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Ofviti (Icelandic for 'Genius')
June 28, 2011 8:08 AM   Subscribe


 
As someone trying to learn Icelandic, I expected to find this rather discouraging, but actually it had the opposite effect. Not in the least because I could almost follow the conversation. Sure, it took me a lot longer than seven days to get here, but it still made me happy. And honestly, I'm happy to see any and all successes in learning this language. They give me hope.
posted by Nothing at 8:17 AM on June 28, 2011


Fascinating! Says here he's got savant syndrome. Can I have a dose of that without the autism, pls?
posted by grubi at 8:19 AM on June 28, 2011


This was fascinating. Also, I want Dr. Darold Treffert to read children's books to me.
posted by spec80 at 8:22 AM on June 28, 2011


Incredible. The human mind never ceases to amaze. Stories like this always make me wonder what it is that keeps the vast majority of human minds from being capable of feats like this, while also contemplating what a world where most of us could do things like this would look like.

It also makes me glad that people like Daniel don't turn into warring super-mentats, like in Ted Chiang's story Understand.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:35 AM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I knew a guy like this in school. He claimed to be able to be conversational in a language in a matter of hours, fluent in a matter of days. Reading took him only a bit longer. From all we could tell, he wasn't exaggerating, though finding a new language to test him with was more than a bit of a challenge. As I recall, we found a Chinese dialect that he didn't know, but, knowing both Cantonese and Mandarin in advance, being fluent with that in a couple of hours may not have been such a big deal. The native speaker was impressed though. He said the polyphone nailed the dialect accent very fast.

He was a fascinating guy. I don't know if he was a savant like Tammet, but, while he was amazing with anything to do with language, he was useless with logic or math. He could memorize arithmetic, but he couldn't, for example, calculate a tip or add up grocery bill to save his life. He could do crosswords, but not word problems.

I lost track of him after school, but he was angling for a job in the foreign service. I can’t imagine a job he was better suited for.
posted by bonehead at 8:39 AM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


This felt like a (more recent) double, then I realized I had coincidentally watched "The Boy With The Incredible Brain" (the source of this excerpt) about a month ago.

Interesting stuff, though these kinds of "differently wired brains" always leave me unsure as to how I feel about them. Are their achievements "impressive"? Or are they simply a curiosity? I suppose "remarkable" is about as close as anything in describing them.
posted by ShutterBun at 8:39 AM on June 28, 2011


I can heartily recommend his memoirs, Born on a Blue Day.
posted by maximum sensing at 8:43 AM on June 28, 2011


I am quite skeptical about Tammet. I saw a documentary about him and read his book Born on a Blue Day around the same time and noticed some inconsistencies. Specifically in the book he discussed how he was an experienced chess played. But in the documentary (unfortunately I cannot recall the title, but I believe it was a British television documentary, possibly 'The Boy With The Incredible Brain' as someone mentioned above) they demonstrated his memory abilities by having him memorise the position of chessboards, and compete against chess players doing this memory trick, and they made a big deal out of how he could not play chess. That just struck me as a bit dodgy. Then recently I read Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer, and he interviewed Tammet about his memory and synaesthesia, and Foer pointed out a lot more inconsistencies in his story. I'm not saying this guy has no savant abilities or anything, obviously this is an impressive feat, but I am not entirely convinced that he is everything he claims to be.
posted by maybeandroid at 9:02 AM on June 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


As some who does speak Icelandic, I can attest that it is a difficult language, and that after a week he speaks about as well as I could after about 8 months. His grammar is a little choppy, but damn - one week? I'm still messing up declensions after some 12 years here.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:13 AM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm not saying this guy has no savant abilities or anything, obviously this is an impressive feat, but I am not entirely convinced that he is everything he claims to be.

I would assume that they did a talk-show conversation format for just this reason - to prevent him from memorizing the sounds of specific lengthy answers instead of creating them as necessary from the words and phrases he learned.
posted by odinsdream at 9:15 AM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Can he actually speak conversational Icelandic? Or is he trotting out a few prepared phrases?

