Cognition and Language Proficiency

Cognition and Language Proficiency

This unpublished article contains ideas that appear in the following published articles:Deep language, intelligence, and language proficiency in learning . Proceedings of the Linguistic Society of South Africa conference, University of Port Elizabeth, 1995, and Language as a deep semiotic system and fluid intelligence in language proficiency, South African Journal of Linguistics, 15(1):11-17, 1997.This article contains supplementary material.








Although there is unanimity among cognitive scientists that there exist entities called the brain and the mind, there is no unanimity on whether the brain will be able to ultimately explain cognition or whether current descriptions of the mind really represent the processes of the brain (Eimas & Galaburda, 1989:2). Without interdisciplinary knowledge, there is little hope for understanding the brainmind even if that theory is biologically, psychologically or linguistically consistent. Nowhere is this truer than in the mother of all disciplines: language, which comprises an extremely complex network of biological, cognitive, cultural and educational factors. Chomsky (1972:26) describes the difficulties involved in studying language:

We must recognize that even the most familiar phenomena require explanation and that we have no privileged access to the underlying mechanisms, no more so than in physiology and physics. Only the most preliminary and tentative hypotheses can be offered concerning the nature of language, its use, and its acquisition. As native speakers, we have a vast amount of data available to us. For just this reason it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that there is nothing to be explained, that whatever organizing principles and underlying mechanisms may exist must be ‘given’ as the data is given. (Chomsky has used data as a singular noun).

2. LANGUAGE, THOUGHT, COGNITION AND INTELLIGENCEThe fact that the object of study is language itself plunges us into a double abyss of ignorance: the abyss of language, and the abyss of the abyss, which is thestudy of language. What I want to focus on in this paper is not the study of language in general but the study of language as a tool of intellectual development, i.e. of the higher cognitive processes.What makes language even more difficult to define is that we have to use language to study and define it. Definitions are not merely concerned with words, but are also, and perhaps primarily, concerned with the process of relating words to the concepts they represent. Owing to the fact that language “itself”, in the sense of language as a linguistic system, is only one component of language, it would be difficult to appreciate how language works without understanding (to an appreciable extent) how thought works, i.e. how concepts are formed, where concept formation depends heavily on the ability to make abstractions (Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990). It is through concepts that one tries to answer the basic philosophical question: “What is the nature of human knowledge?” (Adamson, 1990:2); which may be very similar to the question: What is the nature of language?; which brings one back full circle to the question: “What is the nature of human concepts?” (Adamson, 1990:2). Both language and intelligence are components of the broader notion of cognition. However, it might be argued that “language” processes are not “cognitive” processes. Applied linguistics, like psychology and so many other disciplines “covet[s] cognition” (Miller, 1986:278):

Psychologists take for granted that cognition is a “problem” defined for their experimental convenience, philosophers, who were there first, feel that psychologists are intruders who obscure rational argument by premature empiricism, computer scientists, who invent artificially intelligent systems, freely define cognition in their own likeness, linguists claim special cognitive intuitions about language as their intellectual birthright, social anthropologists speak as if their concern for culture gave them some special authority to study cognition, even neuroscientists now speak of cognitive brain processes. Moreover, each discipline has proceeded as though its own enterprise were the only one of consequence.

(Miller, 1986:278)

In the quest for illuminative paradigms there is always the danger, as Miller warns (1986), of “dismembering cognition”. There is a wide and a narrow definition of cognition. The wide notion subsumes attention, action and control, categorisation, processes of recognition, processes of recall, reconstruction of episodes, incidental learning, mnemonics and memory skill, problem solving, creativity,and language acquisition and language use.

This definition of cognition shares similarities with Cummins and Swain’s (1986:7) “cognitive functioning”:

[c]ognitive functioning is used….to refer to measures involving general intellectual and linguistic skills such as verbal and non-verbal IQ, divergent thinking, academic performance and metalinguistic awareness” (my italics and underlining).

An equivalent term to “cognitive functioning” is Shuy’s (1975:5) “cognitive involvement”. Carroll’s (1993:10) definition of “cognitive task” also subsumes all the processes mentioned above:

I define a cognitive task, therefore, as any task in which correct or appropriate prcessing of mental information is critical to successful performance. A cognitive ability is any ability that concerns some class of cognive tasks, so defined.

Cognition is also used in a narrower way::

No one has yet located a language organ or a grammar gene, but the search is on. There are several kinds of neurological and genetic impairments that compromise language while sparing cognition and vice versa. [One of these mentioned by the author is Broca’s aphasia].

