All Threads by Date
In which we discuss the teenage hyperpolyglot and get accused of being pedophiles and/or antisemites
OK. I admit it up front. I probably would not have started this thread if he weren't adorable.
Adventures of a Teenage Polyglot
By JOHN LELAND
SOME people pick up a little Hebrew before their bar mitzvahs, or learn Spanish from their mothers, or can speak some Japanese from a semester abroad.
Timothy Doner, 16, is not one of those people. In the fall of 2009, after studying for his bar mitzvah, he decided he wanted to learn modern Hebrew, so he continued with his tutor, engaging in long dialogues about Israeli politics. Then he felt drawn to learn Arabic, so after eighth grade he attended a summer program for college students at Brigham Young University. It took him four days to learn the alphabet, he said, a week to read fluidly.
Then he dived into Russian, Italian, Persian, Swahili, Indonesian, Hindi, Ojibwe, Pashto, Turkish, Hausa, Kurdish, Yiddish, Dutch, Croatian and German, teaching himself mostly from grammar books and flash card applications on his iPhone. This in addition to a more formal study of French, Latin and Mandarin at the Dalton School, where he is a sophomore.
Then last March, during spring break, Timothy did something that changed the metabolism of his language study. In his family’s apartment in the East Village, he made a video of himself speaking in Arabic and uploaded it onto YouTube, with subtitles in English. The response was sparse but enthusiastic, mainly from people in the Middle East: Way to go, Tim! He followed with more videos, each adding viewers, until his Pashto video, posted on Dec. 21, had 10,000 views in two days.
Suddenly, Timothy had people to talk to in all his languages — not just native speakers, but also people like himself, who were interested in language for its own sake, a small but vibrant subculture of language geeks, one made possible only by the Internet.
The linguist Michael Erard, in a recent book called “Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners,” describes these autodidacts as a “neural tribe,” joined not by common language but by a restless linguistic promiscuity. As English dominance has made it possible to navigate more and more of the world with just one language, these hyperpolyglots are no longer isolated in their passion for learning dozens or more.
There is Benny from Ireland and Moses McCormick from Ohio, Alexander Arguelles in Singapore and Mike Campbell, a k a Glossika, in Taiwan. Timothy was inspired by a video of Richard Simcott, a British hyperpolyglot, speaking 16 languages in succession. Mr. Simcott, in turn, introduced Timothy’s videos to the online forum he runs, How to Learn Any Language.
“When Moses e-mailed me, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” Timothy said of Mr. McCormick, who posts his videos under the handle Laoshu505000. “This is a guy with videos in 50 languages. It was like talking to a celebrity.”
Mr. McCormick, 30, said that incomprehension was the most common response from people outside the tribe. “So many people tell me I’m insane,” he said. When he was an undergraduate at Ohio State University, he said, “people told me to choose one language and master it. But I have a true passion to learn a lot of languages.”
When he went online, Timothy said, “I found videos of people who had been studying for a year, inching along, and I thought, yeah, I can do that. I never imagined I’d be the center of so much attention.”
- ON a Saturday in late February, Timothy had a visit from a classmate named Tamvi Agrawal, who agreed to help him with his Hindi. He had been studying the language seriously for about a month, beginning with the alphabet and grammar, and moving on to flash cards and Bollywood songs. In another week, he planned to make a video. His pronunciation was terrible, he said.
“It’s really not bad,” Tamvi said.
“Do you know what ergativity is?” he asked her, referring to a property of some languages, including Hindi, by which a verb’s subject changes case when the verb is intransitive. She did not.
Timothy often comes out with constructions like this, brainy but not arrogant, a product of many hours spent alone in study. With little prodding, he talks enthusiastically about the history of Islamic expansion or the areas of the brain associated with language. One day, discussing Turkish, he asked a visitor if he knew what an agglutinative language was. (It is a language in which new words are created by adding prefixes and suffixes.) Though languages are at their base social connectors, their study, for the most acquisitive, can be isolating. When school is out, Timothy said, he spends up to 15 hours a day studying, teaching himself the rudiments of a language in two or three weeks.
Hyperpolyglots have been the objects of curiosity at least since the 19th century, when Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti of Bologna was said to have mastered more than 50 languages. For nearly as long, people have debated whether their ability was innate or learned.
The answer, neurolinguists are now discovering, is a bit of both, said Loraine Obler, a linguist and a professor at the City University of New York who has studied bilingualism’s effect on the brain. “There are people whose brains are set up to do language learning,” she said, “the same way some people are more talented at drawing.” Also, she added, “The brain’s ability to absorb increases as we know more languages. Having a second language at a young age helps you learn a third, even if they’re unrelated.”
