The Language-Intellect correlation

By November 1, 2014Communication, Musings, Perception
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Since moving into the international media business, I have worked with a great deal of bi-lingual and multi-lingual people. I’ve noticed something rather interesting.

A person’s ability to speak your language affects your opinion of their intelligence

Now, this is purely observation and opinion, and I’d love to see some psychological studies on the topic. Even when I refer broadly to ‘we’, what I really mean is me and a few people I know. Okay, with the qualifier sorted, here’s what I’ve observed.

My primary language (actually, only language) is English. I’ve noticed that, when dealing with someone for whom English is both a secondary language and not a strong suit, I tend to judge their overall competency as lower than normal. This is of course a false assumption, as your knowledge of a non-primary language doesn’t reflect at all on your intelligence or ability. Quite a few of the people I’ve worked with that fit this mold, yet are probably sharper than me in many ways.

However, once again we’re dealing with perception, not reality.

It seems to be all about communication

Being able to understand, and be understood, is fundamental to business success. So, we tend to unconsciously look down on colleagues and contractors (even clients) who cannot communicate effectively. Not even realising it, we provide them with less opportunities for advancement, trust them with less responsibility and so on. It’s not fair, but it’s also (most likely) not deliberate. We form our opinions on people almost without thinking, based on factors such as common interests, personality, skillset and demeanor.

So, what can you do to stop judging? Or indeed, prevent judgement of yourself? Let’s start with the multi-talented, multi-lingual but poorly judged folks.

Create the right image

How you are perceived is important. It affects your relationships, career and life experiences. Ever seen a guy in dirty trackies, a mullet and a smoke hanging out of his mouth? Would you consider him for a sales role? Of course not, but he might be the most talented, outgoing salesman around. You assessed aspects of his appearance and made a judgement about his character and qualities. Don’t be embarrassed. We all do it. Making snap assessments of people, environments and animals is actually a very useful skill. Not only that, it’s built-in to our psyche.

So, to address this, you should create an image of yourself that communicates your qualities and disguises your weaknesses. In this context however, image is not just visual. How you speak and act are also crucial factors in a good image. So, if you intend to work in an English speaking country, then research and practice the language. For bonus points, find out the most common slang or colloquialisms and perfect them.

Ultimately, it reduces the barriers between you and your next opportunity.

Look past the superficial. Dig deeper.

Now, for the judgers.

Make an effort to look beyond first impressions. They are rarely accurate, yet form the basis for most of our daily interactions. Realise that the Korean intern only learned English recently and it’s not a reflection of their capabilities. Look beyond the ill-fitting suit of the next salesperson. Perhaps he can’t afford a nice suit as he is supporting a family, and it doesn’t make him any less competent.

This basic principle applies to life in general. Our snap judgements of strangers are often unfair and ridiculous.

That mum with the two year old tantrum machine in the supermarket? Perhaps she’s a single mum after her husband died suddenly, and she’s trying to take care of her kids, pay bills and just make it through the day.

The aforementioned bogan? He might be a qualified lawyer that was made redundant and is a bit depressed.

It’s easy to judge, but it builds character to give people the benefit of the doubt.