The Current

Numbers 'were my mother tongue': How autistic savant Daniel Tammet sees language

Daniel Tammet sees the world very differently than most people. He sees language in numbers — and words are a rainbow of different colours.
Daniel Tammet sees language in numbers 1:00

Daniel Tammet is a most extraordinary man. He sees the world very differently than most people.

For him, words and numbers and pictures and emotions all intermingle in his mind. 

To Tammet, the word "snow" is the number 89. Feeling "shyis the number four.  Numbers and words glow, or take on other forms. The condition is known as synesthesia.

Tammet explains as a young child, he never felt he belonged to the English language. 

"So I was growing up feeling very different from my peers at school, from even my family, I didn't feel I belonged. English was the language in which I felt foreign, in which I didn't fit in," the author of Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"And so numbers in a way were my mother tongue. They were the language that I thought and felt and sometimes even dreamed in."

Besides synesthesia, Tammet was also diagnosed later in life with high-functioning autism. 

Daniel Tammet has fascinated scientists and mathematicians with his affinity to numbers and how he sees words. His new book, Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing, explores a new way of understanding language. (Hachette Book Group Canada/Copyright © 2017 Jérôme Tabet)

He gained international fame by being able to memorize "pi" to more than 22,500 digits. Tammet also has an amazing ability to learn languages. He speaks six languages fluently and learned Icelandic in just seven days. 

You can be an autistic painter, an autistic sculptor, an autistic musician. I have met all of those and each is wonderful.- Daniel Tammet

When children at school would bully him, Tammet explains he would find comfort retreating into a world of numbers.  

"I would close my eyes. I had repetitive actions that are very common for children on the autistic spectrum,'" Tammet recalls.

"My hands would be fluttering like butterflies beneath my chin. I would be sometimes walking in circles. And my parents' home was very close to the school, so at times I would take myself back home to my bedroom, close the door and just spend the time I needed by myself in this poetry of numbers to calm myself down."

Tammet used dialogue in novels to help him understand his peers and their language.

"In novels you can read inside the characters' minds, everything is transparent, and I would try to use this information to learn empathy, basically — to understand what was going on in another person's head, another person's skin," he tells Tremonti.

This is really the heart of language — it's about stories.- Daniel Tammet

Tammet says that in the past, great writers like Lewis Carroll or Hans Christian Andersen would probably have been diagnosed as having  high-functioning autism. And he adds people with high-functioning autism have a lot to contribute, if only they were given the chance. 

"People living with autism can be incredibly creative. Have minds that are different. Have grown different connections in the brain but have their own beauty and their own poetry," Tammet explains.

"You can be an autistic painter, an autistic sculptor, an autistic musician. I have met all of those and each is wonderful in their own right and their own career."

For teachers teaching language, Tammet suggests putting the textbooks to one side and focus more on using stories to teach language "because that is what you know makes language worth learning."

"This is really the heart of language — it's about stories. It's about the social, relating to people, wanting to talk to people, wanting to tell them something that is important to you."

Tammet says that you can't ignore language is part syntax and grammar, but teachers need to find "ways of making language alive."

"Because every language is a living phenomenon and if you put it in a cage, the bird won't sing."

This segment is part of our season-long series Adaptation looking at the surprising, innovative, and sometimes ill-advised ways we accommodate a rapidly shifting world. 

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.