Monday, August 17, 2009

Daniel Tammet can really learn to speak a new language fluently, in a week, from scratch

When someone tells Daniel Tammet that he's got a gift for learning languages, there's no way he can deny it. Sure, he speaks eleven languages (or 12 if you count the language that he made up himself), but that's not what impresses me; check out this amazing feat:
Daniel was recently profiled in a British documentary called “Brainman.” The producers posed a challenge that he could not pass up: Learn a foreign language in a week - and not just any foreign language, but Icelandic, considered to be one of the most difficult languages to learn.

In Iceland, he studied and practiced with a tutor. When the moment of truth came and he appeared on TV live with a host, the host said, "I was amazed. He was responding to our questions. He did understand them very well and I thought that his grammar was very good. We are very proud of our language and that someone is able to speak it after only one week, that’s just great."
The actual video referred to is here (starting from 41:15).

Now if you give me a week of complete immersion and a good native-speaker tutor, I could make a great start in any language, but I don't think I could even come close to what Daniel was able to do. So what's the magic sauce and where can I get some? Well, it's unfortunately not quite as simple as all that; Daniel is a high-functioning autistic savant, so his brain works quite a bit differently from yours and mine.

If you've seen the movie Rain Man,that's a savant. Savant syndrome is a developmental disorder "characterized by one or more areas of expertise, ability or brilliance that are in contrast with the individual's overall limitations". In Daniel's case, his limitations are very few (for example, he's not a big fan of crowds and has trouble recalling faces), and his abilities are impressive—with his skills in language learning, memorization, and making complex calculations standing out as particularly impressive.

While I'm not putting any money down on anyone coming even close to Daniel's abilities (he's one of perhaps 50 in the entire world with skills like his), Daniel himself thinks that his learning strategy doesn't require his brain. Daniel's magic sauce, after the jump.

Here's what Daniel himself says:
The things that I can do are the result of a highly rich and complex associative form of thinking and imagination, an extreme variation of a kind that everyone does. Every time you make a pun or daydream or use a metaphor, you're actually thinking in much the same way as a savant.
He elaborates here:
My brain seems to be what I would describe as hyperassociative. It makes connections between information very rapidly and connections and relationships between very different things.
This is a well-known technique for learning, and this isn't the first time it's been suggested for language learning.

Indeed, I've recently been noticing the potency of associative techniques myself. As part of my own recent studies, I dumped into iAnki a boatload of Japanese Language Proficiency Test flashcards. That means that the vast majority of my flashcards are not taken from context, but rather are just a set of facts (the word, how that's pronounced if it has any kanji, and the meaning) that I need to connect to each other. This results in some of these words coming up again and again because they're just not getting in my head.

To remedy this, I've taken to making associative connections between the word and the data I'm looking to produce. I have no specific system for this, but whatever comes obviously to mind, I use. For instance, 健やか sukoyaka means healthy—that much was obvious to me from the character—but I couldn't get the reading of the character component of that word—suko—to stick in my head. I finally managed to do so by associating it with 少し sukoshi (a little). Originally, I had a little creole mnemonic—something like sukoshi de healthy ("with just a little bit, healthy"), but that eventually faded away and now I see the 健やか sukoyaka and 少し sukoshi automatically pops into my head. Sooner or later, that association too will fade away, and I'll just be left with the automatic recollection, thanks to associative techniques getting it in my head originally.

This is a lot less than the complex visual and numerical associations Daniel uses, but clearly we can all make use of this technique, even if we won't be able to jack it up to hyperdrive like Daniel can.

The only language-learning tool I can think of that is heavy on such associative devices are the Michel Thomas recordings, which are constantly linking up words in the target language with those that are similar in your own language, using mnemonic devices, and so on. (The Chinese one even tries to get you to link up each tone with a color, taking a page (unintentionally) straight from Daniel's playbook.)

Daniel himself has written two books, Born On A Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savantand Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind.Both shed more light on his method and how he thinks it can apply to those of us with less impressive mental abilities, so I've added these both to my to-read list and I'd love to hear from any of you who've already read them in the comments below or via email.

Austisme Asperger, un Handicap Invisible [Paris Match] (in French)
The Boy with the Incredible Brain [Google Video]
Brain Man: One Man's Gift May Be The Key To Better Understanding The Brain [60 Minutes]
Brainman, at Rest in His Oasis [New York Times]
Daniel Tammet [Times]
Daniel Tammet [Wikipedia]
Embracing the Wide Sky (video) [Amazon]
His beautiful mind [Advocate]
The smartest man in the world is gay [Advocate via MyWire]
Optimnem Blog: The Blog of Daniel Tammet
A savvy savant finds his voice [The Australian]


  1. While mnemonics will never make a mere mortal into a Daniel Tammet, you may still be interested to know of the following mnemonic-related resource for vocabulary learning: is a free website devoted to making it easier to learn basic foreign language vocabulary using mnemonics.

    About a hundred items are available for each of five major languages, each one with a mnemonic already provided (most actually have more than one so you can choose what suits you best), or you can create your own mnemonics.

    A learning/self-testing algorithm uses spaced repetition to prioritize your learning effort.

    All the best

    Francis -

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Francis! blipped up onto my radar when Aspiring Polyglot covered you guys, and I've had the website open in a browser tab ever since so I can check it out in more detail (work has been kicking my butt a bit lately, so it's taking a while...). I look forward to kicking the tires!

  3. Sorry I'm so late on this post, i just discovered your website..

    I believe in fact that mnemonics can make an ordinary man into at least a near Danniel Tammet, take the famous British mnemonist Dominic O'Brien for example. He was an ordinary man until about 1995 when he discovered mnemonics and after a few years of training was able to commit to memory a random sequence of 2808 playing cards (54 packs) after looking at each card only once. He was able to correctly recite their order, making only eight errors, four of which he immediately corrected when told he was wrong. During memory competitions he is also able to memorize thousands of foreign language vocabulary within a few hours. I believe that while we are not born with Tammet's abilities, everyone's brain has the ability to be trained as such, which (off topic) is probably also a great way to avoid degenerate mental diseases in old age.

  4. People with autism do not necessarily lack empathy!  What we often lack is the ability to  read other people's mental states.  In addition, we may process our own emotional state differently, leading to unusual reactions.

    I know from my own experience as an autistic person, that once I am aware of another person's distress or otherwise negative feelings, I feel pretty bad about it.  

  5. Thanks for the clarification.  If the people who think empathy is useful in learning an accent are right, that might reconcile why autistic people can be so good at learning languages while seeming to struggle with empathy: they very well may be quite empathetic, even though it may not be as apparent.