Do You Have to be Smart to Learn a Language? Science Says…


There are plenty of benefits to learning a new language, but can just anyone do it, or do you already have to be smart to learn a language? Sure, knowing more than one language can help you career-wise, enhance your travel experiences, and allow you to connect by breaking language barriers. But how smart do you have to be to learn a new language?

The definition of “smart” is subjective, but the short answer is no. You don’t have to be “smart” to learn a second or additional language. Science has proven that anyone with time to dedicate, the motivation to continue, and a plan accounting for learning styles can and will learn a new language. 

If you’re curious about learning a new language, and you’d like to know whether or not being smart is a prerequisite to do so, stick around. We have more details to fully answer whether you have to be smart to learn a language. 

How Intelligence Impacts Language Learning

There are all kinds of scientific proof telling us that learning a second language is one way to enhance overall intelligence, especially in children. But what’s less known is what’s required, intelligence-wise, to actually be able to learn a new language.

One of the most important things that you can gain from second language is learning about other cultures. If that is one of your goals, there is another way to do it and enjoy delicious snacks at the same time.

We love and highly recommend a company that sends you snacks from countries around the world every month. Check out Universal Yums here. Your taste buds will thank you.

Before we can fully answer the question “Do you have to be smart to learn a language?” the terms of what it means to be smart must be clearly defined. Saying someone is smart is much too subjective. Up next, we’ll outline that definition. 

What do You Mean by “Smart?”

Everyone knows about street smarts or having a higher level of common sense. That’s one way that someone can be smart.

On the other hand, some people have a high Intelligence Quotient (I.Q.) or there are those that are great with numbers and facts. That’s an entirely different kind of smart. (I’ve address I.Q. and language learning specifically here if you’d like to check that out as well.)

Which of these is important to learning a language?

If someone is smart, they’re considered to have a higher intelligence in either of these areas. The person that can correctly figure out complicated math equations: they’re considered smart.

But what about the person that’s extra observant and takes relevant information from one situation to apply to another- they’re smart, too, right?

What is/are Multiple Intelligences?

Howard Gardner, American developmental psychologist working at Harvard University, first coined 7 multiple intelligences in the early 80s.

These multiple intelligences are:

  • visual-spatial intelligence,
  • bodily-kinesthetic,
  • musical,
  • interpersonal,
  • intrapersonal,
  • logical/mathematical,
  • verbal-linguistic.
  • He later added naturalist intelligence to the list.

As a teacher for almost 20 years in various public schools, from a classroom teacher to a language specialist, I can tell you this idea of multiple intelligences is something that’s permeated mainstream educational philosophy ever since.

Gardner believes everyone has some of all of these intelligences but in varying degrees, meaning some have more musical intelligence; some have more visual-spatial intelligence; but each of us has a piece of all intelligences.

As well, he is one of the first to say that we are not born with all of our intelligence; that intelligence is varied and malleable (Source: Simply Psychology).

Gardner intended for his findings to inform instruction and help educators bring all students to their full potential. However, regardless of our personal convictions and beliefs, and Gardner’s probable intentions, we can all admit that the educational system, as well as society in general, does not value or recognize all intelligences equitably.

There are many different kinds of smart.

https://youtu.be/g8fl_C95pl8

Similar to Gardner’s theory, we should be able to recognize different kinds of smart, or different ways people can be or are smart.

Some people are really good at planning and organizing; others are amazing at musical instruments.

Still, there are people who have an affinity to the mechanical- to taking things apart and putting them back together or building new things. There are those who are much better at learning computer code and so on.

As a teacher, I have experience in the educational field that tells us cognitive ability is what is regarded as ‘smart’ in the traditional sense.

In the real world, or the world in the realm of living as an adult, we can all see that making good investment and financial decisions is seen as (business) smart.

And remember that having more ‘smarts’ in one area doesn’t mean you don’t have smarts or ability (or capability) in another.

To learn a language, you don’t need to be smart in the cognitive sense, either, or have a high I.Q. for that matter. 

What Kind of “Smart” do You Need to be to Learn a Language?

To learn a language, you don’t need to be smart on either of these levels. Yes, learning a language will be easier if you have the rote memory skills to retain new words or the application skills to apply the rules of a new language, but having neither doesn’t mean it’s an impossible feat. 

To learn a new language, someone just needs to be able to retain new vocabulary, as well as effectively communicate those words. You don’t have to be smart to do either of those things. 

According to Stephen Krashen, an authority on language learning, it takes understanding messages- or what’s known as lots of comprehensible input. He explains that meaningful interaction should be the focus, not grammar and form. Being “smart enough” is not a part of learning a language, or language acquisition.

Do You Need a High IQ to Learn a Language?

The good news is that you don’t have to have an I.Q. like Will (from Good Will Hunting available at Amazon) because I.Q. is not a factor that determines whether or not a person can or can’t learn a language.

