A Wide Sky

January 8, 2010 at 9:00 AM | Posted in AmeriCorps, Development | Comments Off on A Wide Sky

According to the autistic savant, Daniel Tammet, some words appear to be more a natural “fit” than others for the things they describe. Tammet’s most recent book, Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Human Mind, explores our varying learning styles. One of the chapters is devoted to acquiring a secondary language. Tammet’s views are credible, having learned Icelandic in one week. He describes (in Icelandic) the experience of learning a secondary language as a “word waterfall”. Surveying languages from the Australian Aboriginals to Gaelic and the Andean Quechua, Tammet argues that all languages have an intuitive sense for word meanings. Think onomatopoeia, such as boom or cuckoo. There are many more words that are onomatopoeic in subtler ways:

Some of Tammet’s examples, try them out:

Does the Basque word durrunda mean A) a quiet noise or B) a loud noise ?

Does the Malay verb menggerutu refer to someone who A) laughs or B) grumbles ?

Is the Italian piro piro a kind of A) fish or B) bird ?

Is the Samoan ongololo a A) centipede or B) ant ?

While the link between sound and meaning is not always explicit, there is a vast amount of words that can be grasped in little time using this perspective. Tammet argues that certain sounds inevitably become associated with particular meanings. In English, the word light is often associated with “gl”, for example: glimmer, gleam, glitter, glean, glisten, glow, etc.

One of the biggest problems with learning a secondary language is information overload. Too much information comes at us in quick succession. The process of categorizing and then activating this information cannot keep up, thus some of it flies over our heads. A language learner can stem this problem by organizing or “chunking” that information. Words are easier to remember if they can be related to others or chunked together. Take these two sentences:

“She ate dinner last night.”

“He goes to the restaurant at 7:00 pm.”

Now mix and match:

“He ate dinner at 7:00pm.”

“She went to the restaurant last night.”

Given two sentences, the learner can make at least two more sentences by using chunks.

Keeping these techniques in mind while teaching can help our learners expand their active vocabulary and command the English language. In the end, organization is key. (answers b,b,b,a)

Daniel Tammet


Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Human Mind


– Matt Arnold, AmeriCorps Instructor


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