Language Learning and Learning Disability

In Linguistics and Language Learning on November 13, 2008 at 3:38 pm


Learning Disabilities and Learning Opportunities

By Antonio Graceffo


A linguist friend, David Long, recently forwarded me a story about Daniel Tammet, a high functioning autistic genius who has mastered ten languages. In a test of his phenomenal mental powers, he was flown to Iceland, where he was given just one week to learn the language. A youtube video captured the panel interview, where several Icelandic professors tested his language.

“He seemed to understand all of our questions. He answered them. And, his grammar was quite good.” Said one of the professors.

In a BBC interview, Daniel Tammet explained that his memory experiences are visual. In other words, when asked how he memorized pi to more than 22,000 places past the decimal, he said that he could see the numbers, moving in front of his mind’s eye. He said that various types of data would be surrounded by sparks or lights in his brain.

While Daniel’s ability to memorize data by converting it to visual images has implications for learning any language, or any discipline, I wondered if this experience would more helpful in learning Chinese, which has a pictorial writing system. Maybe some similar visual transformation occurs in the brain of anyone who learns to read and write Chinese, but where we have to study for years, developing these images, Daniel was born with this ability.

Top salesmen often cite similar, visualization techniques when explaining how they can memorize the names of all of the potential customers they met at a cocktail party. Fake psychics and people who earn their money doing cold reading in Las Vegas type shows, also use visualization techniques. One such entertainer said that he had built a house in his brain. Each room was filled with data. For example, in the case of language learning, the living room was for verbs, the kitchen for nouns, and so on. So, when learning a language, the learner would just open the appropriate room in his head.

In a quick google search on language learning techniques, one suggests building neon signs in your brain, which point to the words. Another suggests building a movie in your head and playing it when you need to recall information. Others suggested assigning numerical values to data. By visualizing a procession of numbers in your brain, you would simply wait for the desired information to march by.

In theory, once you built the structure, whether it be a movie, a house, or a neon sign, then you would just create a blank for each new language, and plug in the new information. So, eventually you would have a Chinese house, a German house, a Haka house, and so on.

It takes tremendous mental discipline to utilize any of these techniques. But, people capable of mastering this high level of self thought control must be capable of achieving anything.

In the book, “Schach-Roman” (The Chess Novel), by Stephan Heime, the main character was locked in solitary confinement. To keep himself from going insane, he decided he would play chess. Slowly, he began using pieces of uneaten food and bits of hair and threads from his clothing to fashion a chess set. But when the guards discovered the set, they destroyed it. He eventually comes on the idea of playing a game of chess in his head. He says that playing a fair game of chess in your brain is very difficult because you have to play both the white and black pieces, with two separate brains, each, not knowing what the other plans to do next. He had to create a wall in his brain and separate his two rational thought lines.

Daniel Tammet was born with this type of visualization and mental separation in his brain. When he was a baby, his learning “disability” was recognized, and his parents were told to institutionalize him. Daniel Tammet took his problem and turned it into an opportunity.

Although I have often been accused of being an idiot, I am not autistic. I am, however, dyslexic. When I was a child in school, my teachers noticed right away that there were certain things I couldn’t do, which other children could. I couldn’t tie my shoes till I was about sixteen. I learned to ride a bicycle at sixteen and learned to drive at nearly twenty. I graduated high school with a 1.97 GPA. Or maybe it was 1.79 but the point is I don’t have a history of academic achievement. Also my English hand writing is terrible. No one can read what I write on paper. I couldn’t copy or use a dictionary in school because being dyslexic I would miscopy. I tried cheating on a spelling test once and still failed although I was looking at the answers written on a note in my palm.

Most of my essays were so messy and illegible that they were given back to me unmarked. In those instances when the teachers did try to make corrections, the page would be covered with red ink. They would tell me to recopy, but of course, being dyslexic, I couldn’t copy. So, my second draft might have the same, or even more mistakes in it. Dictionaries were an impossibility. While I was looking up a word, the letters would keep switching places and I couldn’t decide where the word should be in the dictionary.

As an adult, with a more analytical brain, I discovered that I recognize words by the central vowel sound. I don’t know why I do this. But it would explain why I would search for “candle” in the “A” section of the dictionary. Obviously I would never find it, and would eventually give up.

