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Where materialism fails: Grappling with the power of exceptional minds

In a review of Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, by Michael Erard, (BN Review, January 25, 2012 ), Graeme Wood

Well yes, but you must have the talent to begin with. Otherwise, maybe practical jokes or backchat might get attention …

This all suggests that there’s no magic formula for language learning, or at least nothing that one can use purely through an act of will. You can’t become Mezzofanti, in part because the traits are not generally voluntary and in part because even Mezzofanti wasn’t Mezzofanti. There are learning techniques that sometimes work and sometimes don’t; some say adding physical movement helps learning (Arguelles likes to run around and shout vocabulary words), and some suggest that zapping one’s brain with electricity can boost memory. But for most of us, it’s back to the flash cards, and to humiliating ourselves when we try to order in French restaurants.

But to say that the traits aren’t voluntary doesn’t get us anywhere either. We don’t get to choose our talents.

The reviewer doesn’t convey a sense that the author grapples with the origin of the mental capacity for learning dozens of languages, beyond identifying prompts, aids, and helps whose value depends critically on an undiscovered country. So far.

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7 Responses to Where materialism fails: Grappling with the power of exceptional minds

  1. There is always a trade-off with intelligence. A capacity/inclination to learn many languages is likely to reflect a kind of butterfly mentality and attitude of mind. I know a translator who has learnt about 26. This is not to demean his intelligence or character, but simply to suggest that to some people, such as myself, it would seem that there are better ways to spend one’s time.

    Another translator taught himself Arabic simply by studying Arabic newspapers. He really does have ‘a mind like a steel trap’. But as with all of us, there is a trade-off with areas he paid less attention to.

  2. I am Canadian and only speak English.
    I always hear of missionary kids who can speak 5 languages before they are five and all kinds of stories of language learning abilities.

    I suspect learning languages is no big intellectual deal.
    In fact kids learn them easily because they are not doing much else.
    I’m sure most people could by thier 50 year learn some thirty languages.

    All languages are just memorized sounds in combinations.
    There is not that much to learn therefore in any language.

    We already are fast thinking beings trying to put our fast moving thoughts into these sound combinations.
    Its a small matter to memorize some different boundaries for this objective.

  3. Here are a few exceptional minds:

    The boy in this following video surpasses Nikola Tesla as an example of innovative ideas coming fully formed to the mind without any need for trial and error whatsoever:

    Bluejay: The Mind of a Child Prodigy – video
    http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7186319n

    This boy is simply amazing

    Jake: Math prodigy proud of his autism – 60 Minutes – CBS News – video
    http://www.cbsnews.com/video/w.....e1.channel

    Quote of note at the 12:00 minute mark of the preceding video;

    ‘The whole randomness thing, that’s like completely against all of physics’
    Jake Barnett – Math Prodigy

    More savants

    Derek Paravicini on 60 MINUTES – Autistic Savant – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4303465

    Kim Peek – The Real Rain Man [2/5] – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJjAbs-3kc8

    Autistic Savant Stephen Wiltshire Draws the City Of Rome From Memory – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4200256

    The Human Calculator – Ruediger Gamm – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4200252

    Attack results in Savant Syndrome, Jason Padgett, Beautiful Mind, Fractals
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCvYKiNW4vQ

    This man ‘saw’ pi as a landscape that he walked through to over 20,000 digits

    Math Genius Computes in the Blink of an Eye – Daniel Tammet – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xd1gywPOibg

    Of interest to the ‘landscape’ of pi:

    What pi sounds like – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOQb_mtkEEE

    This following severely handicapped girl blew her family, and everyone else, away

    Severely Handicapped Girl Suddenly Expresses Intelligence At Age 11 – very moving video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNZVV4Ciccg

  4. Here are a few exceptional minds:

    The boy in this following video surpasses Nikola Tesla as an example of innovative ideas coming fully formed to the mind without any need for trial and error whatsoever:

    Bluejay: The Mind of a Child Prodigy – video
    http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7186319n

    This boy is simply amazing

    Jake: Math prodigy proud of his autism – 60 Minutes – CBS News – video
    http://www.cbsnews.com/video/w.....e1.channel

    Quote of note at the 12:00 minute mark of the preceding video;

    ‘The whole randomness thing, that’s like completely against all of physics’
    Jake Barnett – Math Prodigy

    More savants

    Derek Paravicini on 60 MINUTES – Autistic Savant – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4303465

    Kim Peek – The Real Rain Man [2/5] – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJjAbs-3kc8

    Autistic Savant Stephen Wiltshire Draws the City Of Rome From Memory – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4200256

    The Human Calculator – Ruediger Gamm – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4200252

    Attack results in Savant Syndrome, Jason Padgett, Beautiful Mind, Fractals
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCvYKiNW4vQ

    This man ‘saw’ pi as a landscape that he walked through to over 20,000 digits

    Math Genius Computes in the Blink of an Eye – Daniel Tammet – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xd1gywPOibg

    Of interest to the ‘landscape’ of pi:

    What pi sounds like – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOQb_mtkEEE

  5. This following severely handicapped girl blew her family, and everyone else, away

    Severely Handicapped Girl Suddenly Expresses Intelligence At Age 11 – very moving video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNZVV4Ciccg

  6. The thing about the ability to learn a language simply by absorbing it is that everyone has that ability in spades as a young child, but the vast majority lose it by the time they’re 15, after which learning a new language becomes a matter of hard work and memorization. A small percentage of individuals do not lose it, however. An interesting research project would be to explore why it is that a few human beings retain that ability into adulthood.

  7. News,

    How do exceptional minds present any more of a challenge to materialism than they do to dualism?

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