Language learning and general intelligence

Teachers and students generally think of language learning as its own intellectual bubble, and linguistic fluency as a somewhat unique (and odd) skill, somewhat like wood-carving or tap dancing. But the capacity to read, write, listen and speak in another language, like the capacity to run, is closely intertwined with a number of other, more fundamental set of intellectual abilities, ranging from basic spatial and numerical competence at beginner level to solid understanding of history, geography and economics for advanced learners.

Here’s a concrete example: in one of my classes at Nanjing University, the teacher gave us an article to read about the Chinese economy. Students, in turn, had to define words like ‘GDP’, ‘investment’, or ‘real estate bubble’. My Chinese is possibly the poorest in the class, but I studied philosophy and worked in government strategy, so could compensate my limited linguistic ability with a good general understanding of the concepts and ideas discussed. Sometimes, I did better than other students who knew many more words, made no grammatical mistakes, and had a perfectly authentic accent. Note that is not just an arbitrary classroom exercise, but what may actually happen in – advanced – conversations where people debate and argue, coming back to the concepts and pulling out threads of meaning to support their view, bring others into their world, or just entertain.

Well conducted language classes may be an opportunity to train ourselves in these rhetorical skills, and particularly, go beyond the labels of media talk and management newspeak: empty strings of words often translate badly. In fact, last year, as part of my cross-cultural training during the Asialink program, we did just that all in English: one of our exercise was to define a complex concept from our field of work – multiculturalism, somatisation, risk management – using exclusively basic semantic blocks. Reformulating ideas as if addressing people with completely different assumptions about the world. And in fact, I did that kind of exercise often in my Greek philosophy classes, when we glossed and paraphrased the use of certain words – aletheia, arche, basileus – to understand what different world views and social structures they referred to.

General intelligence and culture will probably make it easier for you to master a foreign language. Conversely, learning a foreign language may contribute to your general intelligence – and therefore, we could make a case for increased emphasis on cross-linguistic competence as a core skill to be developed in schools, alongside mathematics, and native language literacy. What do you think?

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