Learnable intelligence and how it relates to language acquisition

One of the key factors to learn something is to believe that you can learn it. Unfortunately, there is a widespread assumptions that in many domains talent is essential to become successful.

in this post I try to answer the following questions: Is intelligence genetically determined or can be learned? How this relates to (second) language acquisition?

My answer on this question is based on the book “Outsmarting IQ” by David Perkins, therefore this post can be considered a sort of book review.


Why does this matters?

The answer to this question do matters because if intelligence is only genetically determined we are left with no chances to improve it and, therefore, we are more likely to accept the notion that to be good at something we need talent. Talent is usually something that is supposed to be acquired from the birth , either you have it or you don’t. Simple but also disempowering.

Differently, if intelligence is learnable this means that we have ways to improve it during our life. This implies more responsibilities upon the learner but it is also more empowering as you can change your situation.

According to Perkins we can distinguish three different dimensions of intelligence:

  • Neural intelligence
  • Experiential intelligence
  • Reflective intelligence

Neural intelligence depends on the speed of your neurons, it is physiological and genetically predetermined. This is the type of intelligence that makes some individuals more talented for certain tasks.

Experiential intelligence is the result of the knowledge and skills that have been acquired through long practice. This intelligence is context specific and results into “perceptual intuition and fluent near-automatic responses”. This is the type of intelligence that leads to expertise in a specific domain. This kind of intelligence has been popularized in the last decade with the concept of the 10000 hours of practice to become an expert in a domain.

Reflective intelligence consists in thinking strategies and meta-cognition such as mental-management and self-monitoring. Positive attitudes and mind dispositions, for example open-mindedness, are part of this dimension of intelligence. Reflective intelligence consists about thinking about how you think, learning to learn, or in other terms, mindful learning.

The good news is that both the experiential and reflective intelligence are learnable and that talent is, in many cases, overrated. It is empowering to know that we can do much to improve ourselves. Now how does this translates into learning new knowledge and skills?


Learnable intelligence and language learning

If we accept that only one of the three dimensions of intelligence is genetically predetermined it follows that language talent is overrated and that people can do a lot to improve their “language intelligence”.

Long practice is necessary to acquire in-depth experiential intelligence, and this makes completely sense if we think about the importance of long-term study of a language, perseverance and the number of hours that we are exposed to the language.

However, I think that the most important conclusion, when looking at the different dimensions of intelligence, is that if we want to become more intelligent about learning languages in general we should focus on reflective intelligence.

Also, If we want to become more intelligent to learn a specific language, reflective intelligence will be most useful in the initial stage of learning because to build up experiential learning more time is needed so it is reflective intelligence that would make the difference.


What do you think ?




References cited:

Perkins (1995). Outsmarting IQ: The emerging science of learnable intelligence. The Free Press




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