The ease of acquiring a language is subjective and dependent on the person, their learning style, and other factors such as how close the target language is to their mother tongue and so on.

In other words, a person might have a high IQ, and learning a language might be easy for them, but another person with the same IQ might struggle.

Much of this depends on the approach to learning the language. For example, when the language is taught through rote memorization vs. a whole language or behavioral approach, it’s more conducive to learners with varying intelligence levels. 

But there’s nothing to keep us from enjoying Good Will Hunting and wearing a t-shirt that proclaims we’re Wicked Smaaht!

Learning a Language Without Being Smart

So, you now know that being ‘wicked smaaht’, or having above average intelligence, isn’t a requirement to learn a new language. Smart is not on the list of necessary skills. But what skills are on the list? What do you need to learn a second language? 

Listening 

This isn’t to say that someone with a hearing impairment can’t learn a language. Of course, they can! And having a hearing impairment most certainly doesn’t mean they’re not smart.

Learning a language with a hearing impairment does come with a particular set of challenges, so we’ll save that for another post. 

To learn a language, being able to hear the way words are spoken is essential. Listening to movies or hearing conversations of those speaking the other language is a great way to learn pronunciation and get real-life experience of how words are used in sentences or context. 

With new research on brain plasticity, we’ve learned that someone can retrain their brain to understand a new language at any age, as long as they can listen to the new language in some capacity.  

Verbal Communication

Again, this isn’t to say that a person with speech challenges can’t learn a new language, and it really doesn’t mean they’re not smart. But for a person with average intelligence, barring any additional communication issues, verbal communication is a regular part of learning a new language. 

As long as a person can verbally communicate the new language, they’ll be able to use it effectively. That is, of course, once the other skills to learning a language are mastered. Studies like this one have shown that repeating new vocabulary words is an essential way to learn and retain a new language. 

One of the top polyglots today is Benny ‘The Irish Polyglot’ Lewis whose central theme is speaking from day one. To learn about his revolutionary philosophy on learning languages I recommend you check out his site here.

Obstacles to Learning a Language Other than Being Smart

We’ve established that being smart is not an obstacle to learning a language. Anyone can learn a language, regardless of “smartness” or IQ. But there are a few roadblocks that can make learning a language more challenging or halt your language learning progress altogether. 

Here are some things to avoid to maximize your ability to learn a language:

  • Don’t let yourself get bored with language learning. Find strategies, methods, and tools that you enjoy. As a teacher, I know that learning should be fun, especially if it’s something you’re doing on your own time. Reported by researcher D. Lucardie for Federation University of Australia, adults are no different from kids in the fact that they are motivated by learning that’s fun.
  • Don’t stop once you reach a plateau. If you find yourself struggling to get over a hump, that doesn’t mean you’ve reached your potential, and you can’t learn anymore. It means you need to find new methods to expand on your language learning, like using your new skills in conversation or maybe even taking a trip to immerse yourself in the culture. 
  • Don’t get discouraged if you choose a hard language to learn. Some languages are just a more natural transition from English, such as Spanish. But for picking up a new language like Mandarin or Finnish as a native English speaker, you should prepare yourself that it will be a challenge, and don’t let it prevent you from trying. 
  • Don’t focus on rote memorization of vocabulary. Or limit your learning to only flashcards and strict memorization. This strategy will help you learn certain vocabulary words if you’re good at memorizing, and it’s particularly good when you target high-frequency words or specialized vocabulary specific to your likes, interests, and career-basically, words you’ll come into daily contact with. But it doesn’t help you beyond that. You’ll miss out on how to actually apply those new words if that’s all you do.
  • Don’t forget to set personal, SMART goals and benchmarks along the way . Keeping track of your success, even the smallest ones, is a great way to keep up the momentum you need to stay motivated. (To learn more about SMART goals, I’ve written about that here.)

If you would like the ultimate guide to language learning, one that my husband swears by, I can highly recommend the ‘Language Hacks’ offered by Benny ‘The Irish Polyglot’ Lewis. Follow this link if you want the ultimate list and guide to learning languages from Fluent In Three Months.

Final Talking Point regarding Do You Have to be Smart to Learn a Language?

So, we began with an appropriate question: “do you have to be smart to learn a language?”

After reading the explanation and information above, you should now feel confident that the answer is no. I.Q, high cognitive abilities, and honor roll in school are not needed to learn a second or new language.

Anyone can learn a language, as long as they have the willingness to do so, which includes consistent and regular practice, using tools and methods that work for your learning style and interest, and motivation to keep going. 

As well, keep in mind the obstacles listed, so those don’t potentially throw you off track. After all, being aware that the path may have some road blocks is part of the preparation for overcoming them.

If you grasp this and plan accordingly, then you’ll be well on your way to learning a new language! 

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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