The debate as to how one’s proficiency in or use of the English language is a yardstick for intelligence has been on for a long time. While some believe that an individual’s performance in English has nothing to do with his level of intelligence, others argue that to speak the language – and competently so – is a mark of intelligence. 

In order to avoid any form of ambiguity, we must point out, from the outset, that the measure of intelligence being addressed here is not in reference to only those who speak the English language, otherwise the issue is going to be about how the individual linguistic competence of each speaker of English determines his level of intelligence. Instead, the crux of the matter is how members of the human species in general are rated on the intelligence scale based on their ability to speak English. 

Key words to note from the title are performance, English, measure and intelligence. Once the essence of any one of these terms is lost on the reader, expounding the subject matter of this article will be a futile attempt hence well-delineated references to them will be made to each in the course of the write-up. 

No one needs to be told that English is a language that originates from the English people of the British Isles. However, due to expansion, reach and influence became the native language of the United Kingdom, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Singapore and South Africa. The language is the most widely used member of the Germanic language family. It’s adjudged to be the primary working language of the United Nations and the European Union and also the sole working language of the Commonwealth, NATO, CARICOM, and ASEAN (Encarta). Due to its far-reaching influence as the language of literature, entertainment, science and technology, international relations and diplomacy, electronic communication, it has overwhelmingly become the language of global communication and hence a symbol/mark of prestige and social relevance for those who speak it. Having established the relevance of English in today’s world, the question to ask is this: Does the status of English as a global language account for the measurement of intelligence among its speakers and non-speakers? 

Performance, in this context refers to linguistic performance which is concerned with the actual usage of language in concrete (or real life) situations (Chomsky). In clearer terms, it is the ability to produce and comprehend expressions in a given language. When a person makes meaningful utterances or writes in a language, he exhibits his linguistic performance in such. Linguistic performance should however not be confused with linguistic competence which accounts for the perfect intuitive knowledge a speaker has of his language and its linguistic rules. 

The concept of measure isn’t rocket science. Although the meaning is multi-layered, it’s implication for this context is a standard against which something can be judged or a means of evaluating or determining the quality of a thing – a criterion.     

Now, there is the issue/idea of intelligence to consider, especially as it concerns the context of usage in question. One would like to know precisely what the intelligence as it relates to speaking English implies. It’s therefore vital to set forth two levels of intelligence relevant to this discussion – linguistic intelligence  and intelligence in its general sense – and consider what each level has to do with speaking English or any other language.

Wikipedia describes linguistic intelligence as the aspect of intelligence that deals with individual’s ability to understand both spoken and written language, as well as their ability to speak and write themselves. Howard Gardner simply calls it the ability to speak and write well. Against the background of the definitions supplied, one can deduce that linguistic intelligence isn’t language specific, i.e. has nothing to do with English or any language in particular. Once a man has the ability to produce meaningful expressions in any given language, he his linguistically intelligent. 

Empirical evidences have proven the no-language-distinction for linguistic intelligence through the innate essence of language: How that any human, medically fit and in an ideal human community, has the ability to produce language or utter sounds. This assertion is in line with Chomsky’s idea of Universal Grammar, which opines that all humans are biologically pre-wired to learn language at a certain time and in a certain way. However, the written aspect of language has to be learnt. Interestingly, even those who, due to speech defects or other abnormal health situations, still possess the ability to communicate – via sign language, brail etc. Since the ability to use a language (or use different languages) to communicate is common to all, there is no point in using performance in English as a yardstick for linguistic intelligence since it has no language bias.     

General/human intelligence is a different ball game entirely and has various dimensions to it. It has to do with the ability to think, learn from experience, solve problems and adapt to new situations. The Mainstream Science on Intelligence (1994) gives an exhaustive explanation of the concepts:

  • A very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings – catching on, making sense of things, or figuring out what to do.

It appears, from the broad definition supplied above, that even the linguistic intelligence is a subset of the general intelligence as a level of general intelligence is needed for linguistic intelligence to operate. 

to be continued…  

Image credit: Sarcasm (Facebook) 


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