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Language learning and intelligence


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I used to think that someone being highly intelligent meant they could learn and master foreign languages much easier than most. However, when I was studying French at university I realised that this wasn't necessarily true because some of the brighter student didn't necessarily top the class. This is probably further supported by the fact that passion, interest and determination (among others) are qualities that count more when it comes to learning a foreign language. So I'd like to know from all of you, what you've observed in your own personal experience; to what degree do you feel a person's level of intelligence determines how easily they can learn foreign languages? 

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I think having high intelligence is definitely an advantage when learning a language but in my experience it's being able to use the language that truly makes it stick so even if you have high intelligence you won't be able to keep a new language if you don't constantly practice and use it.  Learning a language requires a lot of effort, determination and memory and it requires you to use the language regularly to master it.  Those are all important to learn a language but intelligence alone can't achieve those things.  Like you said, you also need the passion and drive to learn and use the language and that's more important. 

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I think interest counts more than intelligence when it comes to learning a new language, because even if you're intelligent, if you're not interested, then you won't learn anything. Of course, you also have to be determined and persistent to be able to be fluent in the language of your choice, aside from being interested in it.

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I lived abroad for a number of years and what I noticed was that regardless of one's IQ, the people who learned new languages are those who had an interest in learning the local language. If you had little interest in a language then you wouldn't learn it as fast as someone who was actively seeking to learn more from the native speakers of the language. That I believe is what does make a difference.

p.s If kids can learn any language pretty fast, then anyone can learn any language whether they are intelligent or not. Writing however would be a whole different beast.

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I don't personally think it really matters, if you have the will to learn then you can learn. I was not a straight a,b, or c student in school and I managed to learn Spanish, plus out side of school I started studying French and I love where I am so far with the language and I never finished school.

Intelligence doesn't matter, people just need to be able to communicate in the language, and that's different from learning how to be an engineer, or mathematician. 

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A person excels in math does mean he will also excel in science. math and science are different subject and need different level of intelligence. Likewise, a class topper may be be able to excel in language class. You need different level of intelligence to master a new language. Your interest and dedication also matters on how fast you can learn the language.

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Well, I have an iq of 170 and i am a natural at taking standardized tests and scoring in the high 90th percentiles. However, I have tried to learn 3 languages so far (mainly because I thought I was a genius), and have so far only been able to learn Russian. I mean I know a little French, enough to start a conversation. I know a little German as well. But, nothing more than that.

However, now I am learning mandarin, because its important to my work. And I can tell you that I am learning it really quickly. The reason is that I am under pressure from my manager to learn within 3 months so he can send me to HK and then to the mainland.

So, I would say, more than intelligence, its the "need" to learn that really helps one learn a language. Intelligence matters, but hard work trumps intelligence.

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These are very interesting responses, thanks for that everyone! I think we all agree dedication, hard work, persistence and interest in the language definitely count more over the level of intelligence. I noticed in the past that some of my more intelligent friends weren't so interested in learning foreign languages, and were more about the Sciences and Maths. It was so weird at the time, because you could literally tell who would excel at languages, mainly based on what they were studying at the time. It could have been partly coincidental, but the students who did the arts seemed more keen to learn and master their foreign language skills than the Science and Maths students It was almost like they were bored in class. Very interesting indeed.

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I am not an expert in this but I do think that the part of your brain you use for academics might be different from what you use for language, so my guess is that it's possible that there might not be much of a correlation, but at the same time I guess that in some people who are good in academics they might also coincidentally also possess whatever it is that makes it easier for some people to learn a new language, probably including patience and determination. 

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I don't think that intelligence has anything to do with it except that an intelligent person might be better able to come up with a learning routine or strategy that will enable them to learn faster and retain more things. But all things equal, intelligence alone doesn't really count for much in my opinion. Take a new born baby and raise them in a family that speaks one language and he will grow up speaking one language. Take them and raise them in a family that speaks 10 languages, and they will grow up speaking 10 languages, regardless of their IQ. 

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Intelligence surely plays a big role when it comes to learning a new language although, I think that it is all about discipline at the end of the day.
You must be willing to learn the language and above all,  you must be excited about it! 

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@clair02....you make a very good point! When I was doing my Linguistics degree, I learnt that young kids have the capacity to learn various languages simultaneously without the struggles or hurdles that hinder grown ups. Which is why I always laugh when people maintain that it's too much pressure for children to be taught more than one language at a go. I wish my parents had exposed me to more languages at a much younger age. I hope to have 1 or 2 kids of my own in the future, and really hope I'll be able to afford them this opportunity :) With the world now being a global village, I think it's one of the best gifts you could give a child as it broadens their horizon.

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I think (based on stuff I've read and heard) that intelligence and languages go hand in hand: higher intelligence will help with learning new languages and mastering old ones, but learning languages in itself can (will?) raise your intelligence. You don’t have to be intelligent to learn a language, but the process can expand your brain and make you more intelligent.

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I found out that most people who are good at numbers aren't good at languages and vice versa, I don't know why but out of the students I've had throughout the years this has become the norm. And I can also speak for myself because I've never been good with numbers and I'm very good at languages. Of course there are some exceptions of people who excel at both things at the same time, they're good with numbers and with languages. We should take advantage of what we have and learn what we can. If something is difficult to learn then we dedicate more time until we get it right.

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I actually consider myself the best English speaker in my University and I'm not the best at math, not either at physics. It definitely has nothing to do with your ability to learn languages. I really consider that every single person is as intelligent as others, the only detail is that some people care more than other.

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How would you define intelligence? Ability to absorb new knowledge? Ability to apply new knowledge? If so, then intelligence definitely plays a big role in learning a new language. Learning a new language is not just a matter of learning new words and a new grammar. It involves an understanding of the culture which nurtured that language. To understand a new language requires an open mind. If a person is forever thinking that such-and-such a language is so stupid because it says things in such-and-such a stupid way, then that person is fighting a very steep uphill battle in learning that language. I have seen this happening to foreigners who have lived for years in Thailand and yet not be able to speak Thai. Just about every one of them (the ones who cannot speak Thai) has a very low opinion of Thai people and the Thai language. That, in my opinion, is not exactly a very intelligent thing to do when you live and work in Thailand.

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On 12/09/2016 at 9:46 AM, hades_leae said:

I don't personally think it really matters, if you have the will to learn then you can learn. I was not a straight a,b, or c student in school and I managed to learn Spanish, plus out side of school I started studying French and I love where I am so far with the language and I never finished school.

Intelligence doesn't matter, people just need to be able to communicate in the language, and that's different from learning how to be an engineer, or mathematician. 

I agree if you have to make yourself understood then you will find any means possible. Anyone can learn another language if they are put in a situation were it's the only way to communicate. It doesn't actually take that long before you start picking up on words.

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According to sources, Nikolai Tesla spoke eight languages: Serbo-Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin. That He was a genius is something completely out of question, but I wonder how He was his approach to learn a skill. He was an inquisitive man, and I He knew how to harness the power of his mind and use it to take advantage of all its potential.  If everyone could do the same, I'm sure many people would be really surprised to realize what are the capable of.

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