Unless they are graduates of a rigorous Master’s or Doctoral program in linguistics or second language acquisition, most teachers of English as a foreign language are likely to be unfamiliar with the concept of linguistic intelligence (LI). This is an interesting idea proposed by developmental psychologist Howard Gardner. The concept is easy to grasp and often appears in uncomplicated explanations outside the academic literature. New English teachers and those working on their TEFL certificate can benefit from this brief overview of linguistic intelligence theory.

The Roots of Language Acquisition

First language learning and the mechanisms that enable and drive it remain steadfastly among the world’s major unresolved scientific and academic mysteries. Focused investigation of the matter is typically traced back to Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar(UG). UG proposes an innate, genetically determined language facility comprised of a particular set of rules that guide early language development regardless of the specific language being received as sensory input.

However, due to lack of substantive empirical support, Chomsky’s UG has not moved significantly beyond the hypothetical stage. It continues to be a matter of exploration, critique, and discussion among linguists and cognitive scientists. UG is an interesting consideration for those interested in language learning, but we can broaden our view of language acquisition by examining possibilities and aspects presented by work in fields beyond hard linguistics.

Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory

Dr. Howard Gardner, developmental psychologist and the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, is known for his theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner’s research both extends and departs from work carried out over the 19th and 20th centuries on the subject of human intelligence.

Gardner’s theory is essentially a critique of standard intelligence theory with its emphasis on the correlation among abilities and traditional IQ tests that measure only linguistic, logical, and spatial abilities. Gardner’s seminal work Frames of Mind was published in 1983 and revolutionized the education and psychology fields with his posit of the theory of multiple intelligences.

Gardner proposes that humans possess several different, independent modes for information processing. In primarily observational and applied work, Gardner has identified eight types of intelligence including bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, naturalistic, and spatial intelligences. A radical departure from traditional views of mind, Garner’s model presents a pluralistic view that recognizes multiple different and discrete views of cognition. It acknowledges that people have various cognitive strengths and contrasting cognitive styles.

Describing Linguistic Intelligence

Gardner describes intelligence as “a computational capacity…that is founded on human biology and human psychology”. Via his research, Gardner developed a set of criteria to help define an intelligence beginning with the idea that intelligence “entails the ability to solve problems or fashion products that are of consequence in a particular cultural setting or community”.

Application of his criteria allowed Gardner to identify LI. It has biological origins in an area of the brain called Broca’s Area that supports the production of grammatical sentences. Language is also a human universal that develops rapidly and unproblematically in most children across cultures. And, like other intelligences, LI can operate independently of input modality or output channel.

Linguistic intelligence is described by Gardner as the intelligence of words. It corresponds with a person’s ability to comprehend and use language in spoken and, depending on cultural nurturing, written forms. Linguistic intelligence can be concisely summarized as a level of competence in expressing oneself effectively via speech, and also as a facility for learning foreign languages beyond one’s first language.

Building Linguistic Intelligence

Individuals possess various levels of LI according to genetic predisposition and environmental/cultural nurturing. Children and young people who show competence at and sustained interest in foreign language learning likely possess above average LI. One effective approach to amplifying the development of LI is via full immersion in a selected language, with positive feedback and motivation-enhancing input made available to the learner.

Because so much is still unknown about the processes involved, developing LI and leveraging it in effective foreign language learning and teaching are among the most challenging of academic pursuits. This also makes language study one of the most engaging subjects for teachers and students alike.

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