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Human Intelligence and Second Language Learning

by Charles A.S. Heinle

Considering the fact that every normal human child easily acquires at least one language before the age of six, it is entirely relevant to ask the question. What part, if any, does intelligence play in the learning of languages?

Looking at the subject from the point of view of those who have never successfully learned another - a foreign - language, we find non-learners often excuse their failure on their “lack of language ability,” “lack of smarts,” or “lack of time.”

People who despair of successfully learning a language often base their reasoning on their prior experience in school or college. “It made me feel stupid,” they say. And they feel that while to the rest of the world they appear as competent adults, to a language teacher they know they sound like babbling idiots, forced to stammer out even the simplest ideas. Many adult students have reported this same unnerving sense of failure.

Are there reasonable grounds for their lack of success? It is interesting to note that, in connection with the question of intelligence and the learning of languages, Dr. Paul Pimsleur reported in his posthumously published book, How to Learn a Foreign Language (written in the 1960’s, now out of print),

“According to reliable studies, only about 16 percent of what it takes to learn a foreign language is attributable to intelligence - at least as defined by IQ tests. IQ tests are largely made up of English vocabulary and mathematical reasoning questions, presented in various forms. Perhaps this explains why IQ correlates better with success in school than with success in life. Doing well in languages, like doing well at business, politics, or love, calls for more than the type of intelligence that makes you successful in school. It demands qualities like persuasiveness, sensitivity, gaiety, and perseverance, which IQ tests make no attempt to measure.”

In the years since the 1960’s, with the research going on in connection with the studies of the human brain, cognition, and consciousness, a number of experts have published very convincing studies that human beings, of all the animal kingdom, are the brightest and best because it appears that only Homo sapiens acquires language.

Let's begin our review of language acquisition by noting that many people define intelligence as the ability to learn, understand, and use information: smartness. It has also long been assumed that this definition covers all learning, including the acquisition of languages.

This assumption is reinforced by another common assumption which is that other animals are ruled by instinct, but that humans have lost all or almost all their instincts and have come to be governed instead by reason and learning. According to this view, the replacement of instinct with reason is why humans are more flexibly intelligent than other species.

However, this widely-accepted view is now being challenged. As Leda Cosmides and John Tooby report in The Modular Nature of Human Intelligence (1997),

“More recently this common-sense view has been turned upside down as a result of additional information which holds that human behavior is more flexibly intelligent than that of other animals because humans have more instincts than other animals have, not fewer.

Why should more instincts make humans more intelligent? Evolutionary psychology suggests that each specialized module of the brain is a circuit with a distinct problem-solving ability tailored to a particular piece of the world and relevant to a type of problem. The more circuits one can link up, the broader the range of problems that can be solved, according to this theory.

Humans tend to be blind to the existence of these instincts, precisely because they work so well. We process information so effortlessly, automatically, and unconsciously that we are unaware it is happening. Instincts structure our thoughts so powerfully, that it can be difficult to imagine how things could be otherwise. (Could this be the reason that none of us can recall how we learned to speak our native tongues?)

For a number of years, human beings were held to be the products of culture, not of instinct. Human nature was simply the capacity to absorb culture - it had no other character.

Three decades of progress and convergence in cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience have shown that this view of the human mind is radically defective. Evolutionary psychology provides an alternative framework that is replacing the standard model.

In the new view, all normal human minds reliably develop a standard collection of reasoning and regulatory circuits that are functionally specialized and, frequently, are designed to operate specifically within a particular domain (for examples, sexual behavior, foods, navigation, language).

These circuits organize the way humans interpret experiences, inject certain recurrent concepts and motivation into mental life, and they provide universal frames of meaning that allow understanding of the actions and intentions of others. Concepts such as jealousy, friendship, beauty, and so on are not cultural inventions but instead are cultural elaborations of universal features of the human mind.

Have you ever wondered about the fact that organisms which do not move do not have brains, and also do not possess language. For example trees, bushes, and grasses do not have brains. It is the circuits of the brain which are designed to generate motion in response to information from the environment. The function of the brain is to generate the physical behavior of motion/action that is appropriate to the environmental circumstances which encircle an organism. There is a connection between the development of a circuit in the brain, the need of a response such as movement, and the evolution of language.

It is now known that the learning circuits that govern the acquisition of language are different from the circuits that govern the acquisition of, for example, food aversions, and both are different from the learning circuits that govern the acquisition of snake phobias.

It would appear that since all humans have these special-purpose circuits, one of which is the language acquisition device, that all humans are on an equal footing when it comes to learning language.

In view of the fact that all normal individual humans acquire a first language, how is it possible that some individuals claim to be unable to learn additional languages? Surely it cannot be, as we have seen, the question of a lack of “intelligence,” nor can it be a lack of the language acquisition circuits since these remain fully operational.

It is therefore very perplexing that some human beings appear not to be able to learn additional languages. Some people have even proposed that everyone can learn to speak, but only as a child, and that adults cannot learn to speak a second language. Certainly the vast difference between the acquisition of first and second languages makes it essential for us to understand these differences as a step to solving the problem of adult learners acquiring second languages.

The long-standing debate about language acquisition brings the issue into sharp focus. Do the same hypothetical general-purpose cognitive programs that cause children to learn (for example, to ride a bicycle) also cause children to learn languages, or is language learning caused by programs that are specialized for performing just that task? The data collected so far suggests the latter.

Let’s consider the fact that human infants, with their evolved predisposition to learn languages, easily learn to understand and to speak the language of their mothers. Is this the case because the infants (or their mothers) are “smart”? As we have seen, in addition to a certain amount of “smarts,” something else is going on in the case of infant language learning. Although parents may not realize it, all infants acquire languages by exposure to the language without overt teaching on the part of their parents.

