Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Training Genius: The Learning Secrets of Polyglots and Savants

In the tiny country of Iceland, a man is being interviewed. He speaks slowly; Icelandic is not his native language. But, the broadcast continues smoothly and the speaker appears to be fluent.

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?

Debunking Talent

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.

Studying everyone from athletes to typists, Ericsson found that a person’s potential could commonly be surpassed, with focused effort and practice.

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.

Across a variety of learning theories and mnemonic tricks, one broad generalization stands out: Smart people learn through connections.

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.

More insights on: Skill Development

Scott Young

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Scott Young is a popular self-improvement blogger and author of How to Change a Habit. You can join his free newsletter to get your free copy of his rapid-learning ebook.
load comments (27)
  • Brian Yamabe

    I learned about this technique from “Learning How to Learn” by Jerry Lucas. I thought it was a good idea, but it takes work to come up with the images and I let it slip. Looks like I should revisit it. Though I wonder if there are different techniques for different situations.

  • Benny Lewis

    Thanks for the several mentions Scott :) If people want to find out more specifics about my language learning advice, this video presentation I gave at a conference summarises some of my favourite tricks that anyone can apply. The rest are covered in detail in many blog posts!

    Happy learning everyone!

    Edit: Oh yeah, that video was actually after six weeks, not two months ;) But to be honest, my German helped a lot. I think my video interview in Hungarian (which was after two months) is more relevant to this discussion as it isn’t related to any other language I know. As well as this, it’s subtitled, which my Dutch one wasn’t.

  • Regis

    As a classically trained musician, I wonder if that would work for music theory:) …

  • Joop Kiefte

    There definitely are different techniques for different situations. I’m a polyglot as well and I learn mostly by using and linguistic association. I’m not really a visual or audio thinker but more of a pattern thinker, so learning using the things I already know about languages just works for me :). Although sometimes of course I use visual or audio clues to learn new things :).

    The most important think of the technique is not the images, but the association. If you are a wine lover and you can do association with wines and their regions, that will work just as well :).

  • ciaran o connor

    I find with learning languages that having images in front of you onscreen or in a book instead of a translation of your native equivalent helps a hell of a lot.  Still trying to pick up Finnish which is complicated at the best of times and bears no resemblance to anything I already know, but using a basic language PC program based on image/word association is helping me progress faster than rote learning & repetition.  I still suck at it though, haha…

  • Saïd Martínez

    I remember having read “Born a Blue Day” by Daniel Tammet some three years ago. Amazing autobiography & inspiring account of his achievements. Now if we could’ve had Kim Peek give a 99% lecture, that would’ve been amazing.

  • Gfyplz

    I read this story once and thought the gare = garfield running to the train station imagery was completely retarded.  Nearly 19 hours later, I cant NOT remember what gare is in french now.  


  • gfyplz

    I read this story once and thought the gare = garfield running to the train station imagery was completely retarded.  Nearly 19 hours later, I cant NOT remember what gare is in french now.  WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO MY BRAIN!?

  • Matthew O'Connell

    This is interesting and not the first time I’ve come across these ideas. Various performance magicians like Darren Brown have become very good at this kind of memorisation. I wonder though how many images you need to create in order to learn all of the non-visual words such as conjuctives and prepositions, which are less visual and often change meaning in different contexts. I imagine that this technique works well for nouns and verbs, but perhaps less so for other word groups. I’ll check out Benny’s vid.

  • Mambo Singer

    It sounds to me that you get good “memory”…(when i tried this they used to call “quantum memory”)

    Anyways, is memory the reason for one to be so called genius? i have memory, it starts with wiki and i am not a genius.

    If these methods actually teaches how to think, its advertising at its best!


  • Suzanne Lainson

    If you spend time learning or memorizing one thing, does it lessen your ability to retain something else or distract you from learning something else? I haven’t read all the research. But I have done a lot of reading on Ericsson’s theories. If you are specializing in one field to become an expert, then you aren’t spending time in other areas to diversify your knowledge and abilities. So I’d say it’s a toss up whether it is good to devote so much time to one thing, or whether it is better to expose yourself a broader base of knowledge and experiences. Take sports, for example. Lots of kids are now encouraged to specialize in one sport early on rather than planning multiple sports throughout their youth. That approach might produce champions, but it might also produce less well-rounded athletes and people.

  • Stobats

    Hi there! I do agree:)…I even already tested it during college…learning faster through association or visualization will definitely improve your memory…nice post!

  • research proposal

    very interesting! thanks! and a big thanks for the part – how smart peopel think!! very good points!

  • Audran Guerard

    I can see how you can improve your memory, but how do you improve on a musical instrument,
    or watercolor painting? if it’s not true repetition.

