A few days ago, I heard a terrific radio program featuring an interview with Daniel Tammet. Tammet is an autistic savant who is probably best-known for being able to recite pi to over 22,500 digits by memory. (Side note: it takes him more than 5 hours to perform this feat!)
But what fascinated me most about this interview was not hearing of his off-the-charts abilities in math and memorization, but rather, his ability to learn a foreign language perfectly in a matter of weeks. In the interview, he tells a story about this that boggles the mind. Here, an excerpt from the transcript, when he mentions he took a trip to Lithuania as a young man:
[Tammet]: One of my other gifts apart from numbers is languages and I was able to learn Lithuanian very very quickly whilst I was there.
[interviewer]: How long did it take you to learn Lithuanian?
[Tammet]: A matter of weeks.
[interviewer]: To complete fluency?
[Tammet]: Well, I’ll give you an example, I at one point was walking home from work and a Lithuanian man came up to me and asked directions in Lithuanian of course. And I have a very poor sense of direction and so I very apologetically and politely explained it to him in Lithuanian that I couldn’t help him. I didn’t know where this particular place was and instead of understanding this, perhaps from my accent or something. He assumed I was Lithuanian and kept asking me over and over again. Until I said to him in Lithuanian, AtsipraÅ¡au, excuse me, Nesu Lietuvos, I’m not Lithuanian, AÅ¡ esu iÅ¡ Anglijos, I’m from England. And his eyes went so wide on his face, that he couldn’t believe that an Englishmen was speaking to him in his own language. And he apologized and walked off. But Lithuania was wonderful because I met people that for the first time looked beyond the things that made me different to them and saw the things that were the same.
As a person who loves to study foreign language, and works very hard at it, I find this incredible. And yet, this is just one of the many gifts of genius that Daniel Tammet lives with daily.