Pincher Martin's Bibliothèquewebbie -- Sunday, January 29, 2012 -- 01:39:17 AM
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A lot of this comes down to how carefully we choose to define fluency and even how we choose to define a language. How do we classify dead languages, for example? Or closely related languages like Dutch and Flemish, which some contemporaries credited Mezzofanti with two languages, but modern scholars would claim is just one?
Here is how hyperpolyglot Erik Gunnemark described his own abilities:
No clue. And I really don't even know the extent of his language skills, which might have been more modest than I remember. He certainly was an eager language learner, taking up Hebrew under RustlerPike's tutelage just a few years before his death, but whether he became fluent in the languages he studied is another matter.
The lesson you draw from your father's experience mirrors one of the subjects in the book -- a man named Christopher who seems to pick up languages spontaneously despite being borderline retarded (IQ never tested above 76), unable to do simple self-care tasks, and possibly autistic. Most of the time he speaks only in monosyllables, but he's also able to translate to and from twenty languages.
But I'm a little leery of these unusual specimens. For every case like Christopher or (on a much higher level) your father, I bet there are a half-dozen cases like PE. And Erard does cite evidence in the book that suggests this is true. In one survey, among those claiming to know more than six languages, 46% reported IQs over 140 and another 42% claimed IQs from 120 to 140. Erard downplays this finding by saying that the results are self-reported.
I suspect that's true, because how many people of below average intelligence have the opportunity to learn many languages? My dad is a remarkable guy--a gifted mechanic and musician, he jumped at an opportunity to live in Saudi Arabia, where he rose from mechanic up to general foreman and higher, working with Greek and then Filipino mechanics, Arab pilots, and then travel around the world. I don't think most low IQ people would have the sort of life experiences that would allow them to learn new languages.
I've also noticed no real correlation between Hispanic students and language abilities. I can think of four students right now, all of them in this country two years. Two of them are well above average ability in math, but almost no fluency in English. Two others struggle in math, have no verbal skills to speak of, but are extremely fluent. The first two have passed the CAHSEE in math and English, but not the CELDT (the test that qualifies them out of ELL status). The second two barely passed in English, didn't pass in math, and tested highly fluent on the CELDT.
So it wouldn't surprise me that there are more known high IQ polyglots than low IQ, but I'm just not convinced that language facility is correlated to IQ.
And of course, part of that is about my own abilities, too. I can feel how my relatively weak spatial skills interferes with my ability to work with higher level math (calculus is about my limit, at this point), while I also know that within my capabilities, I'm far above average at math because of my IQ. But I'm far worse at learning any language and that doesn't feel at all related to IQ--it feels much more like my inability to hit a three pointer or throw a baseball.
ETA: Again, to clarify, I'm not denying that more polyglots may have high IQs. I just don't think it's a function of IQ in the way math or vocabulary acquisition is.
In matters linguistic I have no accomplishment or demonstration of talent which can compare with Pincher's. If he can sight translate a Chinese newspaper article orally, or survive a job interview in Mandarin, a language he learnt as an adult, that is an accomplishment in language beyond me.
The first 20 years of my life were packed with a diverse experience of languages living and dead. As an adult with a brain now too mature for real language learning, I simply coast on the inextinguishable imprint of those two decades.
I can pull a Mezzofanti with members of the Indo-European language family. That is to say, I can turn to my knowledge of several IE languages in order to quickly grasp the essential grammar of an unknown IE family member. I would then identify as many cognates as possible, or at least learn how to convert words from one language to those in another closely related language. By doing that I know I could speak passable Icelandic or Bulgarian or Catalan or Oriya in a few weeks. (But then within 2 weeks of disuse I would have to restart from zero!) (( Outlier IE languages like Albanian or Gaelic would take longer...))
That's not the same as studying a truly alien language as an adult and mastering it. I've never done that.
Pincher mentioned Turkish in relation to me. Turkish is not an IE language. So its grammar is just a little odd at first, but still not outlandish for a speaker of European languages. The real learning curve is in the vocabulary. Although perhaps half of its words are borrowed from English/French/German and Persian/Arabic, the core vocabulary is completely alien and learning it requires memorisation unaided by knowledge of cognates. When I studied Turkish in my 30s, I found it easy to utter sentences filled with loanwords, such as "Ataturk's glorious constitution and the independence of the great army experience destruction under the Islamist government which seek to return the nation to the era of the Ottoman caliphate". (All but a handful of words here have foreign origin.) But much simpler sentences with few loanwords (e.g. "the fresh cheese your wife made is so much tangier than the street vendor's") required much more effort. I can still utter cognate-rich sentences in Turkish with fair grammatical and idiomatic accuracy, but, after the waning of the once intense interest in the language, I would now grope for the more "everyday" words.
