Why you should care

If you can’t be the genius, figure out what you can learn from one.

Life for Laetitia Hahn is busy: classes, piano recitals, skateboarding, skiing, time with her brother. A day at her family’s home in Velbert, Germany, finds her playing tag in the lounge, being chased by her water-pistol-wielding brother, Philip. She’s 11 — life seems simple enough.

Except that her classes are in ninth grade and at the University of Münster, her recitals are with world-famous concert pianist Lang Lang and her innocent days belie her status as child genius. With an IQ of 145 and five languages under her belt — German (her mother swears she uttered her first word at 8 weeks old and could read by 2), English (which she started speaking at 3), French, Old Chinese and Spanish. In three years, she’ll have a high school diploma in hand with college credits to boot. The world hungers for stories like this, of course: From physicist Enrico Fermi to actor Haley Joel Osment, child prodigies are positively fascinating. For one, because they’re rare — 1 in 5,000–10,000, says Joanne Ruthsatz, researcher on gifted children and professor of psychology at Ohio State University at Mansfield.

And for another reason. In the age of TED, when we spend almost as much time learning how to learn as we do performing our actual day jobs, the question, naturally, is: What the hell is going on inside that kiddo’s brain? We know a little bit. Kids with preternaturally advanced abilities may store memories in their cerebellums, where most of us store our motor memories, suggests Ruthsatz. Her guess: Prodigies have a prodigy gene or mutation assisting with a few specific skill sets: “memory, extreme attention to detail.”

13 jaehrige abiturientin aus duesseldorf l copy

Laetitia Hahn speaks five languages.

Source Francois Duchateau

Laetitia herself stands at just 4-foot-11, with bangs and a chubby face not unlike Roald Dahl’s fictional Matilda. With light eyes and feet that might not always quite touch the floor, she seems to humor adults with a habit of craning close; she may be aware of the hype but doesn’t much show it (despite the awards that plaster an entire wall on the ground floor of the family home — alongside three pianos, two of them grand, one in the kitchen). Instead, she tells of a first day at university … when two “adults” in her music history class fell asleep and promptly began snoring. So, which one is childish?

Her father, Christian Hahn, himself tested at an IQ of 137 at a young age (above 130 is considered gifted). He’s a testament to the crucial element of nurture plus nature: Now a real estate adviser, he says he was never appropriately challenged and felt understimulated at school. By contrast, though, Christian and wife, Annette (IQ: 132), have in many ways committed their lives to their offsprings’ talent, like good stage parents; they shell out for private school and got Laetitia studying via iTunes U. But ask the Hahns and they’ll tell you that they don’t push Laetitia or her little brother — who also sports a plus-130 IQ, “Amadeus” as a middle name and, fittingly, a knack for the piano. They’re of the “self-motivate” variety — and a recent trip to Tiger Mom-filled Asia only reinforced that value set for the Hahn parents. And Laetitia isn’t perfectly motivated, much like an average 11-year-old. Piano teacher Heribert Koch quips, “Just try and teach Laetitia something she’s not interested in.”

What she is interested in: more of her own concerts, including orchestral performances, and a debut CD. Her style is sweet, more conducive to family dinnertime than many other famed recitalists. Her MO: Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin. The place she didn’t find an ideal audience? School performances, where kids had a habit of booing, especially in primary school.

The term prodigy, though, is “misleading,” worries her father. “A huge amount of hard work and discipline” also goes into his daughter’s achievements, he says. Indeed, some experts would agree. David Feldman, professor of child development at Tufts University and one of the original thinkers on the concept of prodigy, tells us upon hearing Laetitia’s story that she is “exceptionally gifted” thanks to a “pretty good general ability to store knowledge in your brain.” But, he warns, she probably doesn’t meet the technical definition of “child prodigy” (which, he reminds us, is “not without controversy”). “She would have to be performing languages at the level of an adult linguist” to qualify. Just being able to learn languages isn’t the same as doing “what a professional translator does,” he says. For good measure, he reminds us: “The general public’s understandings of child prodigies are a bit off. It’s a hoo-hah-oh-my-God term to use.”

And brilliance is no straight indicator of a good life. Though Annette says they are “not onto the topic of boys yet,” the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have taken the hint. Thanks surely in part to Laetitia’s appearances on TV shows and her own YouTube presence, she’s received marriage proposals from older boys and men over Facebook and email. She even had a stalker for a few months and saw what the Hahns describe as attempts to sabotage performances. Now they religiously filter fan mail and YouTube comments.

Piano and languages aside, though, perhaps the loveliest marker of Laetitia’s intelligence lies in the questions she asked her philosopher mother at a young age. Like this one, in kindergarten: “Mama,” she asked, “if all people who are born eventually die, then what is the point in living?”

Annette’s answer: “Laetitia, you live to learn.”

Libby Coleman contributed reporting to this story.

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