linguistic intelligenceThe other day a group of Taiwanese students were having their last day of class; they were five in a class of fourteen, a sizable minority. They were nice; I liked them, yet I knew that most of them would never be back to the USA, or even study English very seriously again, chances are. So, I made a mini-lecture for them which I have written below, more or less, telling them what I believe and making a kind of listening exercise out of it. We had been talking about whether "linguistic intelligence" is actually a different kind of intelligence, as is "emotional intelligence" or "motorkinesthetic intelligence".
The question of whether linguistic intelligence is really different from the kinds of intelligence we already know and test, such as memory and physical dexterity, relies mostly on knowing exactly what kinds of skills language learning really involves, and it depends mostly on the question of how unique that process is, compared with the other things we learn and master. I believe that it is hard, but that the skills that it involves are skills we have and learn in other realms as well.
The process of speaking well, and pronouncing carefully, is a matter of mind-body coordination, more akin to learning to ride a bicycle or skateboard, than learning abstract physics or rocket science. In other words, the pronunciation of a new language, though confusing and enormously frustrating, is not that way because of abstract structure or something that is impossible to understand. It is more because the set of movements we need to make- in this case in our mouths, in coordination with what we hear- is totally unfamiliar to us, and goes against habits and movements we've already established. It is like skateboarding in several crucial ways: it involves coordination of several senses at once; the younger we are, the easier it is; and, when we miss, or do something wrong, a certain stinging pain sets in that gives the whole process a rather steep price.
You might protest with all of those analogies: skateboarding involves coordination of balance, sight, and physical movements, while pronunciation involves coordination of the tongue & mouth, with what one hears, and at the same time what one notices others hearing and responding to. Well, that's a kind of balance, a balance of one's attention, if nothing else.
What about the 3-5% of language learners who get perfect pronunciation? (This percentage is elusive; I don't know where this has been studied or quantified; I am not sure at all about the percentage; yet I am confident that, as we move about the world of language learning, we find this small group of people who just pick it up, learn it and master it as if sounding perfect were the only consideration in the world). I compare this group to the skateboarder who goes to the Olympics, or the piano player who goes on to become a concert pianist. We can all master the skill to some degree; we can all learn a minimum of what's necessary, at great price, to make the right sounds and get by. But only a small percentage of us cares enough to follow through all the way on the sound angle of it, to truly perfect what we produce, so that others cannot tell we are not native. It is to me a kind of musical intelligence, similar to wanting to hear a violin play exactly the right note.
A new grammar is extremely confusing and frustrating to a learner, but again, it's not because it's rocket science, or abstract physics. Quite the contrary; a grammar is made by the masses, like a traffic jam, with each individual actor doing what is best for him or her, and collectively creating a difficult but moving system that will take you where you want to go. In this sense grammar is confusing because you may not know why things are the way they are, yet you still know you have to do what others are doing in order to get anywhere. A new grammar is enormously frustrating, and to feel that we can only sense how much we love traffic in our own big cities, much less one where we really don't know the rules.
This brings me to my last point. Memory and motivation are by far the two biggest considerations or factors in language learning. But the third is a sense of cultural flexibility. It is hard to describe this except to say that, at various points, you have to separate yourself from what you picked up from your culture; see what is cultural about the new language and the new situation, and adopt it without questioning or worrying about why. To explain this point, I told a story of standing in a threshold in Asia, worrying about taking my shoes off in a local family's living room. Taking shoes off inside is a custom in Asia, but makes many westerners, including myself, uncomfortable. This is partly because my socks sometimes have holes in them, but also just because it feels rather personal. So, I was standing in this doorway, feeling uncomfortable, when along come these men carrying a piano, and walking right through the doorway. One man stopped and removed his shoes right in front of me, effortlessly, while still holding the piano. I was stunned. I thought, well, one gets used to this. After a point one just does it, and doesn't even think about it.
(end of lecture)
Later, I went over some of the points with the class. They were very interested, but in general found it hard to grasp the analogies that I had presented, and in fact, I was not so comfortable with all of them myself, on review. But, I put them down here, for the sake of record, because I think relating the skills we must develop in order to learn a language, to skills we have developed for other things, helps us to normalize the process and realize that it's within our grasp. I don't really believe that successful language learners live in a class of their own, as Michael Jordan does, by the way, or Einstein. Nor do I believe that we are somehow born with a mysterious skill that doesn't really get used anywhere else, or have any crossover with the rest of life. On the contrary, any part of it that you can explain using other things we already do, is one more thing that people can use behavioral machinery to function successfully in different groups. The key is behavioral: we watch, we practice, we do the best we can, and we're capable of doing it in different groups, in different places.
Having said that, I wished them godspeed, a safe trip back to Taiwan, a happy life for all.