Yet Turkish is nowhere near as alien as Cambodian or Xhosa, whether in grammar or vocabulary or pronunciation.
Mezzofantism is easy ; acquiring a truly alien language is not, at least for me.
By the way, Pincher, that was a great review. It combines an appealing personal intro to the book, a sagacious alert to its flaws, and an enticing sale of its strengths.
But please, if you are going to post relevant images, don't do captions in small font and italics, as though you were vanity-publishing a physical magazine article ! Also, stay away from stars and synopsis !
I like the captions! But I agree about the review.
One interesting part of the book is when Erard writes about those undeveloped areas of the world -- West Africa, South India, and the Amazon are his specific examples -- where most people speak several languages as a natural result of their multilingual environment. Some of these areas have been documented as regions where the inhabitants have very low average IQs -- much lower than anything we find in the states. And yet most inhabitants there chatter away in several tongues without thinking it at all unusual or themselves special because of it.
Erard points out that these aren't really examples of a community filled with polyglots because the languages most people in these communities use are very limited and only for certain circumstances. They might be able to speak fluently about meat in a neighboring tribe's tongue where they go to buy meat, for example, but be completely lost when the subject there turns to, say, textiles. So they speak five or six languages, but only in a very limited fashion.
Erard speculates that this was probably the rule for most of the planet's inhabitants for most of their history. If he's right, there might be a natural basic competency in language learning that even the least intelligent among us possesses and that is independent from IQ. This basic linguistic competency could vary widely on the individual level depending upon the learner's sociability, ear, and other traits that we don't see as strongly connected to learning ability. But this competency is probably also limited to low-level fluency. I would guess that the further you go in learning a language, the more a high IQ reasserts itself in importance to the task. Basic chit-chat in a foreign tongue? You probably either have a knack for it or you don't. (I don't; your father apparently did.) But high-level fluency? I would guess that IQ plays an important role.
I knew many, many, many language learners who I'm sure were about average or even below average in intelligence, but picked up Mandarin much faster than I did. It was very frustrating for me to watch during my early days on the island because I feared there must be some permanent linguistic defect in me that I would not be able to correct. There's no worse feeling in the world than having some smug dumbass, who thinks he's smarter than you, proceed to give you his thoughtful, heartfelt advice on how to improve your language skills.
But after a year or two, hard work and patience began to pay off for me. And many of the dumb language learners I knew who started off fast began to level off and never improved dramatically beyond the street corner language they quickly mastered in their first few months on the island, even though they continued to take language classes and live in the same environment they had benefitted from so vividly before.
Having said that, there's no doubt that a lot of cases defy easy categorization. Some people just seem to have a gift for languages, even though they are not high achievers in other areas. Other people struggle like the dickens no matter how competent they appear at most other tasks in their life.
It's quite obviously not beyond you. I'm sure you could do it in short order if you chose -- certainly in a much shorter time frame than it took me to accomplish it. You simply had, and have, other priorities and intellectual pursuits, that's all.
I beg your indulgence. I'm preparing to publish a speciality blog focused on book reviews at the end of the year. This thread is sort of a trial run for that effort. I'm using it to build up a store of reviews, experiment with form, and get some feedback.
I agree with you about the stars and synopsis, but I hope to have visually interesting elements of a similar sort in the blog. I like clean blogs, but I dislike large blocks of text that aren't broken up with a few interesting and consistent items that attract the eye to the page. I want to lure that marginal reader who might want to read a review, but still prefers his online content in a stimulating format. I think a photo of the book and a few other relevant pics put judiciously in the text helps in that aim. I'm eventually hoping to use many of my own photos for this purpose, as well as become more adept at using, and manipulating, what I find online. But for this thread, my use of photos is more pro forma -- like a reminder of what I need to do for the future.
I agree with you about the star system. I don't like it. I'm working on a radically different and more visually stimulating way of ranking the books, but this will take some time. In the meanwhile, I'm using the star system as a mental note to myself, so that once I do start the blog I can easily re-sort the stars I have assigned into my preferred ranking system for the reviews I choose to recycle on the blog.
I'm inclined to junk the synopsis before I do anything else. But I'm also still thinking of ways to incorporate a similar item into my reviews, but once again do so in a more visually stimulating way. So for the time being, I'll keep the homely-looking synopsis around until I'm either sure I won't use them or I develop a new form to take its place.
Pincher's 18 seems exactly right to me. Many adults can quickly achieve a breezy competence in pidginised forms of a foreign language. They string together a bunch of words with enough skill to make themselves understood, and they know enough words to understand native speech -- but only up to a point, without nuances. That kind of fluency is ubiquitous in the world up and down the social and intellectual ladder, in the scale of billions. It takes confidence, perhaps brashness, a decent memory and immersion to pull it off. But it requires altogether a different set of skills -- not to mention diligence, patience, discipline and attention to detail -- to attempt a simulation of native speech in pronunciation, grammar, and idiom.
