statement refers to the first kind of learning I mentioned – remembering and reproducing the rules. Once again, I DON’T mean this kind of aptitudes and I DON’T mean that kind of learning.

As I wrote in my last post, I am interested in the people’s knowledge and experience of the world and how that richness is transferrable to the situation of learning another language. Let us not forget, a language is among other things, but maybe fundamentally, an expression of thought. It seems obvious, then, that the more we think, the more complex our language will be – or aim to be. As for the “how far that learning goes”, I am interested in the natural use of the language, not in the awareness of the language rule. “Understanding” the rule for the present perfect, for example, is not important to me as a teacher as long as the student can use it effectively in expressing their ideas.

And this brings me finally to what I want to say in this post. If we take a look at the Common European Framework, for example, it becomes clear that the higher the level, the more complex the communicative tasks. For example, under Speaking production, at a low level we read that the user “can (…) describe in simple terms my family and other people, living conditions, my educational background and my present job or most recent job” (band A2, basic user, pre-intermediate level), while at a high level we see that the user “can present clear, detailed descriptions of complex subjects, integrating sub-themes, developing particular points and rounding off with an appropriate conclusion” (Band C1, proficient user, advanced level) (see, pp. 27-28). What is obvious here is of course the distance between “my own” familiar topics versus “complex” topics – but this is not everything. What I find much more interesting in these descriptors is what the user “can do”: the A2 user can describe familiar people, living conditions and jobs. Concrete. Known. Easy to point a finger to. The C1 user, on the other hand, can present a complex subject and break it down into sub-points, which they can highlight or minimize, also providing a round-up to all the ideas mentioned.

These are descriptors of language performance. It is easy to see, though, that they also describe conceptual ability. Being able to describe what you yourself see or experience routinely is qualitatively different from being able to talk about abstract topics, or topics that are made up of several components. Being able to see these components and deal with them in a differentiated way, as well as being able to see the red thread in order to provide a pertinent conclusion, are further conceptual challenges.

So now I’m coming to my core question. What does “can” mean? “Can”, as in “knowing the right words and the right sentence patterns” to perform those communicative tasks, or actually performing them effectively?

I’ll give an example. Language examinations at advanced level typically produce a type of candidates who have learned their “language” stuff very well, but faced with a question like “who should be responsible for environmental policies, businesses or governments?” they will be at a loss. They will of course resort to their “on the other hand”, “I strongly believe”, “I totally agree” and so on. But will they see the complexity of the question, and will they address each point separately? Will they be able to stress some points to the detriment of others and then draw a logical conclusion from all the arguments they have presented?

There are language learners that work hard to learn “advanced” grammar or vocab. Will they have the opportunity to use them naturally though? And if the opportunity does arise, will they actually use them naturally? Will they, taking the example question above, see the complexity of forcing businesses to adopt environmentally-friendly technology, the dilemma of investment in sustainable development versus short-term advantages? Will they be able to break down the complex issue into smaller ones, for example

a. elements involved: legislation and power to change it, social involvement in changing mentalities, civic attitude by setting an own example, lobbying, potential cheating / greenwashing etc

b. opposing considerations: financial resources versus ecological business, short-term profit versus long-term sustainable development, possibly unemployment versus healthy neighbouring population, who has the power versus who has the money etc.

And the next question is: if we consider “can” to mean actually being able to do these tasks conceptually (in thought) and not just formally (in words), then what kind of ability does one need to get to that – advanced – level? My point in the last post was this: first, people who know what they are talking about, so that they have the knowledge resources to tap; second, people who are comfortable operating with abstract issues, like analysing and breaking down an issue into smaller ones, comparing and contrasting them, maximizing versus minimizing arguments, highlighting or downtoning points, refuting counter-arguments, conceding, generalizing and the list could go on. In this way, their rich knowledge – or experience – of the world will turn not just into a resource to “know what to say” on a given subject; it will enable them to take the language material in their stock and capitalize on it to articulate their own, unique, viewpoint of the world.


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