The asthma line is good, but I would be astonished if he really came up with it off-the-cuff.
posted by robtoo at 9:15 AM on June 28, 2011


maybeandroid: " I'm not saying this guy has no savant abilities or anything, obviously this is an impressive feat, but I am not entirely convinced that he is everything he claims to be."

Given that video and his wiki entry both have him being described as "one of fewer than a hundred 'prodigious savants' according to Dr. Darold Treffert, the world's leading researcher in the study of savant syndrome", I suspect your doubt is slightly misplaced.

Either that or there's a bunch of Icelandic folk who somehow have a reason to hoodwink you about an English bloke's ability to speak their language very, very quickly. How would they benefit from going alone with some kind of fraud?
posted by Happy Dave at 9:22 AM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Can he actually speak conversational Icelandic? Or is he trotting out a few prepared phrases?

The asthma line is good, but I would be astonished if he really came up with it off-the-cuff.


I believe the asthma line was off the cuff. It wasn't as well a constructed sentence as other things he said, which was a giveaway for me. His grammar was a bit off. I don't think he was coached beyond what anyone else would coach themselves for before an interview. He appears to me to be conversational, so long as the topic is simple and you give him time to find his words while answering.

But the real kicker for me is that all too familiar expression of "uhhh crap what's the damn word for it again?" that appeared on his face a few times. That made me think, "Oh man, I've been there before." He's the real deal.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:28 AM on June 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


Dr. Treffert's point at around the 5:30 mark ("The bigger question is whether we all have some of those abilities within us...") is touched upon in Joshua Foer's book, Moonwalking With Einstein. I have little doubt that it does; my entire life, people have been telling me I am "good with languages," whatever that may mean. I have maybe ten percent of Tammet's vacuum-cleaner-like ability to absorb words, but what I have seems automatic and intuitive to me.

It is parochialism, but I sometimes forget that, y'know, normal people cannot memorize entire thirty-line poems in a foreign language in five minutes, or carry on slightly ungrammatical but entirely understandable conversations in languages they have been exposed to for only a few days.

A degree of skepticism about Tammet's abilities is understandable and healthy, but my finding is that foreign language study is difficult for many and markedly easy for a few, and these few tend to think, "what is the big deal?"
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:28 AM on June 28, 2011


Loved Sigridur Kristinsdottir, the wonderful Icelandic teacher's way of describing things, like the vacuum cleaner sound she makes when describing Tammet's skills for taking in the language. Got the feeling she's an excellent language teacher.
posted by nickyskye at 9:30 AM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Josh Foer writes pretty scathingly about Tammet. I don't doubt that the man has a talent for language learning, but he comes off as a bit of a dissembling schemer.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:30 AM on June 28, 2011


they demonstrated his memory abilities by having him memorise the position of chessboards, and compete against chess players doing this memory trick, and they made a big deal out of how he could not play chess.

He just forgot he can play chess.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:31 AM on June 28, 2011


To clarify, I am not saying that he is faking his language abilities or the savant syndrome. But in what I have previously read/seen of him, I noticed some inconsistencies, not necessarily with his abilities, but with his back story (see the point about the chess story that I mentioned in my post above). In Moonwalking with Einstein, Foer discusses the same thing, and if I recall, he actually catches him out as lying about some things. In that case, I think a certain about is skepticism is justified.
posted by maybeandroid at 9:38 AM on June 28, 2011


they demonstrated his memory abilities by having him memorise the position of chessboards, and compete against chess players doing this memory trick, and they made a big deal out of how he could not play chess.

No, I think this is something else entirely -- this is a common demonstration of of how much better people remember patterns they can discern instead of mere random facts. Ranked chess players tend to do far better than people off the stret at recalling the positions if shown a game in progress but both groups do about the same if shown a random placement of pieces in the board. That is, a chess player sees the structures of the pieces (the white bishops are fianchettoed and this one supports that knight, while Black has just castled kingside) but if the pieces are just placed on random squares, it is so much noise.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:39 AM on June 28, 2011


maybeandroid: " I'm not saying this guy has no savant abilities or anything, obviously this is an impressive feat, but I am not entirely convinced that he is everything he claims to be."


