Learn to Think Better: Tips from a Savant

*Daniel Tammet is author of two books, Born on a Blue Day and Embracing the Wide Sky.

One of the most interesting scientific discoveries about how language works (and how it could be taught) is “phonaesthesia”—that certain sounds have a meaningful relation to the things they describe. For example, in many languages the vowel sound “i” is associated with smallness—little, tiny, petite, niño, and so on—whereas the sound “a” or “o” is associated with largeness—grand, gross, gordo, etcetera. Such links have been found in many of the world’s languages. These findings strongly imply that learners would benefit from learning to draw on their own natural intuitions to help them understand and remember many of the foreign words that they come across.

Another finding, by cognitive psychologists Lera Boroditsky, Lauren A. Schmidt and Webb Phillips, might also offer a useful insight into an important part of learning a second language. The researchers asked German and Spanish native speakers to think of adjectives to describe a range of objects, such as a key. The German speakers, for whom the word “key” is masculine, gave adjectives such as “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged” and “metal,” whereas the Spanish speakers, for whom “key” is feminine, gave responses such as “golden,” “little,” “lovely” and “shiny.” This result suggests that native speakers of languages that have gendered nouns remember the different categorization for each by attending to differing characteristics, depending on whether the noun is “male” or “female.” It is plausible that second-language learners could learn to perceive various nouns in a similar way to help them remember the correct gender.

Regardless of how exactly a person learns a second language, we do know for sure that it is very good for your brain. There is good evidence that language learning helps individuals to abstract information, focus attention, and may even help ward off age-related declines in mental performance.

Researchers have found that you are more likely to remember something if the place or situation in which you are trying to recall the information bears some resemblance—color or smell, for example—to where you originally learned it. A greater awareness therefore of the context in which we acquire a particular piece of information can help improve our ability to remember it later on.

(via Sullivan)

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