Multiple Intelligences and lifelong language learning

Ronald Schmidt-Fajlik, Josai International University

Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (MI) has been described as an important way to address individual differences in the language classroom (Christison, 1998; Schmidt-Fajlik, 2003). This article will describe how MI theory may be used to address the differing psychological, social, and physical needs of language learners based on various stages in one's life, from childhood to the senior years.

The theory of multiple intelligences describes individuals as having a variety of cognitive strengths and weaknesses. The theory dispenses with the notion of a unitary intelligence as measured by IQ tests. Gardner (1983) proposes seven such intelligences. He has more recently added "naturalist" as an eighth intelligence (in Checkley, 1997). Each intelligence is defined by the abilities described in Appendix 1.

MI Theory and Life Stages

Although acknowledging that there may be a wide range of stages within each of the following broadly defined life stages below, such as differing abilities between very young and older children, I hope that the following descriptions may serve as a general guide as to the way MI theory may be used to address language learners of various ages in the promotion of lifelong learning.


  • A time of discovering the surrounding environment requiring naturalist intelligence.
  • Self discovery involving intrapersonal awareness of feelings.
  • Discovering others and dealing with others involving interpersonal awareness.
  • Logical-mathematical awareness through investigating and testing the environment.
  • Developing languages skills involving verbal linguistic intelligence.
  • Using and discovering the body through and movement and touch, thereby developing greater manual dexterity.

Children may become better aware of what they like and dislike by providing opportunities to develop language skills requiring the use of one or more intelligences. MI based activities also serve the needs of children in that children "have quite a short attention span and so need variety" (Slattery & Willis, 2003, p. 4).

MI theory may encourage children as lifelong learners by allowing them to discover their likes and dislikes as well as becoming more aware of their particular areas of strength and weakness. Centers may be established requiring the use of one or more intelligences, such as: visual/spatial intelligence through a painting/craft centre requiring the illustration or construction of new language in a visual form; creating chants involving musical intelligences; or games involving body movement using bodily/kinesthetic intelligence. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to describe language learning activities involving all intelligence areas for children, the reader may refer to the list of activities in the appendix which may be used as a reference in planning activities for any age group. Kampa and Vilina (2002; 2004) have written articles describing specific MI based activities for children, which the reader may also refer to for further ideas.

Initially a teacher may observe the children during their involvement in an MI based activity with a view to assessing to which particular area a child is attracted, or in which they demonstrate a particular strength or weakness. Such observation and initial assessment may serve as a guide to further developing learning material. Gardner describes such assessment in that "the preferred route for assessment at this age is to involve children in activities which they themselves are likely to find motivating" (Gardner, 1993, p. 89).

Early childhood may be a time to allow students to explore their various cognitive strengths and weaknesses in each of the intelligences. Probably the most important aspect that MI theory may support at this stage is a sense of discovery in learning, giving a child the opportunity to be exposed to language learning activities using a variety of means appealing to one or more intelligences. Such an environment may contribute to a child's greater enjoyment in the learning process, contributing to a love of learning which may encourage them as they undertake their journey as lifelong learners.


This is often a time in one's life where issues of self-identity, social/peer pressure, interpersonal relationships, and one's future vocation may take on increasing importance in that:

One of the major tasks of adolescence is the resolution of an identity crisis-the struggle to define and integrate the sense of who one is, what one is to do in life, and what one's attitudes, beliefs, and values should be (Gerow, 1997, p. 303).

Issues of self-identity require the use of intrapersonal intelligence as one begins to reflect upon oneself, one's role in life, and to discover increasing individual responsibility. A teenager may be faced with important life decisions requiring a greater sense of who they are and their particular stance regarding certain moral issues. Interpersonal intelligence also may come more into focus as friendships begin to take on greater importance and issues involving peer pressure arise. Language learning activities involving use of intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences may be particularly effective with this age group. Activities may include introspective journal writing, and conflict resolution using role plays, which may also draw upon bodily/kinesthetic intelligence in requiring the use of gestures and body language.

Presenting lesson material in a manner requiring the use of various other intelligences may also develop confidence in this age group:

… as students advance to higher grade levels, fewer senses are involved in learning, and it isn't nearly as much fun as in the lower grades. Fewer of our multiple intelligences are engaged in the learning process as we progress. Students experience frustration and failure; and by the time they are teenagers, only one in five has confidence in his/her ability to be successful in school. (Laughlin, 1999, p. 17)

Giving adolescents the opportunity to be exposed to language learning material which requires the use of a variety of intelligences may also assist students in making important decisions regarding future educational and career choices, in that they may become better aware of where their strengths and weaknesses lie in a particular intelligence. Gardner (1993) notes that "the theory of multiple intelligences ought not to be used to dictate a course of study or career, but it constitutes a reasonable basis on which to make suggestions and to choose electives" (p. 72).


