from "Writing and Multiple Intelligences," A Working Paper

by Gerald Grow, Ph.D.
School of Journalism, Media & Graphic Arts
Florida A&M University, Tallahassee FL 32307 USA
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Linguistic Intelligence

A well-developed linguistic intelligence shows itself in attention to words, overtones of words, relations among them, syntax, and the beauty and substance of style. It is the most obvious element in what we mean by "good writing." Poets show how experts use this intelligence (Gardner discusses Eliot, Spender, and others) but it is also present in word play, puns, and even crossword puzzles.

Language, the chief product of linguistic intelligence, is surprisingly flexible. The deaf can learn language, and people can learn to read language through totally different symbol-processing systems --through a sound-oriented system of syllables (like our alphabet) or through a visually-oriented system of ideograms (like Chinese symbols). Studies indicate that syllables and ideograms are processed in entirely different areas of the brain, yet the linguistic intelligence can successfully make use of either method of encoding. It is characteristic of an intelligence, in Gardner's view, to appropriate whatever faculties or senses it needs, without being entirely dependent upon any of them. Gardner's linguistic intelligence includes qualities of both left and right hemispheric processing of language--both language in the linear sense and language in the enfolded, holistic sense. The linguistic intelligence appears to be a combination of several differently evolved systems--expressive gesture, intonation, the cognitive abilities of naming and classifying, and syntactical parsing.

Gardner cites a range of evidence for the physiological reality of linguistic intelligence. Damage to certain specific areas of the brain, for example, disturbs speech and the ability to write, while leaving intact the abilities to be musicians, visual artists, or engineers. Damage in other sites can radically alter a writer's style. Some of the alterations are surprisingly specific. Injury in one spot, Gardner relates, can turn a writer's style into a caricature of Hemingway; an injury in a different specific part of the brain can turn a writer's style into a caricature of Faulkner; injury in another location results in "a Damon Runyan character who can't remember the names of things" (90). Injury to the oral-auditory area, interestingly, impairs reading--suggesting that reading and writing "piggyback" upon the brain's speech processing" (87).

Teachers of writing will need no suggestions on how to develop the linguistic intelligence, with its emphasis on the sensitivity to shades of meaning, the sounds of words, mastery of syntax, and fascination with language. Since this intelligence seems to originate in the auditory-oral regions of the brain, performing poetry aloud seems a natural avenue to it, or at least listening to a magnificent recording, such as Cyril Cusak reading Yeats. The Dictionary Game provides a warmup for this faculty (find an unfamiliar word; challenge everyone to write imaginary definitions for it; read them along with the real one). Sniglets make an light followup. (One of mine: "Logicide: An argument in which the method of presentation disproves the point it is making.") An hour spent with a dictionary of synonyms (such as Funk & Wagnalls') attunes writers to the fine differences between such similar words as inadequate, insufficient, meager, scanty, scarce, skimpy, and sparse.

Gardner's theory provides a powerful opportunity for students to study people who display each of the intelligences. They can be found in all walks of life and are not always the kind who do well on IQ tests. I send some students back to their roots--which are often rural--to capture the narratives and inventive language of the storytellers in their hometowns. An easy way to get close to linguistic genius is to read and talk to a preschool child over several months.

Most of Gardner's comments on writing occur in his chapter on linguistic intelligence. Except where he is credited, the following applications of the theory of the seven intelligences to writing are my own.

Forward to the Logical-Mathematical Intelligence
Table 1: The Intelligences as Characterized by Howard Gardner