(Pinker, 1995:46)

Pinker distinguishes between language and cognition, whereas the broader definition of cognition subsumes language. Fine’s(1994) “cognitive functioning”, on the other hand, is ambiguous. Fine (1994:3) maintains that “language is also the product of cognitive functioning” but ends his book with the words “language and cognitive functioning (Fine, 1994:274; my italics).

Pinker also distinguishes between “language” and “thought”: “language and thought have to be different: a particular stretch of language can correspond to two distinct thoughts” (Pinker, 1995:102). Thus it is possible to thinkwithout (natural) language. Bloch (1991) maintains that much of our thinking is done without language, while Fodor, Bever and Garrett (1976), Fodor (1986) and Oller (1981), maintain that there is a non-verbal “language of thought” or “deep language”. Oller (1983a:355; see also Oller, 1981) defines deep language as a “deep propositional reasoning system”. Fodor, Bever and Garrett (1974:375) describe the role of this “deep propositional reasoning system” in the following way (which would be Oller’s view as well):

Deciding on an action is, among other things, a computational process. In particular, it presupposes that the agent has access to a system of representation in which the various behavioural options can be formulated and assessed…Deciding upon an action itself involves the use of a language-like system, and this is true whether or not the action up for consideration happens to be a speech act.

It is this “deep propositional reasoning system” that is claimed by the above authors to be the driving force behind all thought, whether the thought involves high level reasoning tasks involving cognitive and academic language proficiency, which Cummins (1983, 1984) has given the acronym “CALP” and which O’Malley (1988) refers to as “Cognitive Academic Language Learning”, or whether the thought involves basic interpersonal and communicative skills, which Cummins has given the acronym “BICS” and which Chomsky (1988:198) refers to as “the ability to acquire and make effective use of human language at some level of detail”. By language proficiency I mean the ability to use a language.Cummins’ identification of “skills” with BICS, and “proficiency” with CALP is unfortunate, because it creates the impression that “skills” in general, are of a lower intellectual order than “proficency”, in general.

Pinker does not only distinguish between “language” and “thought”, but also between “language” and “intelligence”. Pinker suggests that the probable genetic origin of “Specific Language Impairment (SLI)” is a “hypothetical gene [that] does not seem to impair overall intelligence, because those who have the affliction “score in the normal range in the nonverbal parts of IQ tests.” (Pinker, 1995:49). While Pinker distinctions between (1) “language” and “thought”, and (2) “language” and “intelligence”, Bohm makes a distinction between “thought” (which is always conditioned) and “intelligence” (which is always unconditioned). The distinction between (conditioned) “thought” and (unconditioned) “intelligence” may appear strange, and even unnatural, if one is accustomed to understanding these terms in the conventional way. But, as long as one defines what one means by the terms one uses, there shouldn’t be a major problem in understanding what is meant. Consider the following distinction between thought and intelligence proposed by Bohm. First, thought (Bohm, 1983:50):

Thought, considered in its movement of becoming (and not merely in its content of relatively well-defined images and ideas) is indeed the process in which knowledge has its actual concrete existence…What is the process of thought? Thought, is, in essence, the active response of memory in every phase of life. We include in thought the intellectual, emotional, sensuous, muscular and physical responses of memory. These are all aspects of one indissoluble process. To treat them separately makes for fragmentation an confusion. All these are one process of response of memory to each actual situation, which response in turn leads to a further contribution to memory, thus conditioning the next memory.

And intelligence (Bohm, 1983:51):

The perception of whether or not any particular thoughts are relevant or fitting requires the operation of an energy that is not mechanical, an energy that we shall call intelligence. This latter is able to perceive a new order or a new structure, that is not just a modification of what is already known or present in memory…What is involved [in intelligence] is perception through the mind of abstract orders and relationships such as such as identity and difference, cause and effect, etc.

(These new orders and relationships do not have to be new to the world, but only new to the person’s mind).

For Bohm, thought is by definition conditioned, while intelligence is by definition unconditioned. (The pair conditioned/unconditioned refers to the influence of both biology and the external environment). The question is how intelligence can be unconditioned by the brainmind which is ostensibly its seat of energy. Bohm remarks in this regard:

At this point, however, one may ask: `How can one know that such an unconditioned response [i.e. an intelligent perception] is at all possible? This is a vast question, which cannot be discussed fully here. However, it can be pointed out here that at least implicitly everybody does in fact accept the notion that intelligence is not conditioned (and indeed, that one cannot consistently do otherwise).