Therefore, it must be the case that the predisposition to learn language is what is doing the work in the case of infant language acquisition.

In addition to what is obviously going on in infant language acquisition, there is also a very considerable difference between the acquisition of a “first” language by infants and the acquisition of a “second” language by adults. The human organs of speech and the other systems which accomplished the task of infant language learning remain available, and the question is: can they operate in an adult to acquire an additional language? There is ample evidence to prove that adults do learn additional languages under certain conditions; for example, spoken skills in foreign languages are regularly taught at the Defense Language Institute or in immersion classes at private schools. The amount of time it takes to learn is a function of the teaching method used.

We now know that adult language learners who already possess a first language also possess the evolutionary language learning module in their brains and because of that fact should not be experiencing the major problems they report in trying to learn a second language. Why, therefore, are they experiencing these problems? We need to take another look at the language learning methods presently offered to adults.

Obviously no adult can be reborn and physically or mentally be placed into the language learning position of an infant, even if this were desirable, which it is not.

Let’s review what an infant id doing while acquiring language:

1) Infants are exposed to adult language in normal everyday situations and are relaxed and observe the passing scene every waking minute of twenty-four hours a day.

2) As time goes by they slowly begin to attempt to replicate particular language sounds, which generally brings a loving response from nearby adults.

3) What is not seen, of course, is what is going on inside the infants’ brains. The appropriate brain circuits are collecting the information, starting to sort it out, and storing the acoustic images of the language in the appropriate brain centers.

4) Time is not of the essence in infant language learning, and since in the nature of language communication there are endless repeats and re-use of basic structures and sounds, the infant is not overwhelmed by huge quantities of ever new and different material.

5) In the proper time, the infant starts to try out what s/he has been hearing and gradually becomes able to form words, phrases, and short sentences that bring great satisfaction to the related adults, which is not lost on the infant, who wants recognition and pleasure.

This is the basic nature of infant language acquisition. And within the next few years, day-by-day, month-by-month, and year-by-year the acquisition gradually becomes as perfect as it will ever be. Native-language production is deemed to be as good as it gets!

In contrast with the wonderful world of infant language acquisition, adult language instruction has been based on teaching methods using written text materials, stressing grammatical terminology, translation, and rote learning of rules. This has been the case ever since the cultural invention of the written language.

There is a fatal flaw in the idea of using a written text approach in trying to teach/learn spoken language communication skills. And this error is based on the fact that the evolution of the specialized language learning module in the brain has evolved for the processing of spoken language, not of written language. For this reason alone, it is simply irrelevant to the process.

It is now clear, after years of trying, that exposing adults to written texts simply cannot result in their learning spoken communication skills. As one would expect, exposing infants to written texts could not result in anything but torn paper. This obviously explains why adult learners have such depressing results with second language learning.

During the last 15 years, it has been established that adults can quickly and easily achieve excellent and measurable spoken communication skills through the use of the self-teaching, audio-programmed Pimsleur Language Programs.

Pimsleur audio-programmed language instruction is based on a method that takes into account the way the brain acquires language, and with the information properly available, the brain can get on with the necessary language processing to build the library of acoustic images of the distinctive sounds of the language in the memory cortex of the brain.

This avoid the vast “noise” you get when you listen to unorganized random sound, actually the kind that infants hear - and this is why it takes infants about six years to acquire a language.

But time is of the essence for adult learners, who do not have 6 years, 24 hours a day, to acquire a new language. Fortunately, language learning can and will take place when the learner is exposed to language which has been carefully organized to maximize key items for immediate use in understanding and generating appropriate responses. This is clearly the way adult learners can grasp and use language - and it is the opposite of listening to random language sounds on the streets in any foreign country.

Depending upon the method used by an adult, intermediate level spoken language proficiency can require anywhere from several hundreds of accumulated instructional hours to as little as thirty-minutes a day for ninety days.

Although it is almost impossible to compare how much language the infant and the adult learners will have achieved, it is estimated on average that a child of six has acquired from fifteen hundred to two thousand grammatical structures including basic everyday vocabulary. Keep in mind, however, that it is not how much vocabulary one learns, but what one can do with creating grammatically correct sentences with this vocabulary that is the test of language proficiency.

The critical point with first language learning for an infant is that the grammatical core of the language requires an estimated 30,000 hours to acquire. Even if we were to estimate that the six-year-old could acquire the core grammar by age 4, it would only reduce the learning time to perhaps about 20,000 hours. And even if the infant could acquire the core in as little as 15,000 hours, the dramatic point is that there is a world of difference between 45 hours and 15,000 hours.

An adult who accomplishes ninety Pimsleur language lessons will have acquired some fifteen hundred grammatical structures and everyday vocabulary. The entire amount of time spent in learning calculates out to forty-five hours. The critical point is that it took the adult second-language learner only 45 hours to acquire mastery and use in the core-of-the-language!

At the end of a Pimsleur course, the learner is able to perform the following: to ask and answer questions dealing with everyday situations, to give and get information and directions to participate in casual conversations, to give basic information about him/herself, family members and their associates, and to avoid basic cultural errors.

Second, or foreign, spoken foreign-language communication skills training for adults has at long last turned the corner.

By age 4 a child has acquired the tools of “first” language at a rate of about one every five hours of waking time extensively exposed to language in use.

A Pimsleur learner accomplishes foreign-language learning at the rate of almost one item for every minute of Pimsleur training.

Your first language took you between 10,000 and 30,000 hours to acquire. With Pimsleur audio-programmed language training, acquisition of each of your second languages will take you only 45 hours!!

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media