March 24

English C1 Speaking: Talking About Intelligence

How to talk about intelligence in C1 Speaking? Let’s find out!


Hello, this is Kristian from Cambridge Advanced Speaking, how are you doing today? I’m really happy that you’re listening and I hope you’re ready to learn some English with me.

If you didn’t know, I run the website Get Ready For Success, and there you can find the audio files, videoclips and lesson notes for all the podcast episodes.

I create and share these learning materials, because I want to help you become a confident communicator on your exam day, and beyond.

Yes, beyond your exam day, because I don’t want you to make the same mistake as I made.

I don’t know if you know this story, but after I passed the C2 Proficiency exam at grade A, I made a colossal mistake. I stopped practising English and guess what, my speaking skills deteriorated quickly.

I don’t want you to make that same mistake, okay?

All right, let’s dive into the topic of today.


Last week I saw a few exam questions about intelligence, and I realised I had to brush up on this topic myself. That’s why we’re talking about this subject in today’s episode.

First, we’ll be looking at synonyms. Then we’ll talk about some speaking ideas for the exam. Finally, I’ll give a model answer to a possible exam question.

Are you up for it? Are you keen to give it a go?

All right then, let’s get kick off!


First, let’s look at the word intelligent. A person or animal that is intelligent has the ability to think, understand, and learn things quickly and well.

He is a highly intelligent person who can think outside the box.
She would like a partner with whom she can have an intelligent conversation.
He ventured the opinion that ‘whales are as intelligent as human beings’.

Now, let’s look at some vocabulary you can use to talk about intelligence, including useful synonyms.

First, let’s look at some collocations:

We can say that someone is highly, incredibly, remarkably intelligent.

Einstein was a highly intelligent man.

By the way, did you know that the man had a uniquely shaped brain? According to anthropologist Dean Falk, Einstein’s brain possessed some remarkable features. Notably, that the left and right hemisphere of his brain were well connected compared to the control group. If you want to know more about this, search for “Dean Falk + Einstein”.

Ingenious – Something that is ingenious is very clever and involves new ideas, methods, or equipment.

The iPhone is a truly ingenious invention.

Clever  – about people and things

Ninka is very clever at physics.
His girlfriend is so clever, she passed all her exams!
I like how you solved this problem, that was very clever of you.

Next, we have more synonyms and all of these can mean ‘intelligent’ describing people, but these words also have a second unrelated meaning.

Smart can also mean ‘well-dressed’
Sharp can also mean ‘pointed’ (His nose was thin and sharp)
Bright can also mean ‘shiny’ (bright susnshine)
Quick can also mean ‘fast’
Quick on the uptake = quick to answer and solve problems

Laura is an incredibly smart student, she is so quick on the uptake.

Now, the following three words are used to describe a slightly different kind of intelligence. It’s about being good at solving problems in real life.

I would never have thought of doing that, that’s a great idea, you are so resourceful.

Someone who is streetwise knows how to deal with difficult or dangerous situations in big towns or cities.

Astute = able to understand a situation quickly and see how to take advantage of it. Someone can be financially astute, or politically astute.

An astute investor/businesswoman
Her astute handling of the situation

Finally, we have two words that mean intelligent, but they are slightly negative: crafty and cunning. It could be a clever way of doing things, but also a dishonest way or a way that is harmful to others.

That is a crafty way of avoiding tax payments, but is it really legal?
Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, came up with a cunning plan and misled many people.She was is cunning and can’t be trusted.

Speaking ideas

When talking about intelligence, we tend to refer to academic intelligence. We talk about people who are good at studying, passing exams and so on.

However, there are different kinds of intelligence.

Let me share some different kinds of intelligence that you can talk about for this topic in C1 Speaking.

Pay special attention to the collocations and meanings.

Innate intelligence
Intelligence you are born with (inherit), from your parents’ genetics.

Academic intelligence
Good at studying

Emotional intelligence
Good at recognising and handling your emotions

If you want to go deep into this topic, you could learn more about nine different intelligences that, it is argued, measure our strengths and abilities.

  1. Logical/mathematical
  2. Linguistic
  3. Interpersonal
  4. Intrapersonal
  5. Musical
  6. Naturalistic
  7. Pedagogical
  8. Spatial
  9. Kinaesthetic

If you want to know more about these types of intelligence, you can check out the image I shared in the notes.

Model Answer

A question you may hear in C1 Speaking on this topic of intelligent people is the following:

Is intelligence innate or is it something we can develop?

Now, I’ve asked ChatGTP to answer this question for us, and here is the result:

The nature vs. nurture debate has been a topic of discussion for many years, and the question of whether intelligence is innate or something that can be developed is no exception.

While some aspects of intelligence may be influenced by genetics, research suggests that intelligence is largely influenced by environmental factors, such as education, nutrition, and social experiences.

Studies have shown that certain experiences, such as access to quality education, engaging in stimulating activities, and exposure to diverse perspectives, can have a positive impact on cognitive development and intellectual abilities. Additionally, practicing problem-solving and critical thinking skills can also enhance cognitive functioning and intelligence.

Overall, while some factors of intelligence may be innate, evidence suggests that it is largely influenced by environmental factors and can be developed and enhanced through various experiences and practices.

Does this sound like natural spoken English to you? No, it doesn’t.

So let me give you a model answer with some phrases and ideas you could use to develop your own answer in natural spoken English.

Well, I guess this is the old nature versus nurture debate, right? Between you and me, I don’t have a strong opinion on this topic, but I suppose intelligence is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors.

On the one hand, there’s no doubt that intelligence is something we inherit from our parents. I’ve read somewhere that studies with identical twins show that intelligence is largely genetic.

On the other hand, I also believe that intelligence is something we can develop. For example, some people who live in rough neighbourhoods become streetwise. It means they learn how to deal with dangerous situations in big towns or cities.

To be honest, I’d say that this topic is an ongoing debate and frankly speaking, I don’t know enough about the ins and outs to give you a definite answer.

Closing Notes

Okay then, There you are! A clear and concise lesson about the topic of intelligence. All natural spoken English.

I hope you enjoyed this episode! If you did, please share it with someone who could benefit from it.

If you are interested in getting more content to practise, review and repeat this lesson, I’d suggest subscribing to my mailing list.

In the email about this episode, I’ll share 8 idioms you can use to talk about intelligence.

So, if you want to learn more about this topic, I highly encourage you to subscribe to my email lessons on the homepage of my website. You’ll also get a brand-new ebook that I wrote for you.

All right, that’s all from me. Take care of yourself, and each other.

Speak soon, my friends.


About the Author

As a Dutch proficient speaker of English, Kristian not only holds a grade A Cambridge C2 certificate but is also CELTA qualified. His five years of experience as a teacher and ESL exam coach, specialising in Cambridge English C1, C2, and IELTS, has equipped him with a unique blend of skills to guide and support your English learning journey.

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