Can You Learn a Language in a Week??

[This is my 50th post! Hot dog!]

Old news– back in 2005 (I think) Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant, claimed to have learned Icelandic in a week for a documentary called The Boy with the Incredible Brain. Here’s the video if you haven’t seen it (you can find the whole documentary on YouTube):

My Icelandic is decent enough to know that the language shown in this clip is pretty basic, and I know there has been discussion on forums that his grammar was not so great. However, I’m going to believe he learned conversational Icelandic in about a week, since it seems like the entirety of the interview was question and answer (although they only show Tammet monologuing in the clip).

Unbelievable? Supernatural? I actually don’t think so. I was fascinated with Daniel Tammet’s life story back when I first saw this documentary in 2009. I read both Tammet’s memoir, Born on a Blue Day, and his book on pop neuroscience, Embracing the Wide Sky. I enjoyed both, and at the time, I accepted Tammet’s story of his late diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, which explained his savant mathematical capabilities. In Blue Day Tammet describes his childhood experiences of being different and socially awkward. He describes his experience mentally calculating huge numbers– he visualizes the numbers synesthetically. He has had a lifelong fascination with memorizing pi (he memorized it to 24,000-ish digits), and he can do a cool parlor trick in which, given a date, he can tell you on which day of the week it fell.

And yet, I never really thought of his language abilities as part of his “savant” talents.

In Blue Day, Tammet states he knows ten languages : English, Finnish, French, German, Lithuanian, Esperanto, Spanish, Romanian, Icelandic, and Welsh. So, he knew nine at the time he acquired his conversational Icelandic. People who learn upwards of six or seven languages tend to have an easier time learning new languages, so I never really thought it was surprising that Tammet learned his Icelandic in a week. Learning how to learn is a huge part of language acquisition as an adult, and someone like Tammet should have thousands of hours of experience doing just that. Additionally, Tammet learned Icelandic specifically for The Boy with the Incredible Brain, which gave him the opportunity to travel to Iceland and to have access to plenty of resources, including a private tutor. I haven’t yet succeeded at something similar (not that I’ve really tried) but to me, it’s not surprising that he could learn basic Icelandic in a week.

As a side note, I’ve since found out that Tammet is… not exactly as he presents himself. Many of his “savant” abilities can be attributed to memory competition tricks, and, in fact, Tammet used to compete in memory tournaments under a different name (memory competitions involve memorizing decks of cards and other things– you can read more in the book, Moonwalking with Einstein). Moreover, I’ve found articles from 2009 in which Tammet was learning German in a week. In these articles, he says he only had minimal exposure to the language during school, so this was basically starting from scratch, as he had with Icelandic. As you might have noticed, German is included in that list of ten languages from his memoir quoted above. That book was written in 2007, and he describes being very adept at German, and even conversing regularly in German with an exchange student while he was in secondary school. So… yeah. I don’t really count his experiences quite as reliable anymore– at least not as a savant.

I’m still assuming he learned Icelandic in a week, whether with previous experience learning languages or by employing memory techniques. As I said, I think this is possible, but I don’t think it’s very conducive to really learning a language to fluency or reading proficiency or whatever goal you have beyond basic conversational ability. Sure, you can force your brain to absorb a ton of information in a few days– we do that in school before tests, right? But quickly learned information is, unfortunately, very quickly lost. I’ve set month-long challenges, or spent a few weeks learning a language (Swedish comes to mind), and I’ve definitely seen rapid progress when I spend a huge amount of time studying. However, all of that Swedish has since leaked out of my head, and any other challenge was pretty fruitless unless I backed it up with consistent, long-term studying over the course of months.

So, yeah, the human brain is pretty amazing– it really can learn huge amounts of information in a pretty short timespan. But part of that amazing-ness is that the brain purges what it doesn’t need or what isn’t essential. This is the part that’s not on your side with binge-style, short-term studying (again, unless you’re just screwing around with a language for fun, which I totally and wholeheartedly condone :)). If “learning a language” for you means fluency/literacy/comprehension, slow and steady is more likely to win the race.


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