The power of language

In 1905, a measure of intelligence known as the Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale was developed, a first in terms of its sophistication. The test measured what scientists called Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, an idea early researchers believed determined just how intelligent one person was in comparison with another. Following the idea of the IQ test came decades of interest focused on this measure as a means of identifying a persons skills, predicting their future success and finding ways to increase intelligence.

By the 1990s, interest in the idea that IQ measured all intelligence had waned; researchers began to identify a number of different types of intelligence, which they grouped into two forms: crystallised (the more traditional forms of accumulated knowledge such as numerical ability), and fluid, encompassing creativity and change. Different groups of scientists focused on different ideas of intelligence including creative, social, spiritual, physical, spatial and numerical. One further type of intelligence has recently been the focus of new research and is the subject of a recently published book by Tony Buzan; the power of words, commonly known as verbal intelligence.


Word power

Why develop verbal intelligence? Isnt it enough to learn to talk as a young child and to simply carry on from there? What are the benefits of being word-perfect? Buzan believes verbal intelligence is a major part of the 21st centurys powerful knowledge revolution; not having such intelligence can seriously limit ones ability to compete and succeed in this ever-changing world.

Specifically, verbal intelligence is linked with a number of benefits. The author points to recent research showing a link between a persons vocabulary size (one of the components of verbal intelligence) and his or her success in life. Even more interesting for budding Einsteins is the fact that an increase in verbal intelligence seems to be linked to increases in intelligence in other academic areas. Greater word-power may bring further numerical, scientific and creative ability, too.

Other intelligence-related research has shown the value of great word skills in managing employees, leading nations, inspiring confidence in a new product and even persuading the general public to take precautions against the spread of disease. Once you have great verbal skills, the uses are endless. All the power you have within can be communicated to the outside world.


Nature versus nurture

Do we all have the potential to be great orators, politicians or lawyers? Or is verbal intelligence something acquired only by the gifted? Research has shown that a number of factors determine the extent of our verbal intelligence, grouped into the two categories known as nature (genetics) and nurture (the environment in which a person develops).

Until the advent of routine genetic manipulation, changing our genetic inheritance is not an option and we must accept that if our parents were great speakers and listeners, we too may find verbal skills easier to master; but if verbal intelligence is low in our family, we may start from a lower point. What research shows is that the way we use our brains does influence our verbal intelligence and that certain techniques increase vocabulary, listening and word manipulation skills.


Word mastery

Exercise the language centres of your brain to become word-wise as you would exercise the various groups of muscles in the body to improve physical fitness. For each component of verbal intelligence, follow the ideas listed to increase your mastery of both the technical and ordinary language used around you on a daily basis.


Component one: vocabulary

Increasing vocabulary has been shown to have a positive effect on success in academic areas as well as career. Make a determined effort to add a few new words each week to your own personal store. Be on the lookout for new words when watching television, listening to the radio, reading or even in the lyrics of a song. Invest in a good dictionary and look up meanings. Form a word club with friends and swap a new words each week. Get together with colleagues at work to help add technical language to your word arsenal.


Component two: memory

Buzan points to research by early psychologists Hermann Ebbinghaus and William James, later replicated and suggesting that humans remember things best when they are at the beginning or end of a learning period. We probably all know this from school days when we slogged through four hours of studying only to realise all that had been retained was the first and the last page of the book! Use this. For example, at the beginning and end of the crossword, rehearse a new word a few times. When attending evening language classes, commit a good word to memory at the beginning and at the end of the lesson. Look for lots of other ways to start and end a learning opportunity with a great word.

Early research also found two other vital elements for improving memory: a picture in your imagination associated with the word and the association of a word with something familiar and interesting to the learner. As you come across new words, construct a mental image in your imagination of what this word means to you. Make it as real and as elaborate as you can. Then tie it to something you love a hobby, a work of art, another favourite word or a great friend.


Component three: not just knowing but using

Verbal intelligence isnt simply about employing a little word-mongering* on the odd occasion! A good vocabulary is crucial to achieving verbal intelligence, but knowing how to use those words intelligently (to digest information quickly and to communicate just the right information) is also essential. Words are the building blocks of verbal intelligence and the way they are used is like the cement that holds it all together.


Taking in words

Learn to skim-read text by pulling out the main words and ideas and focusing on the overall meaning of a paragraph. Write brief notes or draw pictures to keep the ideas together. Everyone has different ways of speed-reading, so experiment and see what works for you. Alternatively, there are speed-reading courses offered by some language schools, so check the web for possibilities.


Saying those words

Before opening your mouth, have a fully formed picture in your mind of what you wish to communicate. This avoids ers, lots of unnecessary words that confuse the listener and long pauses during which the listener tunes out.


Writing in style

Try rearranging words for effect. People become accustomed to repetitive word combinations and jump ahead or tune out of large amounts of text. Focus reading attention by using irregular phrases that really stand out. Use descriptive words that arent usually associated with the nouns you use. Grab attention simply by being different, by bending the rules a little. For a good idea of just how attention-grabbing words can be, look at the gossip pages of any celebrity magazine.


Component four: confidence

Verbal intelligence requires well-developed brain cells in the cognitive or thinking part of the brain, but it also requires an emotional component that of positive feelings about our own competence. Feeling positive about ourselves pre-dates the development of superior verbal intelligence since the ability to grasp language in its most primitive form requires that we as children have the confidence to try, to fail and to try again. Later, as we attempt to acquire further, more complex skills, confidence in our ability plays a crucial role in our achievements.

