Savants are typically individuals with serious mental disabilities who demonstrate profound and prodigious capacities and/or abilities far in excess of what would be considered normal, including the capacity for languages.
A well-known case of a polyglot savant is that of "Christopher", who participated in studies with Dr. Neil Smith, Ianthi-Maria Tsimpli, and Jamal Ouhalla. Christopher is fluent in approximately sixteen languages and possesses the capacity to acquire new languages very easily. Researchers taught him new languages, controlling the methods and exposure, so that they could study his language-learning process and extrapolate the results to determine how most people acquire languages. Christopher was taught two completely new languages: Berber language is a real language spoken in Africa, while Epun is an invented language. Some of Epun’s structures and rules were made to violate the parameters of universal grammar, which are hypothesized to underlie all human languages. Christopher was able to learn Berber as easily as he could any other foreign language, but had difficulties learning Epun. For example, he had trouble processing sentences structures that weren’t in the S-V-O order. This provided further evidence for the theory that there is a Universal grammar shared by all human languages which defines what is linguistically possible (in terms of word order, syntax, structure, etc.). The researchers applied what they discovered from studying how Christopher learned Berber and Epun to the general process of acquiring an L2 (a language that it is non-native). They conclude that L2 learning consists of transferring familiar rules from one’s L1 (native language) to the new language system and of applying the principles of universal grammar.
This research demonstrates the hope that studying how extraordinary individuals, such as polyglot savants, will help reveal how humans in general acquire languages.
Christopher learned languages by quickly "devouring" introductory self-teaching books, interacting with native speakers, and receiving explicit instructions. Another remarkable capability that Christopher possesses is one similar to that of professional linguists. He can identify languages just by looking at their written form, although he cannot speak or translate them. For example, Christopher correctly identified Bengali, Chinese, Czech, Gujarati, Icelandic, just to name a few, when shown examples of these languages. This is especially interesting because these languages are from a range, both genetically and typologically. Also, they are written in many different scripts.
While polyglot savants such as Emil Krebs may have anatomical or biological differences that allow them to organize language in a different and more efficient manner, it has also been suggested that the entire language acquisition process for polyglot savants is different than the process most humans undergo. It has been proposed that these individuals with unparalleled linguistic abilities undergo the same first language acquisition process over and over again with each new language. Because they are able to consciously or unconsciously learn the pragmatics, grammar, syntax, etc. of a language as if they were learning a language for the first time they are able to acquire it as proficiently as a native speaker. Most humans allow the grammar of previously learned languages affect and influence their ability to learn a second, third, etc. language. This is an issue that these polyglot savants do not struggle with. This ability may be tied directly to how these individuals organize Broca’s area of the brain however; their learning abilities for languages are unparalleled and still not 100% understood to this day.
There is still much research that needs to be done regarding the mechanisms through which polyglot savants acquire language. Although it is apparent that polyglot savants, such as Christopher, have amazing linguistic abilities, quite often, their general intellectual ability is impaired. Poor hand-eye coordination, weak problem solving abilities, and social and conversational problems, make every day tasks very difficult for Christopher. This, paired with his incredible ability to process languages, demonstrates the fact that there is still much to learn about the nature of learning new tasks, and how it ties in with learning new languages.