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Social Perceptions about Intelligence & Language

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Many people think about language and intelligence as inextricably intertwined. This lesson discusses common social perceptions about the relationship between intelligence and language, while also exploring the limitations of this relationship.

Language, Intelligence and Social Perceptions

Having moved from China, Kathie has been living in the United States for five years. Though Kathie has been studying English since she was in elementary school, she speaks with an accent and sometimes struggles to find the right vocabulary word.

Lately, Kathie is feeling frustrated. She knows she is an intelligent person, but she finds that when she talks to others, all they hear is her accent and the grammar mistake she makes.

She knows that some of this stems from bias and stereotypes about immigrants, but she also understands that it has to do with the social perception, or commonly held popular belief, that language and intelligence are inextricably related.

Kathie understands this perception; after all, language is an important part of how we communicate with others or get our ideas across. Still, she wishes she had a better understanding of how language and intelligence related to each other so that she could explain this complicated connection to other people.

Understanding Intelligence

First, Kathie starts thinking about exactly what she means when she wonders about intelligence. After all, intelligence is not a simple concept to define! Often, we think of intelligence as people's overall capacities for learning and complex thought.

Theorists of multiple intelligence believe that there are many different ways to be intelligent. Some of the intelligences that are less often celebrated include interpersonal intelligence, or sensibilities when it comes to relationships with others, or musical intelligence, a special capacity for music.

Often, intelligence is assessed via people's performance in school or at complex academic and intellectual tasks.

Intelligence and Language

Now that Kathie is thinking about what intelligence really means, she can see why the relationship with language has become such an important one.

First of all, language is the primary means by which people communicate with one another, and this can become more true with age. Therefore, the way a person speaks is something everyone can observe about them and use to quickly categorize a perception of their intellectual capacities.

Further, a great deal of knowledge and understanding about the world is acquired through language, especially through literacy. When a person is perceived as a strong reader, Kathie usually assumes they are well read and know many things. Of course, knowledge is not the same as intelligence, but even for Kathie, it is hard to disentangle the sense of someone's knowledge base from her overall sense of their intelligence.

Kathie also knows that writing is often seen as an indicator of intelligence. People who write fluidly and in sophisticated ways tend to perform better in school and have more educational opportunities, and this, in turn, leads them to be perceived as more intelligent.

Limitations of the Correlation

As Kathie has seen from personal experience, however, there are some strong limitations to the correlation between language capacities and intelligence.

First of all, perceptions of this relationship can be very culturally biased, favoring those who speak in standard language forms over cultural dialects or vernaculars. There is also a socioeconomic bias involved in correlating language with intelligence, favoring those who have had more educational opportunities and exposure.

Kathie can also see how people with strengths in other areas that are less verbal might be dismissed via the belief that language is the main indicator of intelligence.

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