By Philip Bethge
Is it possible to learn German in just days? Linguistic savant Daniel Tammet managed to do so in the course of a week. Using his own special technique, the 30-year-old, who has a mild form of autism, has learned to speak more than 10 languages.
Daniel Tammet likes the German language. It's "like a clean room with good sharp corners, tidy and straightforward," he says, yet at the same time it's "poetic, transparent and elegant."
"Take, for example, words like bisschen (a little bit) or Löffelchen (a small spoon)," he adds. "I like this diminutive chen ending."
Or the word Gras, for grass: "I like that the first letter fits -- for me words with 'G' are green," says the young British man, before offering his signature thin smile. It's a Thursday in Hamburg's Hotel Wedina, and 30-year-old Tammet has four more days. By Monday, he plans to have learned enough German -- after only a week's training -- to appear on the German television talk show "Beckmann" and speak fluently about brain research, autism and his new book.
Manfred Witt / VISUM
Daniel Tammet is what researchers call a synaesthete -- words and numbers are linked with colors, shapes and sounds in his brain.
Tammet is a savant. As a child he had epileptic seizures. Doctors later diagnosed him with Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism. He mastered the world of emotions only through hard training.
Numbers and foreign words, on the other hand, come to him naturally. He sees colors and shapes where most people see only plain words and numbers. He's memorized the number pi to 22,514 digits. He knows instantly that January 10, 2017, will be a Tuesday. And he's a fleet-footed traveler in the rocky terrain of languages.
Tammet can speak Romanian, Gaelic, Welsh and seven other languages. He learned Icelandic in a week for a TV documentary, at the end of which he gave a live interview on television. He felt somewhat nervous, but was able to speak quite fluently with the show's host. He even dared to make a joke in Icelandic, which is generally dreaded for its complexity. He still speaks the language today.
And last week, Tammet took a linguistic stroll through German's convoluted sentences, had picnics in the genitive case and roamed through the language's myriad plural forms. He did bring some rudimentary school German along for the journey. Nonetheless, his coaches were stunned.
"It's fascinating how he learns, especially because it's almost impossible to comprehend," said language coach Christiane Spies, who assisted Tammet the entire week. "I've never experienced anything like it."
Tammet first begins learning a language by reading for hours, especially children's books. He murmurs the words quietly to himself, appearing calm and highly concentrated. At 1 p.m. on the dot he gets edgy -- that's lunchtime.
In the afternoon, Tammet and Spies stroll through Hamburg, chatting about the history of the Hanseatic League, visiting museums and galleries. "He needs an incredible amount of fodder," says Spies, "otherwise he gets bored quickly." Tammet immediately links new words with ones he already knows: What is that called in other languages? Which expressions are similar?
"Wolle" (wool), "Baumwolle" (cotton) and "Wolle spinnen" (to spin wool), he notes them all down in his small handwriting. That's how it goes the whole time. Occasionally he pauses, apparently listening to his thoughts. "It doesn't seem as though the learning process is an effort for him," Spies says. But how is that possible?
Tammet tries to explain it himself: "I learn new languages intuitively, like a child." Grammar doesn't interest him. Instead, he lets himself be carried along by the language, looking for patterns in the mess of sentences he hears, tying words together into related groups. "Small, round things often start with 'Kn' in German," he says, pointing out Knoblauch (garlic), Knopf (button) and Knospe (bud). Then there are the long, thin things that often begin with "Str," like Strand (beach), Strasse (street) and Strahlen (rays).
"I try to develop a feeling of how each particular language works," he says, adding that he's helped in this pursuit by the fact that regions in his brain are connected in unusual ways. Most humans think in isolated categories, but for Tammet everything is networked. "When I think about words," he says, "I take information from everywhere in my brain." Emotions, colors and shapes all connect themselves with the words, allowing him to learn with incredible speed.
Do his talents make Tammet unapproachably eccentric? His shyness is noticeable. And yet, in an almost uncanny way, he's very likeable. He speaks in a soft, warm voice and, unexpectedly, maintains constant eye contact.
Tammet wants to explain and make understandable to others the way that he sees the world. He wants to impart fun in learning, joy in numbers, words and thoughts. "I hope my experiences can help people to discover and develop their own talents," he says. He adds, "Love is an accurate description of what I feel for languages."
"His nature is really touching," says Spies, the language coach, "both his way of learning and the person as a whole."
"How small does a spoon have to be in order to be a 'Löffelchen'," Tammet wants to know. How small must it be to receive that German diminutive "-chen"? A teaspoon isn't small enough. Instead his eye lights on a tiny spoon in a salt shaker.
So small. It's certainly worth a -chen.