How To Use Emotional Intelligence When Learning A Language

An important part of learning a language is focusing on emotions — both your own and other people’s.
Emotional intelligence represented by two men in their sixties sitting in a park playing chess.

Everyone knows there’s more than one way to be smart. One person can memorize a lot of important dates from history, while another can solve riddles, and another can do complex math equations in their heads. This is why when we evaluate intelligence, you can’t use a single metric. It’s like the famous quote often misattributed to Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This might be why the concept of emotional intelligence has caught on so strongly in the past few decades. It’s not hard to see how being smart about emotions can be just as important as rote memorization and logic skills when navigating the world.

Our brains don’t work in entirely distinct parts, though. Improving your intelligence in one area can help in others as well. Here, we’ll look at emotional intelligence and language learning, first looking into what exactly emotional intelligence is.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

“Emotional intelligence” might sound like a pretty simple concept. It’s a kind of intelligence that focuses on our emotional states. Within the field that researches this topic, however, there are plenty of disagreements on what emotional intelligence is and how it’s measured.

People have contemplated emotions and how humans use them for hundreds of years, but the earliest research on what we might call contemporary emotional intelligence dates only back to the mid 20th century. The term popped up in 1964, and one of the earliest frameworks was proposed in 1990 by Peter Salovey and John Mayer. Over the years of their research, they honed their ideas several times, but the main idea is that emotional intelligence breaks down into four abilities: perceiving, using, understanding and managing emotions.

While the idea had been around for a while, emotional intelligence really became popular in 1995 thanks to Daniel Goleman. A science journalist, Goleman wrote Emotional Intelligence, which was the first book on the topic meant for a wide audience. 

While the field was still being defined in the research realm, Goleman’s book is more of a leadership self-help book, and he outlined five emotion skills he considered important to being able to lead effectively, which are social skills, motivation, self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy. He later distilled these down to the four domains of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, relationship management and social awareness.

It’s worth including a brief caveat here: while Goleman’s ideas about emotional intelligence have been very influential, they’re not as scientifically rigorous as other researchers. They can certainly be useful — and they’ve become a common talking point in leadership training — but they’re not exactly the same as the ever-evolving field of study. Still, it’s a useful jumping off point.

Where Can You Use Emotional Intelligence When Learning A New Language?

Language learning is one of the most complicated skills to learn. It’s not only getting grammar and vocab, but also learning how to connect with other people and expressing yourself. That’s why emotional intelligence is an important part of your language journey. Using Goleman’s definition, here are ways to use these skills while you’re learning.

  • self-awareness — As Socrates said: know thyself. First, you should be able to identify your motivation for learning. This is something that will drive you forward when you want to give up. It’s also important to have awareness of negative emotions, so you can figure out what parts are frustrating you. Are you stuck on one aspect of the grammar? Is a specific method of learning just not effective for you? From there, you can figure out how to address the problem and move forward.
  • self-management — Once you’re aware of your emotions, you can work on controlling them a little better. One of the biggest hurdles for a language learner is managing their anxiety (What if you get something wrong? How do you strike up a conversation?). The important thing is not letting negative emotions get in the way of your learning.
  • social awareness — Unless you’re learning a dead language, languages are inherently social. As your skills improve, you’ll also have to figure out cultural differences, navigate new social environments and get better at navigating a world that doesn’t use your native tongue. 
  • relationship management — Once you’ve conquered the early stages of a language, you’ll want to start building relationships with other people. Who do you know who can help you? That can be a teacher, a friend who also wants to learn, someone participating in a language exchange or even just a stranger online who can give you tips. You don’t need to be the most outgoing person in the world, you just need to get out of your comfort zones and build new relationships.

As you progress, you might discover that you’re building your emotional intelligence naturally. A new language is a great way to do this, because you’re forced to slow down and really work on how you communicate. It’s worth consciously addressing this too, though. As you learn the language, take the time to analyze how you’re feeling and how you’re relating to the network of people you’ve built around you. It might just help you in every area of your life.

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