Although some adult English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners may view language learning as a form of recreation, most are predominantly concerned with language learning for instrumental purposes, such as improving their employment situation. This is particularly important in a time when lifelong employment is no longer guaranteed. Many employers are beginning to look at potential employees with a greater range of skills, which may require ability in a variety of intelligence areas. Holmes (2003) suggests that:

The notion that the best way to measure someone's ability is through their intelligence quotient (IQ) is gradually being eroded. And this has implications for the way that we approach lifelong learning. As the body of research grows that suggests that the most intelligent people are not necessarily the most successful, organizations are recognizing that all-round ability holds the key to success. And, if that's the case, we should develop all-round skills to maintain our position in the workplace (Holmes, 2003, p. 111).

Adult learners may have chosen their particular professions based on their perceived strengths, or in an area to which they may have been attracted. Presenting language material which addresses these strengths may serve to create a more motivating learning environment, but by also giving students the opportunity to develop skills in other intelligence areas we may be further assisting adults as lifelong learners by developing a wider range of skills, which may assist them in becoming adaptable to further employment as well as educational opportunities.

The listing under Associated Occupations column in Appendix 1 may serve as a guide in indicating in which intelligence area an adult learner may have a particular strength based on their job or profession. Although the list indicates occupations for each intelligence, it is acknowledged that a particular occupation may require the use of more than one intelligence area. Gardner (1993) notes that "Even within a particular profession like the law, one finds individuals with different blends of strength in such areas as language, logic, and interpersonal understanding" (p. 71).

The senior years

Older adults may no longer sense the same urgency in learning a foreign language for reasons of employment, although they may have an instrumental purpose such as learning a language for overseas travel, or even retirement living. More free time associated with retirement may also lead older learners to study language for pleasure, as a 'hobby', or as a means for socializing with others. Elderly learners may also see language learning as a way to stay healthy, as continuing to learn throughout one's life has been shown to assist in preventing mental decline (Holmes, 2003).

Although some older adults may demonstrate a reduction in sensory capacities and some other cognitive abilities, this is often compensated for by a variety of strategies developed through a lifetime of experience. Older adults may draw upon well-established cognitive strengths to assist in learning. Using language learning activities based on a variety of intelligences may thus assist older adults in learning languages by providing them with opportunities to use one or more intelligence areas within which they may have become particularly adept. Gardner (1983) suggests that:

… individuals who are skilled metaphorizers have developed this ability in one or more domains, as part of their general learning process, but now feel sufficiently secure with this skill that they can apply it in the domains in which they happen to be involved (Gardner, 1983, p. 292).

Presenting language learning material in a variety of ways would thus allow older students to achieve success by giving them the opportunity use intelligences in which they may have a particular strength. According to Schleppergrell (1987):

Teachers should be flexible enough to allow different approaches to the learning task inside the classroom. For example, some teachers ask students not to write during the first language lessons. This can be very frustrating to those who know that they learn best through a visual channel" (Schleppergrell, 1987, p. 4).

The utilization of a range of multiple intelligence contexts, in which various parts of the brain are given the opportunity to be utilized, would also provide a less mentally stressful learning environment, as it would involve whole-brain learning, which would be of benefit to some elderly learners with reduced cognitive ability.


The creation of language learning material allowing for the use of a variety of intelligences not only serves to address the individual differences in our classrooms, but may also serve the differing needs of learners at various life stages.

A child's need for variety may be addressed based on the range of activities possible. A child's sense of discovery may be accommodated by allowing engagement in language learning activities involving a variety of intelligences, serving to provide the child with a better sense of their likes and dislikes. By allowing children to engage in language learning activities to which they are attracted may promote a positive experience conducive to lifelong language learning.

A teenager's greater awareness of issues of self-identity and personal relationships may be addressed through activities incorporating the use of intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences. Giving teenagers the opportunity to engage in language learning activities involving other intelligences as well may also assist them in making future educational and career choices based on what they perceive to be their strengths and weaknesses in each intelligence area.

Adults who may have already had experience in occupational areas requiring the use of one or more intelligences may be presented with language learning materials which draw upon strengths in those intelligence areas which they have developed. Encouraging adult learners to also engage in MI based language learning activities within which they may be weak may serve as a means of developing other intelligences and, therefore, skills in other areas, which may open up further employment and educational opportunities.

Elderly learners may be assisted by using MI based language learning material based on their strength in one or more intelligences, developed over a lifetime of experience. Such an approach may also serve to compensate for possible declines in ability related to aging. Presenting language learning material in a variety of ways may also lead to deeper learning, because having the same language item presented in a number of different ways may serve as a form of review and lead to whole brain learning.

