Daniel Tammet was born in London. His mother spoke English and he grew up in an English-speaking environment. Yet to his ears the English language was an alien language.
Words and sentences were a puzzle the young boy could not figure out. Daniel was an autistic savant. He was a self-confessed misfit in a world of words. He was also a mathematical genius. Daniel felt, thought, and dreamed in a private language of numbers.
Daniel remembers receiving a book on counting when he was four. Where others saw numbers, he saw images. To Daniel’s mind, each number had a shape, a color and a texture of its own. Neurologists call this condition synesthesia. For example, 89 meant ‘snow’ to Daniel, and the number six meant ‘sadness’.
Daniel explained, “When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges.”
Daniel’s language was unique but he had no way of sharing it. The young boy felt isolated from the other children at school. He felt intimidated by their strange language.
Daniel didn’t know how to connect with other children. He said, “We spoke differently, thought differently. The other children hadn’t the faintest idea (how could they?). I didn’t dare approach them and attempt to strike up a conversation. Besides, I did not know what a conversation sounded like.”
While the other children played football, Daniel would stand and count the leaves on trees.
Friendless and frustrated Daniel hatched a plan. He would master the English language through his talent for numbers. He began reading non-stop.
Daniel made lists of words according to their shape, texture, and number. Some words such as gobble, cupboard, and cabbage were round like the number 3. Other words such as jacket, wife and quick were pointy like the number 4. And words such as kingdom, shoemaker and surrounded were shimmering to Daniel.
Daniel eventually mastered the English language. By the time he left school, he was fluent in French and German as well.
He has since written a best-selling book about his trials and tribulations.
Daniel is now creating his own language. It’s called Mänti. Its influences are the vowel and image-rich languages of northern Europe.
From struggling to learn languages, Daniel can now learn new languages in record time. He used his mastery of numbers to master languages. He is now fluent in over ten different languages.
Yet he still loves numbers. “It sounds silly, but numbers are my friends,” he said.
Numbers helped Daniel make sense of the world. But it was language which gave him the tools to share those beautiful insights.