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.


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.

Training genius: the learning secrets of polyglots and savants