Paul Orfalea, the founder and original CEO of the massive Kinkos Copies corporation in USA, attributes much of his success to his inability to operate a copy machine. Dyslexic people, myself included, completely lack mechanical reasoning ability. I remember often being locked out of my house, because I didn’t know how to insert the key in the lock and turn it. In the dead of winter I would have to wait outside the house till one of my siblings came home and let me in. In junior high school, our school lockers were secured with combination locks. For weeks, I went to class without my books or went without my lunch, simply because I couldn’t open my locker.

In Paul Orfalea’s case, because he couldn’t operate the copy machine himself, he hired someone else to do it. This gave him free time to talk to customers and business owners and to decide on other services that they needed. As his first little Kinkos grew out of a stall in front of the university, he added binding, printing, and graphics to the menu of products and services. He was unable to do any of these things himself, so he hired people.

Paul Orfalea now works as a motivational speaker. He tells audiences that if he had been able to operate that first copy machine himself, he would never have had the mental leisure to look for other business opportunities. Said another way, if he had been able to operate that first copy machine, he would still be operating it today, in a little shed in front of the university.

In the case of Daniel Tammet, savantism is clearly an advantage. It would be difficult for most of us to say that he is “disabled.” Paul Orfalea says that he doesn’t have a learning disability, he has a learning opportunity. Being dyslexic forced him to think in other ways, which produced solutions other people missed.

Thomas Edison attributed much of his success to his deafness. Because he was so hard of hearing, it was laborious for people to talk to him, so they often left him alone, giving him time to read and educate himself rather than engage in idle chit-chat. He also admitted that he often used his deafness as an excuse to just tune-out other people when he wished to concentrate on his work.

Lacking mechanical reasoning ability also means I don’t have very good hand eye coordination. As a result, I never learned any of the sports “normal” American boys learned in school. I never learned to play or to appreciate baseball, football, basketball or any ball related sport. My father, a professional contractor, always wanted to teach me to work on cars or repair things, which he enjoyed doing. For other boys, this would have been a bonding experience, for me it was nightmare, tightening bolts when my father ordered me to loosen them. At least once, I remember he had to use a torch to cut off a bolt he had told me to loosen, because I had turned it in the wrong direction, permanently locking it in place.

Unable or unwilling to do the things most kids did, I put my energy into reading and lifting weights. To lift weights, you didn’t need any athletic ability at all. Sometimes I would need someone to help me change the weights on the bar, because I had trouble opening and closing the locking mechanisms, but beyond that, lifting weights was a stagnant affair which I could manage. Eventually, I also learned martial arts. The going was very slow. It took me much longer than it took “normal” kids with athletic ability, who had played football or basketball. But, when ball season started, these fast learning kids would leave the martial arts school to play ball. I stayed, and continued learning martial arts. Having no other sports opportunities gave me focus.

Many people ask how I could have read so much if I was dyslexic. The answer is, although I would often see the words backwards or inside out, I learned to use the context to guess at the meanings of the words I couldn’t make out. Interestingly, this would later be the method I would apply to learning foreign languages. While reading German novels, I didn’t use a dictionary. I simply used context and probability to decide what words meant. When I discovered the Automatic Language Growth method of language acquisition, it appealed to me, because it was the way I had always employed for language learning.

In academics, I failed all of my math classes and failed or nearly failed everything else. The only things I did well at were reading and speaking. So, I concentrated on those subjects. I also enjoyed writing stories, but I couldn’t read what I had written, so I would try to memorize the stories I wrote. Similarly, I would try and use memorization as a way of taking notes in lectures, because my hand written notes would be useless.

Fortune Magazine had an article about dyslexic CEOs. They claimed that 1 in 3 US entrepreneurs is dyslexic. One reason for these people’s success is that they were unable to fit in or to succeed within the confines of “the system.” So, they went out and found their own way.

I have often wondered how my being dyslexic effects my language learning ability. Also I am wondering if learning Chinese is a very different experience than all other languages because it is tonal, and I am non musical and can’t sing at all, and because it is visual you must remember the intricate figures, the Chinese characters for reading.  

So, is learning Chinese a different skill set? Are there people who can master European but not Asian languages? Is much of the language research and study, widely published around the world, not applicable to the study of Chinese? And is it possible that research in some other unrelated field, such as the study of mathematics or music, may be more pertinent?

Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at See his vieos on youtub.

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