(Bohm, 1983:51)

If intelligence is unconditioned (by heredity and environment), this would mean that intelligence operates independently of heredity and environment. Bohm (1983:51-52) argues that if intelligence were conditioned by either heredity or environment (or both), it would then follow that the statement “intelligence is the product of heredity or/and environment” is merely the product of heredity or/and environment. This would mean that meaning is the product of heredity or/and environment, and therefore meaning would be nothing more than the conditioned “spouting forth of word patterns” (Bohm, 1983:51-52). This would reduce intelligence – and all efforts to understand the world – to conditioned “thought”. It is undeniable that intelligence is to some extent conditioned by both heredity and environment: how this works is the big question.


Cummins (1980, 1984) divides language proficiency into the two categories of Basic Interpersonal and Communicative Skills (BICS) and Cognitive and Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). Although it is true that BICS is the foundation of CALP and that all healthy humans beings automatically “acquire” BICS in their mother tongue, it does not follow that all human beings are capable of “learning” the level of CALP that is required for academic study. According to Cummins (1984), the BICS-CALP distinction is not a distinction between “communicative” language and “cognitive and academic” language, because BICS and CALP involve both dimensions. Although I agree that both BICS and CALP are communicative as well as cognitive, I prefer to exclude the “academic” component from BICS. The reason is that although both BICS and CALP use language to think about language, CALP does this in a far more cognitively demanding way, which makes a CALP task more like an academic task, and a BICS task more like a non-academic task.

Significant differences in intelligence do not have a significant effect on the acquisition of BICS (Chomksy, 1967:4; of course, Chomsky does not use the term BICS, but he does seem to mean the same concept). However, it is also important to note that intelligence does indeed play a significant role in the effective development of CALP. It is specifically the notions of “fluid” intelligence and “g” that I am referring to. Spearman (1904) attributed a dominant role to the “g” factor, whereas subsequent researchers regarded intelligence as hierarchical in nature, where the “g” factor stands at the top of the hierarchy, and on the next level there are two “major group factors: “v:ed” (verbal-numerical-educational factor) and “k:m” ( a practical-mechanical-spatial-physical factor); other “minor group factors” occupy lowers level (Horn & Cattell, 1966). Thurstone (1938) originally claimed that the “g” factor could be accounted for by a number of primary factors, but later conceded that a “g” factor could also be identified. Guilford (1959, 1966) rejected the popular belief in general intelligence and claimed to have identified 120 narrow factors that were generated by the three-way classification of the “Structure of Intellect”), namely, Content, Operation and Product. Cattell 1957, 1963, 1971), Horn (1965) and Horn and Cattell (1966) rejected the Thurstone model and took Spearman’s hierarchical concept of intelligence further. The Horn-Cattell model (1966) consists of Fluid Intelligence (Gf), Crystallised intelligence (Gc), General Speediness (Gs), General Visualisation (Gv) and General Fluency ((F). The two main dimensions of intelligence, for Horn and Cattell (1966), remain Gf and Gc, where Gf refers to a general innate attribute:

The fluid-crystallized theory argues that the primary abilities which can be said to involve intelligence to any considerable degree are organized at a general level into two principal classes or dimensions. One of these referred to as fluid intelligence (abbreviated Gf) is said to be the major measurable outcome of the influence of biological factors on intellectual development – that is, heredity, injury to the central nervous system (CNS) or to the basic sensory structures, etc. The other broad dimension, designated crystallized intelligence (abbreviated Gc), is said to be the principal manifestation of a unitariness in the influence of experimental-educative-acculturation influences. Each dimension is, according to theory, so pervasive relative to other ability structures and so obviously of an intellectual nature that each deserves the name of intelligence.

(Horn & Cattell, 1966:253-54, see also Cattell, 1973:5-8, and Horn 1985, 1988)