Dude learns Icelandic in a week, and you're STILL a BIT skeptical.


I'd love to see what you find unequivocally convincing.
posted by gcbv at 9:43 AM on June 28, 2011


I don't think he was coached beyond what anyone else would coach themselves for before an interview. He appears to me to be conversational, so long as the topic is simple and you give him time to find his words while answering.

A tap-dancing dwarf interviewed on a television talk show can reasonably expect the questions to be about tap-dancing or being a dwarf. Similarly, a savant who is learning Icelandic can reasonably expect to be asked what he thingks about the Icelandic language, how he has learned the Icelandic language, and how it is to be a savant. This is an extremely narrow range of topics, with a few very obvious opening questions, that is easily prepared for.

And a television talk show is unlikely to be a hostile interview. It is not unreasonable to expect that (on top of the obviously limited range of topics), someone actually gave him the questions in advance.
posted by robtoo at 9:44 AM on June 28, 2011


At the risk of irony, "ofviti" doesn't mean "genius" in Icelandic, but "know-it-all." I don't have much of an opinion of Tammet one way or the other, but he learned a lot of Icelandic in a very short period of time. However, the more languages you know, the better your chances of learning a new one.

robtoo: It is not unreasonable to expect that (on top of the obviously limited range of topics), someone actually gave him the questions in advance.

I know some of the people who were involved in this from the RÚV side (the Icelandic state broadcaster, which is the station that interviewed him) and the questions were absolutely not fed to him beforehand.
posted by Kattullus at 9:48 AM on June 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


ricochet biscuit - my point was not concerned with his ability to memorise chess pieces but with the inconsistency in the fact that it was stated that he couldn't play chess, while his own book talks about how he competed in chess competitions in school. It is nothing to do with his ability, it is about the misrepresentation of the facts. Also worth noting that the Icelandic interview came from the same television documentary.
posted by maybeandroid at 9:52 AM on June 28, 2011


robtoo: Icelandic is difficult enough that even that feat, being able to pick up the right keywords in the right order and say something intelligible in return, is pretty spectacular. Words for simple objects are tongue twisters, and the orthography is different enough from English to make things unpronounceable based on spelling. I'm impressed. I stayed in Iceland for a week, and while I did OK picking up individual words and phrases, I don't think I could have done what Tammet did had I been there for the better part of a year.
posted by 1adam12 at 9:55 AM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


A tap-dancing dwarf interviewed on a television talk show can reasonably expect the questions to be about tap-dancing or being a dwarf. Similarly, a savant who is learning Icelandic can reasonably expect to be asked what he thingks about the Icelandic language, how he has learned the Icelandic language, and how it is to be a savant. This is an extremely narrow range of topics, with a few very obvious opening questions, that is easily prepared for.

And a television talk show is unlikely to be a hostile interview. It is not unreasonable to expect that (on top of the obviously limited range of topics), someone actually gave him the questions in advance.


So we're in agreement then.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:36 AM on June 28, 2011


The Boy With The Incredible Brain, the documentary the clip above comes from. The way he processes number is actually pretty mindblowing.
posted by Panjandrum at 10:42 AM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]




Relevant: Tammet at TED

Apologies if it's been linked to already.
posted by Brackish at 12:33 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


These kinds of people are so fascinating.

The second person I met who had this ability was working at a youth hostel here in Seattle in the mid-90s. Really friendly, soft spoken fellow. He was travelling the globe and just basically fucking off internationally via the hostel system.

He told me that the CIA had been after him for years to work for them, but the politics of the Company didn't agree with him.

I asked him how long it took him to learn a new tongue and he said it happened in weeks. Pressed further he told me that most languages start to sound alike after a while; that eventually it feels like your learning new rules mostly and vocabulary much less.

I have no idea how many languages he was conversant in and I'm not sure the question is applicable. I am sure that I am jealous of this ability; perhaps one of the most astounding talents I've ever encountered in another human being.
posted by artof.mulata at 3:12 PM on June 28, 2011


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