As a child, I was well aware that vocabulary skills impressed my elders. I wasn’t charming, cute, or much given to math, but by God, I could comb the dictionary for cool words. I’d toss them out like magic tricks at a dinner table that included my parents, five older siblings, and the occasional stray graduate student (redundant term there) or visiting professor. When I got it right—the razzle-dazzle word at the perfect moment in the conversation—I had the attention of the entire table, if only for the length of one comment.
So I learned to trade in words, and I’m glad I did because we all need to play to our strengths.
Language has two sides, however. The now-hear-this, listen-to-me side of the coin is expressive language. The other side of the coin, the one that separates the merely articulate from the effective communicator, is receptive language. Somebody with strong receptive language skills can make sense of what they hear or read and figure out what to do with it.
There’s a trap here, because people with strong expressive language skills can seem a lot smarter than they are. Real smarts are more than a megaphone for our internal monologue. Real smarts includes the ability to understand other people, and use what they’re telling you to solve problems and function in the world.
In other words, understanding the world through words and solving problems has little to do with a flashy vocabulary. (Duh.)
I see this dynamic at work in foster care cases, where I come across parents who strike me as on the ball, good advocates for their children, and able to express themselves convincingly in court. Quite often, these folks are not the ones to get their children back, at least not easily. They talk a good game, but they can’t process what they hear well at all. Their receptive language skills stink, and their analytical thinking abilities are not so hot either.
And yet, they come across as “smart.” The subtle cost of their expressive language abilities was that they are held responsible for a level of functioning they don’t have. I’ve met some lawyers who suffer the same deficit—their closing arguments are emphatic, lengthy, and convincingly rendered—and yet, they miss the mark when it comes to reading the judge or listening to their clients.
Think about the last time you felt irritated with somebody who was glib, well spoken, and never at a loss for words. Were they smart, or were they tap dancing loudly over an inability to understand what’s said to them, and how to apply it?
To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card.