Contrary to Horn & Cattell, Carroll (1993:639) argues for distinction between “g” (as a third order factor) and GF and GC as second order factors. (Carroll’s Chapters 5 to 15 are intpretations of factor-analytic studies in terms of “three strutm theory of cognitive abilities” [Carroll, 1993:633]).The concept of fluid intelligence is regarded by many modern educational psychologists as central to understanding cognitive abilities as manifested in intelligence tests and school performance. The neo-Piagetians Demetriou, Gustafsson, Eflides and Platsidou (1992:90) use educational tasks that are shown to be directly related to fluid intelligence. In the Kaufman Adolescent and Adult Test (KAIT), “[t]he major theory…underlying the KAIT is the Horn and Cattell view (1966) that intelligence can be separated into fluid intelligence and crystallized components” Brown (1994).A variety of instruments have been used to measure fluid intelligence: the KAIT uses rebus learning and block designs, while Raven’s Matrices and Cattell’s Culture Fair Intelligence Test CFIT) use figural shapes. The CFIT has lost favour with many psychologists because of the difficulty of finding such a thing as a culture-fair test. Interestingly, another non-verbal test, which is strikingly similar to parts of the CFIT, has been advocated by some cross-cultural psychologists (Campbell, 1985; Macdonald, 1990) as a true culture-fair test, namely Pascuale-Leone and Goodman’s (1979) FIT (Figural Intersections Test), which Pacuale-Leone and Goodman regard as a measure of universal “mental power”. Oller (1981, 1983, 1991) has made a significant contribution to the neglected area of cognition in language proficiency. Oller acknowledges the valuable contribution of Charles Sanders Peirce (1931 [1897]; 1992 [1898]), John Dewey (1944, 1956) and Albert Einstein (1916, 1938) to his own thought. Peirce’s theory of signs, “semiosis”, which is the equivalent of Oller’s “deep language”, incorporates the total life of human beings in all their thoughts, feelings and activities. Oller suspects that the opposition to the concept of “deep language” is its associations with “intelligence”:

…associated with a fairly general scepticism about the validity of tests, is a certain hopefulness that some of the discouraging claims (notably those of Arthur Jensen, 1969, 1980) about the impossibility of substantially improving IQ scores or related school performances may have been based on inappropriate interpretations of test scores, especially scores on what are called “intelligence measures”.

(Oller, 1991:iv)

A proper study of language learning cannot be done without taking intelligence into account. One is aware of the sensitivity of the topic owing to the fact that IQ tests discriminate not only between individuals, but have in the past discriminated between groups, specifically racial and ethnic groups. Spolsky (1989:100) goes to the heart of the issue:

To say that older or younger learners are better or worse is not normally considered a breach of egalitarian principles, for most of us have our turn at being young and old.. Proposing some other explanations for difference is more questionable, for labelling one learner as inherently less qualified than another runs the risk if establishing or justifying permanent divisions among people. Consider explanations based on intelligence, for example. There is certainly a good deal of evidence that human beings vary considerably in whatever ability or abilities may underlie the construct that is labelled intelligence.

The cardinal issue is not trying to prove the notion that all people have the same amount of intelligence (universal intelligence) but finding out what are the cognitive commonalities and differences between, and cognitive constraints of, intelligence and language ability. With regard to the commonalities, Oller’s (1991:11) “intelligence as semiosis” posits a

theory of semiosis…which integrates linguistic, kinesic (gestural), and sensory-motor systems. Without such an integration it will be impossible to explain the fact that we can talk about what we see, or visualize what someone else talks about.

Jackendorff (1983) refers to this essential relatedness between the linguistic, kinesic and sensory-motor systems as the “cognitive constraint”. Oller (1991:11) above echoes Jackendorff’s (1983) view that

[t]here must be levels of mental representation at which information conveyed by language is compatible with information from other peripheral systems such as vision, nonverbal audition, smell, kinesthesia, and so forth. If there were no such levels, it would be impossible to use language to report sensory input.

Jackendorff (1983:160)

Which in turn is reminiscent of Saussure ([1916]1974): “If we are to discover the true nature of language, we must learn what it has in common with other semiological systems. ” Oller’s intention is to provide a “solid theoretical basis” for the hypothesis that “intelligence itself is a kind of semiotic representational capacity”:

Since language, especially one’s primary or best developed language, represents the most powerful and most general semiotic system for nearly all normal human beings, it follows that primary language abilities will play a central role in all sorts of abstract representational tasks. It is in this refined sense that the hypothesis that intelligence may have a kind of abstract semiotic (even a sort of deep linguistic) basis has, it would seem, its greatest plausibility and theoretical strength.

Oller (1991:iii-iv)


This “general semiotic system”, which is responsible for “all sorts of abstract representational tasks”, is also responsible for all sorts of language functions. Consider Jacobson’s (1960 [1985:150]) six functions with their matching “constitutive factors in any speech event”.