Theres a great deal written in the psychological literature about the congruence between our beliefs and what we do. For example, if we believe were stupid, we will likely find learning hard, simply because were living up to powerful expectations. On the other hand, if we believe we have the capacity to be verbally intelligent, we will seek out the means to achieve this, again to live up to expectations.

If you lack confidence in yourself and your intellectual capabilities, do a little assertiveness training in your own mind. Start to monitor all the thoughts you think about yourself. Most people who lack confidence talk down to themselves in their minds. Arrest this! Begin to practise talking to yourself in a nurturing way: I am special and I have limitless verbal potential. Once you believe in yourself, you can project this confidence to others. Dr Paulette Dale in her book, Did you say something Susan? How any woman can gain confidence with assertive communication, suggests using confident speech: I can do this! rather than This may be possible I think… Use confident eye contact with your listener to increase the effect.


Component five: non-verbal communication

Although not strictly word-encompassing, body language or non-verbal communication is also considered part of a persons verbal intelligence. Researchers believe non-verbal communication may actually be more important than the words we say or write. Eye movements, our body movements and hand gestures all convey rich, additional information about the words we use. Just think of the words I love you and how much we rely on non-verbal communication to evaluate the real truth!

Even more sophisticated and perhaps more important still are our voice, accent, tone, strength and pitch. Recent studies of interviewees for jobs and those doing the interviewing showed that interviewers rate candidates as being more intelligent with a voice than presence – a good reason to introduce yourself to a prospective boss with a phone call.

For an excellent and ground-breaking introduction to the world of non-verbal communication and its myriad forms visit or read David Givenss book The non-verbal dictionary of gestures, signs and body language cues, published by the Washington Center for Non-Verbal Studies.


Component six: brain health

No brain can function optimally if its not cared for properly and an unhealthy brain will limit verbal intelligence. A healthy brain means one that is fed vital nutrients, is relatively stress-free, well rested and given healthy motivation now and then.

Food: Eat brain-wise foods such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, rolled oats, nuts and seeds.

Stress: Learn effective stress management techniques such as deep breathing, thought-stopping, positive thought patterns and meditation; buy the pocket book 365 ways to relax mind, body and soul, by Barbara L Heller, published by Storey Books, available in bookshops or contact Use soothing aromatherapy oils such as lavender.

Sleep: Eight hours most nights is needed for effective brain functioning. Sleep at the same time each night as much as possible.

Motivation: Have challenges in your life to keep you focused. This may be seeking out new challenges at work, a goal of physical fitness, a new hobby to master or the acquisition of a new language.


Verbal intelligence for kids

From birth, little ones have unique powers to learn language. Young brains are primed to socialise and to communicate, and they have an insatiable appetite for new sounds. They have an indomitable spirit, too, which allows them to have a go, make mistakes and to try again. This should never be squashed by parents and teachers constantly correcting or judging. Allow a child the freedom to explore, try, get things wrong, be silly with words and to learn at his or her own pace. Beyond this nurturing, there are also a number of definite, well-researched dos and donts for kids in the development of verbal intelligence.

Do for a child: Read to them even before birth. Research shows a baby read Dr Seuss in the womb is capable of recognising the familiar words soon after birth. Then carry on reading to them for as long as they will allow!

Do for a child: Breastfeed for at least eight months if possible. Recent research suggests theres a small but significant link between eight months breastfeeding and higher intelligence scores.

Do for a child: Ask your child questions; about themselves, the world around them, friends, school and the events of the day. This encourages them to practise putting words to their experiences. Encourage them to ask you questions and try to be understanding when the question Why? seems to be the sole word in a childs vocabulary.

Do for a child: Be a great verbal role model. Kids love mimicking, so if you use interesting and descriptive words when talking to them, they will copy you. Dont mutter, mumble, ignore or put down but encourage, reward and celebrate language.

Dont for a child: Never laugh at a child for misusing or mispronouncing words.

Dont for a child: Avoid continually correcting a young childs language they naturally add -ed to everything right or wrong and will learn the more sophisticated rules as their brain matures.


The verbal gender gap

In Why men lie and women cry, authors Allan and Barbara Pease note the widely recognised differences in language used by men and women. Primitive men hunted in silence long ago, speaking only to impart urgent information, while women formed groups by talking and bonding to look after the children. The Pease duo report that the average female brain can output 6000-8000 spoken words a day versus a males 2000-4000. No wonder, then, that language causes so much frustration between the sexes. To add fuel to the debate, Which is the smarter sex?, a recent study by researchers Halpern and LaMay investigating language differences between males and females concluded that female brains have an advantage in acquiring and using verbal information, suggesting the male brain has to work harder to achieve verbal intelligence. This is not to say men cannot be just as word-perfect; they just may have to put more effort into the study of language and into their presentation.

Men and women also differ in the non-verbal realms. A study conducted by Marianne LaFrance of Yale University (USA) revealed that women smile more than men but only when they believe theyre being watched. When alone, men and women smile in similar amounts, suggesting a great deal of social pressure is exerted on young females to adopt the smile as the socially acceptable staple way of communicating non-verbally. Interestingly, boys stop smiling in the teenage years because they believe smiling to be something associated with women and their mothers in particular!


Word resources

Visit Tony Buzans website at The power of verbal intelligence by Tony Buzan, published by Thorsons, is available through
Take a verbal intelligence test at
For a wide-ranging look at the different forms of intelligence, David Lazears book, 8 ways of knowing, is also available online at

* Meaning the use of bombastic words, coined in 1879.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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