The Polyglot (Language) Savant

Darold Treffert MD

Most persons with savant syndrome have impoverished language skills as part of their basic disability, while musical, artistic, mathematical or mechanical skills flourish as particular islands of genius. Very rarely however, in an already rare condition, spectacular language (polyglot) skills, surprisingly, represent the island of genius in stark contrast to other overall handicaps.

Dr. Neil Smith of University College in London has been working with one such language savant — Christopher — for many years. In the book The Mind of a Savant: Language, Learning and Modularity, coauthored by Dr. Smith with Ianthi-Maria Tsimpli, Christopher’s unique and prodigious language abilities — he can read, write and communicate in any of 15 to 20 languages — are described in great detail. By use of streaming video, however, one can get an even closer look at these remarkable skills at a web site maintained by the Linguistic Society of America at www.uga.edu/lsava/Smith/Smith.html. In the streaming video on that site, excerpts from a film called “The Mystery of Genius” show interactions between Christopher and Dr. Smith.

As described by Drs. Smith and Tsimpli in their book, Christopher was diagnosed with brain damage at age 6 weeks. Although walking and talking were somewhat delayed, at about age 3 an avid interest in factual books — telephone directories, dictionaries and books about flags or foreign currencies — developed, along with the ability to read not only in the usual fashion, but upside down or sideways as well. At age 6 or 7 Christopher showed interest in technical papers written in foreign languages that his sister brought home, fueling an obsession with languages that has lasted all his life.

In the 1995 book Christopher’s language prowess is described thus: “He first came to attention because of his remarkable ability to translate from and communicate in any of a large number of languages. He has some knowledge (ranging from fluency to the bare elements) of: Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Modern Greek, Hindi, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish and Welsh.” The book then gives examples of the breadth and depth of Christopher’s expertise in those languages. Further, however, “like most professional linguists, Christopher can also identify languages from their written form without being able to speak or translate them, so he immediately, and correctly, identified Bengali, Chinese, Czech, Gujarati, Icelandic and so on, when presented with examples of them, and when given a postcard with ‘thank you’ written in a hundred languages on it, he identified 29 of them.”

Smith and Tsmpli go on to point out that the languages come from a wide range both genetically and typologically, and are written in a number of different scripts. Also remarkable is Christopher’s ability to pick up languages quickly. They describe an incident shortly before Christopher was to appear on Dutch television: “It was suggested that he might spend a couple of days improving his rather rudimentary Dutch with the aid of a grammar and dictionary. He did so to such good effect that he was able to converse in Dutch — with facility if not total fluency — both before and during the programme.”

How does he learn his various languages? Smith and Tsmpli indicate some have been gained as he “devoured” introductory “teach yourself” books. Other languages are picked up by interacting with native speakers and for others he has received explicit instructions.

Additional in-depth descriptions of Christopher’s abilities, as well as his disabilities, can be found in the book. Also several articles are useful including “Learning the impossible: The acquisition of possible and impossible languages by a polyglot savant” by Smith, Tsimpli and Ouhalla in Lingua, 91:(1993),279-347 or “Modules and quasi-modules: language and theory of mind in a polyglot savant” by Tsimpli and Smith, Learning and Individual Differences, 10:(1998),193-215. A very interesting, recent effort to teach Christopher sign language is described in a paper by Morgan, Smith, Tsimpli and Woll entitled “Language against the odds: the learning of British Sign Language by a polyglot savant,” which appeared in Journal of Linguistics 38:(2002),1-41.

Dr. Smith continues to work with Christopher and more recent information about that work can be obtained from Dr. Smith at neil@linguistics.ucl.ac.uk.

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