There are many different ways and degrees of fluency. People who are fluent in a language may or may notů
* speak with an accent recognised as native ;
* speak with complete ease and spontaneity, but in a pidgnised fashion ;
* be able to read beyond simple prose ;
* be able to write with ease or with formality or at length ;
* speak in a manner indistinguishable from a native, as long as the subject does not require detail, nuance or complexity.
Then there are those who can read even complex literary or technical writing with little difficulty, but lack the ability to speak at all or beyond simple phrases. The key here is the difference between active and passive vocabulary. It's possible to have a fairly large passive vocabulary in languages one can't even begin to form a sentence in.
I think you're exactly right about the many degrees of fluency.
But many can't. And many second language speakers of all ages become increasingly fluent at the second language with practice, and many don't. All I'm saying is that the ability to achieve fluency in any form does not, to me, seem related to IQ.
I'd never thought of that before, but you're right. I could do quite well on a French vocabulary test.
It is a shame that most of the twit-lib droolers found around here are functionally-illiterate morons possessing little if any intelligence, much less the motor-coordination required to hold a real book, read the words, and/or turn the pages.
Although it is not my issue to decide, they should all be banned from posting on this specific board, IMO.
After all, most cannot put their meager thoughts into words.
Yet we allow these same numbskulls to vote in elections.
IQ scores are not synonymous with intelligence; they're only (fallible) measures of key aspects of it.
I wouldn't presume to suggest I know your father better than you do, but your description of his abilities and the opportunities he has been able to exploit, not to mention his linguistic capacities, suggests he isn't unintelligent.
IQ scores are very accurate measures of cognitive ability. My father is of below average intelligence as measured with IQ. You appear to have the usual liberal delusions about IQ.
However, I've read some about fluid vs. crystallized intelligence. I suspect that IQ more accurately measures fluid intelligence than crystallized--or, rather, we don't do a good job of measuring the IQs of people with high levels of crystallized intelligence but low levels of fluid intelligence.
In addition to my father, I've run across about 10 people (as both teacher and tutor) who have almost no ability to deal with abstractions--can't deal with algebra at all, even single variable equations, can't identify metaphors, can't draw parallels in any meaningful way. But once they knew something, they knew it. High school students who could not solve 3x + 5 = 17 but could answer in a flash if you asked them number would equal 17 if you multiplied it by three and added five. College graduates who could not easily provide the definitions of words or analyze the meaning of a sentence, and couldn't read very quickly, but could write excellent position essays with strong opinions and good language. Or my father, who explained the mechanics of flight to me so well when I was nine years old that it is still the memory I use when I have to explain it to someone else.
But I suspect that high crystallized/low fluid intelligence is a rare combination, and we don't know how to work with it.
This is for another thread, but not if you're just going to repeat platitudes about IQ.
I have a book on IQ in the pipeline. I hope to have it up in a week. Let's run with the discussion then.
I'm not suggesting IQ tests don't measure something real, just that a definition of cognitive ability as measured entirely by IQ tests is a tautology.
The last clause is what's at issue: IQ tests may not properly measure your father's intelligence.
I don't; my politics, such as they are, don't play into this question one way or the other. But I don't know why you bother to go on about "platitudes." The link you yourself posted informs you that IQ measures both fluid and crystallized intelligence. If you are asserting that "we" don't do a good job of measuring the latter, then you have generously offered an example of IQ tests failing to quantify an aspect of intelligence, which goes to what I said in the first place.
There are discrete mental capabilities that IQ tests, for all their virtues, don't measure--perfect pitch, for example. If the world were such that we all used or needed musical pitch to survive, I imagine we would count it a component of intelligence. Perhaps the same is true of the capacity for multilingualism.
As Pincher said, let's defer until he reviews his book on IQ.
Pincher, that review was really a tiny masterpiece. If the New Yorker ran criticism that good, I would allow my husband to resubscribe.
When I was reading more about the nuts-and-bolts of education, I came across the theories of Jim Cummins, who developed the BICS/CALP distinction. Translated from their true educationalese, these would be Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills vs Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. In other words, this would be the elaboration of the aforementioned ability to chat, negotiate in the market, or tell bar stories in one or more languages vs the ability to do academic work in one or more languages. I would suspect that while the BICS level is more independent of IQ, CALP would be strongly linked to IQ, since it draws on academic proficiency in general.
Cummins' theories have been widely recommended to teachers, especially at the elementary level, and have certain policy implications, but I thought it was interesting to see that discussion here.
Pincher, I somehow missed post #18. That's fascinating and yes, that synchs up nicely with my opinion. Which is probably why I think it's fascinating.