On the surface, there is nothing extraordinary here. Mastering a new language is difficult, but people do it all the time. However this is no ordinary person, and this is no ordinary feat.
The man is Daniel Tammet, and until one week prior to his nationally broadcasted interview, he didn’t speak a word of Icelandic.
The Mind of a Savant
Languages aren’t Tammet’s only talent. He has also memorized pi to over 24,000 digits and can compute with five-figure numbers in his head. He claims to be able to do this by holding a unique visual image for each number.
At first glance, abilities like Tammet’s—rapid fluency, prodigious memory, visual imagery to feel ideas intuitively—seem forever out of reach for normal human beings.
But perhaps Tammet’s abilities can also serve as a guide. Even if Tammet may have some genetic quirks that enhance his abilities, I’ve seen that the methods he uses to learn are not completely off-limits to mere mortals.
Take Benny Lewis, who until his twenties considered himself bad at languages. But he recently completed a similar feat, being interviewed publicly, in Dutch after just two months of practice.
Or consider Joshua Foer, journalist turned mnemoticist, who was able to win the US memory championships after only a year of training. Winning such a title requires memorizing entire decks of cards, poems, and names under intensive time pressure.
Natural gifts might be sufficient to explain Tammet’s story. But it can’t explain the savant-by-training examples of Lewis or Foer. Buried beneath all the mysticism surrounding brilliance there might be a strategy for learning faster. Could genius be trained?
K. Anders Ericsson is the world’s expert on expertise. His research has debunked centuries-old assumptions about how people become exceptionally good at certain skills.
Before Ericsson, the accepted assumption was that all ability was innate. People had capped potentials, and once that potential was reached, there wasn’t much you could do. Geniuses were born, not made.
Ericsson’s research had a fairly groundbreaking conclusion: practice, not potential, defined our level of ability. Studying everyone from athletes to typists, he found that a person’s potential could commonly be surpassed, with focused effort and practice.
Ericsson’s ideas about practice may apply to learning itself. Examples like Lewis and Foer certainly suggest that, if you could find the right method, you could train yourself to learn faster.
How Smart People Think
“If you understand something in only one way, then you don’t really understand it at all. The secret of what anything means to us depends on how we’ve connected it to all other things we know.” – AI researcher Marvin Minsky
What are the methods that smart people use to learn faster? Across a variety of learning theories and mnemonic tricks, one broad generalization stands out: Smart people learn through connections.
Even Tammet’s alien abilities appear to make sense through this idea. By connecting abstract numbers to concrete visual images, he’s making them easier to imagine and work with.
Foer achieved his memory championship title after practicing an obscure, but ancient, mnemonic technique that connects facts to familiar places in memory. Lewis attributes some of his rapid vocabulary acquisition to a similar method by creating a visual connection bridging the foreign word and its definition.
Compare learning through connections to its opposite: rote memorization. Rote memorization involves learning merely by repeated exposure. Even if it can work, it rarely produces the speed or brilliance we associate with extraordinary mental abilities.
Learning through connections, where you create metaphors and visual associations to everything you want to learn and understand, is a vastly more powerful way to learn.
Many of us learn by rote, simply because nobody ever taught us a better method. It’s difficult to imagine a professional basketball player who was never instructed in how to dribble or shoot. Yet most people are never taught how to learn; instead, we are expected to just pick it up as we play.
How to Learn by Connections
The general trend that seems to bridge examples as distantly related as Tammet, Lewis, and Foer is that they learn through connections, not through rote. But how do you actually do that?
One way is to create metaphors. A metaphor is a connection between two ideas that aren’t actually related. Describing differential calculus in terms of the speedometer and odometer on a car is an example.
Good metaphors and analogies aid in understanding because it forces you to really examine the idea. You can’t draw out similarities without understanding how a concept works. Metaphors also aid in memory because they make the ideas more vivid. Vivid imagery also appears to be an almost universally used tactic of brilliant thinkers.
Another way is to create visual associations. Memory works better storing pictures and places than facts and figures. By translating those abstract details into vivid mental pictures, you’re leveraging your brain’s strengths.
A good example of this is a technique Benny Lewis uses to remember vocabulary words. First he comes up with a picture for the definition of the word. Then he comes up with a picture for the foreign language word, by trying to pin it on what it “sounds like”. Finally, he blends the two up in a bizarre example to sear it into memory. The French word gare (train station) becomes GARfield running to the TRAIN STATION for a lasagna-eating contest.
It sounds frivolous at first, but I put it to the test. I ran a personal experiment, learning 50 new vocabulary words in French every day. One week I used normal rote memorization as a control and the other I used Benny’s method. For the same time investment, my recall went from 30% to just below 80%.
Could Genius Be Learned?
These examples are interesting, but a handful of anecdotes do not equate to hard data. Science still has a lot to understand in the way humans learn, particularly in what separates fantastic abilities like Tammet’s from our own.
In the meantime, however, I’m willing to venture that the talents possessed, even by geniuses, are not wholly innate. If alternative methods, such as metaphor or visual association underpin these talents, then perhaps some of genius can be learned as well.