Jacobson’s Classification
Function Constitutive Factor
Referential Context
Emotive Addresser
Conative Addressee
Phatic Contact
Poetic Message
Metalingual Code

I focus on the metalingual function – which is the one most closely related to higher cognitive processes – in terms of the BICS-CALP distinction described above:Language can be used to speak about ” things” or it can be used to speak about itself. The latter function of language is called the metalingual function. There are two levels of the metalingual function; the less cognitively demanding level of everyday communication and the more cognitively-demanding level of academic learning and communication. In everyday language use, it often occurs that addressers and addressees have to verify whether communication has taken place. Expressions such as “Did I get you right?” and “Say that again, I can’t make much sense out of it?” are part of normal communication. In such situations, the metalingual function focuses on the code. This metalingual function is extremely important because all processes of language acquisition at any age is dependent on this metalingual function. On the academic level, languages may be learnt in a “cognitive” way, where the focus is on the structure of the language. In the production and understanding of academic/scientific discourse, the focus often falls on grammar, which is not only concerned with keeping the clothes of discourse clean. Du Toit and Orr (1989:199) describe a piece of writing containing grammatical errors as “clothes covered with food stains and dirt, with perhaps a few missing buttons”. Grammar is a much wider notion, in that it is necessary for the effective communication of “potential meaning” (Halliday, 1975). The metalingual function, therefore, especially in writing, plays a crucial role in academic discourse. Jeffery (1990:120), who suggests that we should open the case for grammar wider, describes the metalingual function in academic/scientific discourse:

[T]he most elementary reading and writing presuppose word and sentence at least; and progress is awkward without noun, verb, number,tense, phrase, clause, and so on. These categories come naturally to nobody, and with difficulty to some, for they are all artificial abstractions from the flow of speech. Nobody speaks in words and sentences; therefore everybody needs to be taught about them…Inchoate thought has to be organised in order to make your meaning clear to your readers (and yourself), and that takes skill in arranging the units of WL [written language] into structures.

At the core of academic\scientific discourse is fluid intelligence, what I understand to be Chomsky’s intelligence (1967:4) or his “intellectual capacities” (1988):

We find that over a very broad range, at least, there is no difference in the ability to acquire and make effective use of human language at some level of detail, although there may be differences in facility of use. I see no reason for dogmatism on this score. So little is known concerning other cognitive capacities that we can hardly even speculate. Experience does seem to support the belief that people do vary in their intellectual capacities and their specialization. It would hardly come as a surprise if this were so, assuming that we are dealing with biological structures, however intricate and remarkable, of known sorts. (My italics)

(Chomsky, 1988:198)

IQ tests are good predictors of academic language proficiency; and this positive relationship between IQ and academic language proficiency is, I suggest, also a causal one. However, there are many other factors besides “intelligence” that may affect learning. Cattell (1973:5) observes:

Many saw intelligence as the major dimension of individual differences… this line of thought led to many abuses in intelligence testing…intelligence, though important, is only one element of a larger set of individual attributes that need to be considered when we attempt to understand and predict human behaviour comprehensively.

According to Horn and Cattell (1966), Jensen (1972), Demetriou et al. (1992), there is a high correlation between “fluid intelligence” (responsible for “new” conceptual learning and ) and “crystallised intelligence” (education and experience). The latter intelligence is dependent on the former because “the acquisition of knowledge and skills in the first place depends on fluid intelligence” (Jensen, 1972:80). “Western” culture emphasises the kind of knowledge and skills involved in these two kinds of intelligence. According to Kaplan (1966) academic thinking is culture-bound, which supports McDonough’s (1986:20) view that Western academic concept formation is foreign to a non-Western mind where “students from a different ‘concept world’ may be under more pressure than is realised”. In contrast, protagonists of English as an International Language (EIL) claim that many scientific fields such as biology, medicine, physics, psychology, and linguistics, transcend particular cultures.


I conclude with the realisation that

we still do not understand very well how cognitive structures interact with each other and how their formation is affected by the structure of knowledge as it exists in our present educational and broader cultural environment…we also know that mental and school-specific knowledge structures are constrained by both internal and social constraint systems…we have already gathered firm knowledge about the developmental and cognitive preconditions under which learning may occur. However, we still need to learn a lot more about how learning situations work in the mind and/or the brain to alter its present state into a more advanced one. Thus, we are not very knowledgeable about how to engineer specific learning environments aimed at quickly and efficiently imparting specific knowledge structures useful to a particular individual of a particular age for a particular purpose.

(Demetriou, Shayer and Eflides, 1992:6)


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2 responses to “Cognition and Language Proficiency

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