Using MI based pedagogical approaches makes language learning relevant to the differing psychological, social and physical needs of people at various stages of life, thus serving in the promotion of lifelong language learning.


Checkley, K. (1997). The first seven...and the eighth: A conversation with Howard Gardner. Educational Leadership, 55 (1). [Online]. Available:
Christison, M. (1998). An introduction to multiple intelligence theory and second language learning. In J. Reid (Ed.)., Understanding learning styles in the second language classroom. (pp. 1-14). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.
Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.
Gerow, J. (1997). Psychology: An introduction. New York: Longman.
Holmes, A. (2003) Smart things to know about lifelong learning. Oxford: Capstone.
Kampa, K., & Vilina, C. (2002). Multiple intelligences for the young learner. Snakes and Ladders, Summer, 1-6.
Kampa, K., & Vilina, C. (2004). Musical footnotes: Curriculum. Teachers Learning with Children, 8 (4), 27-29.
Laughlin, J. (1999). Multiple intelligences. Inquiry, 4 (2), 4-18.
Schleppegrell, M. (1987). The older language learner. Washington, DC. (ERIC Clearinghouse on Language and Linguistics FL No. 016 969).
Schmidt-Fajlik, R. (2003). Addressing individual differences through multiple intelligences theory in second language education. Josai International University Bulletin 11 (2), 221-235.
Slattery, M., & Willis, J. (2003). English for primary teachers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ronald Schmidt-Fajlik teaches media English as well as general English courses at Josai International University. He received his M.Ed. in English Language Teaching at the University of Manchester, B.Ed. in general education from the University of Toronto, and B.F.A. in Fine Arts from York University. He has a wide range of research interests related to pedagogy, English language teaching and visual art. He has been teaching English in Japan for nearly ten years.

Appendix 1.

Description of intelligences and associated occupations

Intelligence Ability Associated Occupations
linguistic/verbal Adept at using language in either written or oral form. Writers orators, lawyers.
logical/mathematical The ability to manipulate numbers, quantities, operations. Mathematicians, scientists.
visual/spatial The ability to visualize the spatial world internally. Those with exceptional abilities in visual arts, navigation, architecture and certain games such as chess.
bodily/kinesthetic An understanding of the body in terms of physical movement. Those involved in the performing arts or sports. People who use complex machinery and undertake intricate work.
musical/rhythmic The ability to recognize and manipulate musical elements. Musicians.
interpersonal The ability to understand and empathize with other people. Teachers, social workers, counselors, politicians, and salespeople.
intrapersonal An ability to understand oneself and one's inner-most feelings. Psychotherapists and religious leaders.
naturalist The ability to discriminate among living things (plants, animals) as well as features of the natural world. Botanists, farmers, chefs.

N.B. Appendix 1 compiled from Gardner (1983) and Checkley (1997).

Appendix 2.

An overview of MI activities and contexts for second language learning.

linguistic/verbal Reading, writing, speaking, and listening. This may be in the form of stories, poems, recordings of authors, conversation activities, and word games.
logical/mathematical Sequential word/story games e.g. 'What happens next?', mysteries, word problem activities, language analysis, planning schedules, the exploration and description of objects such as old wind up clocks, kitchen gadgets, mechanical devices, giving and receiving change in a variety of situations involving the exchange of money.
visual/spatial The use and creation of maps, charts, illustrations/ artwork, films, videos. These may also serve as a source for discussion, creative writing activities, or when writing descriptive passages.
bodily/kinesthetic The use of 'hands-on' craft materials such as wood, clay, fabric, yarn, construction paper in the creation of models or projects. The materials may be used as a source for or in support of language skills such as following written directions, writing descriptive passages to elaborate on the models or projects. Total physical response approach (TPR) could be used where students listen and move according to instructions. Drama/role play activities.
musical/rhythmic Tapes, records, CDs of songs, ballads. Musical instruments may be used to accompany stories, poems etc. Students may write and perform their own songs. Students may listen to musical passages and discuss and/or write about feelings and images which are invoked.
interpersonal Activities involving students working cooperatively with each other. Lesson material may be adapted in ways which require working with a partner or in small groups such as interviews, jigsaw tasks, and 'missing information' sheets. Activities which require the interpretation of another person's feelings or personal perspective. Drama and role play activities may also be of benefit.
intrapersonal Projects and activities which require students to assume responsibility in terms of planning and independent research. The exploration of one's own feelings. Fantasy type activities. Show- and-tell involving presentations of one's interests and hobbies.
naturalist The study of various types of living things such as plants and animals. Following a recipe. Field trips to parks and/or shopping malls where students identify and categorize the things they see.

N.B.: Appendix 2 adapted from Schmidt-Fajlik, R. (2003, 228-230).