  • Rosen

    Thinking and technique are two different things. Since we live in 21st century we can bypass the technique repetition – your example with the musical instrument:
    I personally know people who never played even a piano, but they engineer sound with software. Music instruments are really simple tools which are used in a complicated way – people can move their fingers like no other.. why – practice? But what happens if you rotate the approach – complicated tools (software or maybe something that still does not exist?) that you can use in a simple way? The technique is not as important as the happening in your head. One more thing – there’s no right or wrong way to draw or play/use an instrument. Your technique is based on what you know and what you feel. When you practice your technique, you are actually experimenting – this goes here, lets see what will happen if I put this over here and so on. You are repeating variations of your technique, not to mastering it, but exploring it. You make a choice and you get a result, the result could be anything. If you continue with more practice with the same concept in your mind, you are actually connecting the results of all your attempts, which will form something based on the connection of the previous.. And the process of connecting the pieces continues .. only if you continue it, of course.

  • Jonathan Patterson

    In addition, you don’t know what you like until you try it. It’s no good to only every play one sport.

  • Anon

    I find Benny Lewis to be a bit of a quack, given his inability to pass the KDS in German despite having studied the language for 7 years, and I find his “I’m no good at languages” shtick tiresome. Therefore, my opinion is obviously biased, but I do believe that “his” memory method that Scott Young attributes to him is actually just Harry Lorayne’s memory method…and his interview is painful to hear. Of course he learned Dutch in 6 weeks. You can probably read most basic sentences already, as a native English speaker. And as someone who speaks English, French, and German (Benny Lewis and me bc I’m Swiss), Dutch is not a problem.

  • Benny Lewis

    Appropriate that you hide behind a non-name, as trolls do ;)
    I studied German for 5 years and got a C in Irish high school. The level required for this is terribly low. Get your facts straight!

  • Thailand Reisen

    For all I know, if you want to master a musical instrument, it takes thousands of hours of practice, and a lot of it repetitive. However, in order to be effective, just practice alone is not enough – it must be intensely focused training, and optimally immediate feedback from a teacher who helps you to improve your technique. No shortcuts there, even Ericsson says that.

  • mon

    Joshua Foer’s book “Moonwalking with Einstein” explains visual/associated memory techniques very well. I’m a bartender and have used the visual and metaphorical methods to remember obscure drink recipes. Speaking from experience, these techniques work great. Also, these memory methods date back waaaaay before Scott Young and Harry Lorayne. They’ve just taken very old and effective systems and repackaged it as their own. Read the book…

  • Ranran

    I think doing some thing really really well and having ‘talent’ are two different things though, in drawing or painting for example, talent is like an extra x-factor that is surprising and moving, it’s an indescribable element that lingers and stays with us, as opposed to something that is technically perfect and beautiful to look at. 
    I am reading ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’ at the moment, it’s a very fascinating book, I’ve been recommending it to all my friends, love to check out ‘Learn more study less’ next!

  • #Digipendent

    divergent thinking, i love it!

  • rlgreen91

    I think that you should combine both connections and rote memorization. Take Japanese for example. Kanji to be specific. I usually make up funny stories to remember kanji, as well as the readings for a particular vocabulary word: connections. But, I practice reading and writing these kanji and vocabulary words over and over and over again: rote memorization. My point is that, yes, connections and metaphors are great for learning new things.  But, you have to go over what you’ve learned every so often; you can’t learn something once, never look at it again, and then expect yourself to be able to remember the concept or process at a moment’s notice. Why do you think that people never truly forget how to ride a bike? Sure, you learned how to ride when you were maybe 5 or 6, but did you stop after that? No, you kept riding the bike, over and over and over again.

  • webpromo

    Nice post! Can’t wait for the next one. Keep stuff like this coming.

  • Srinin

    In India, it is common to find children and adults speaking three or four languages fluently without formal training in some of them. This becomes an important life skill since families move from one linguistic State to another. Many Indian states are formed based on language spoken in that region – like Marathi in the State of Maharashtra, Tamil in Tamilnadu, Telugu in Andhra Pradesh etc. It may be interesting to study how near-illiterate people and children pick up multiple languages!  

  • Marisa Swanson

    I love 99 u, but can I mention something that I wish was different in your format? The pull-quotes in the middle of the articles don’t really work for me. I find them disruptive and unnecessary. A pull-quote in the middle of a magazine article makes sense; it gives someone thumbing through an incentive to focus on all those thousands of tiny words. On the Internet, it’s different, right?! I think so. In such short articles, pull quotes lose their purpose. It’s the headline that made me click on the article and knowing it’s a quick read, I’m into it without needing a quote to entice me further. As I’m reading this single column of text, I’m into the flow of the article and then — bam! — pull quote. What’s worse is that it tends to be what I just read in the body of the article. So I’m reading it twice in a row, which is mildly annoying. Then, Bam, another pull quote and the same things happens, compounding the annoyance. In a full-length feature, you don’t have to worry about repetition like that b/c there are so many more words. Get it?

    I’m not saying this is a huge deal, I just had a few minutes to kill and thought I’d make a suggestion. Thanks!

  • Sean Blanda

    Thanks a bunch for the feedback! We’re thinking over ways to redo the article page so this has been noted. Keep an eye out in a few months for the results.

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