Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What If We Measured Intelligence by Adeptness with Languages?

I recall in the days I hung out with drummers from Ghana, the ones I knew variously were native speakers of Twi, Ga, Ewe, and Fante. They each of them could speak to any of the others in that person's native language, as well as being able to speak to me in perfectly comprehensible, "fluent enough" English. (They would say things no native speaker would say, but I never recall them not being able to tell me what they meant or failing to understand what I meant.)

Ninety percent of the population of Nigeria is at least bilingual, and many people speak more languages than that. Former NBA player Dikembe Mutumbo is "able to speak English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and five African languages." Hakeem Olajuwon is "in addition to English... fluent in French, Arabic, and the Nigerian languages of Yoruba and Ekiti."

Speaking more than one language fluently is a great mental accomplishment, involving moving back and forth between different ways of seeing the world. If we gauged "general intelligence" by this criterion, Africans might top the world.


  1. Africa has a good deal of linguistic diversity (reduced relatively recently as a result of the Bantu expansion) but the most linguistically diverse place is supposedly Papua New Guinea. I don't know how many languages the typical New Guinean knows though.

    I.Q is measured in a variety of ways, the fact that almost any test people have come up with correlates with other tests is what gave rise to the idea of the "g factor". And that also correlates with outcomes in many other areas people are interested in, which why some wag (Linda Gottfredson?) said "Life is an I.Q test" (although the lives being examined are chiefly those of W.E.I.R.D countries). The two primary components (themselves correlated, of course) are said to be verbal & visuo-spatial. Vocabulary in particular is significantly correlated with IQ (and academic outcomes), which is why parents are encouraged to talk to their kids as they are developing. I don't know if I've read anything explicitly stating that ability to learn language is correlated with IQ, but the abilities I can recall being found uncorrelated include facial recognition, musical rhythm, and vegetable picking.

    I have heard that the ability to learn new languages declines with age, and "fluid" g is supposed to be replaced with "crystallized" g, but they're generally spoken of in very different time scales. This polyglot is sixteen and still learning new languages, but I believe the pre-teen years are supposed to be the most formative. Children who immigrate at young ages take on the accent of their peers, older immigrants retain old accents even if they've been speaking the new language for decades. Judith Harris uses that to argue for the importance of peers over parents for that trait.

  2. I'm always very impressed by it. One day I was in a local Thai restaurant. The waiter had a German accent. Soon he was answering the phone in fluent French. Then he spoke with someone who came in in what seemed fluent Italian. He spoke to us in fluent English. He called back into the kitchen in what I guess was pretty good Thai. I asked him how many languages he spoke. About 20. 13 fluently, 5 well, and 2 he was learning!!

    He had been a translator at the UN. Now he and his wife owned a local restaurant.


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