One theory is that a spike in testosterone levels in the womb can increase a brain’s asymmetry, creating a greater incidence of left-handedness, autoimmune disorders, learning disorders, homosexuality and talents in art, music and languages.
“When I read that, I thought I was reading about myself — the social awkwardness, left-handedness,” said Peter Brown, 54, a professor of Spanish at the University of Texas-Pan American, who describes himself as an “accumulator” of languages. Like many other polyglots, Mr. Brown offers a tiered answer when asked how many languages he knows. “I can speak freely in six,” including Esperanto, he said. “I can read freely in 12. And I have some reading knowledge of Chinese, Arabic and Indonesian.”
He said he found the polyglot videos on YouTube more interesting than television. “These people have personalities,” he said.
For Timothy, linguistic adventures outside the home, largely with cab drivers, have been hit and miss. He recently had a conversation in Hausa, a West African language, which excited him and surprised the driver. But on other occasions, he has addressed someone in Arabic, only to learn that the person spoke Bengali or another language.
People have asked him if he is autistic, or if he is training to be an assassin. On YouTube, some Arabic speakers suggested he was preparing to join the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.
But there have been moments of triumph: Once, at an Israeli restaurant near Avenue A in the East Village, Timothy was eating with his father — an entertainment lawyer, who, like Timothy’s mother, does not share their son’s polyglotism — when three customers made comments about them in Hebrew.
- But there have been moments of triumph: Once, at an Israeli restaurant near Avenue A in the East Village, Timothy was eating with his father — an entertainment lawyer, who, like Timothy’s mother, does not share their son’s polyglotism — when three customers made comments about them in Hebrew.
“They were saying, ‘Yeah, these American Jews eating Israeli food,’ ” meaning that Timothy and his father were cultural tourists, trying to absorb their identity through food. The two continued eating without acknowledging their neighbors. Finally, at the end of the meal, Timothy turned to them. “I can speak Hebrew,” he said. Then he and his father walked out.
MR. ERARD, who surveyed 400 hyperpolyglots for his book, said many reported having uncomfortable experiences in which they were asked to perform. But they also spoke of language as a mystical experience.
Mike Campbell, in an e-mail from Taiwan, wrote that knowing ancient languages made him feel “like I can talk to the earth.”
“And in fact, when I’m alone hiking in the mountains or by the waterfalls,” he added, “I prefer to think and talk in Thao than in any other language.” (Thao is a nearly extinct language spoken by an aboriginal group in Taiwan.)
“Sure, there are words for bus and telephone, but these are completely irrelevant and useless for the relationship I have with Thao,” he added.
Last Monday, during a week of midterm exams at Dalton, Timothy recorded his Hindi video and posted it online, asking for feedback on his pronunciation. The video is his 11th.
His final preparation consisted of watching Hindi soap operas, which have become a bonus pleasure, he said. “I get to feel less guilty about watching trash TV,” he said. “To watch ‘The Bachelor’ in English is one thing, but in Hindi it’s O.K.”
A day later, the video had barely broken 100 views, with just a few comments. But Timothy had already moved on — to Turkish, to German. His goal, he said, was not to speak like a native, but to learn the basics of as many languages as possible while his brain was still pliant.
In the meantime, he said, his language pursuits have not interfered with his social life, though none of his peers share his intense interest. He has e-mail and Skype friendships with people around the world, in a variety of languages.
“I don’t want people to think I’m not normal, or that I see myself in a different light from them,” he said. “I’m not a very serious school nerd. I’m not motivated in math. I found my niche. I’m not obsessive. It’s a way of coping with stress.”
I find languages fascinating. But I'm really bad a them. I took years of French, and still cannot converse and can barely read even the simplest...
But I love learning ABOUT languages.
Anyway, kudos to this kid... he has an obvious gift, and an enthusiasm for persuing it.
I had a similar gift with computer languages, and persued that, though I was nowhere near in the same league as this kid is.
- I cannot snark on the kid.
He is a truly gifted person who seems to have unlimited academic potential.
- I'm currently trying to learn German. I'd love to have a good language tutor and be around native speakers, because, as it is, the progress is slow.
The genious dude in the article is doable. Not megahot though.
- I love the story about him going to an Israeli restaurant with his parents and Israelis at another table were talking about them in Hebrew.
I've had that happen to me where people just assume you only spoke English and they say shit about you in another language right in front of your face thinking they're getting away with it. The look on their faces when you say shit right back is priceless.
- Frankly, I'm suspicious about how well these polyglots actually know some of these languages. It's one think to pick up grammar rules (and the more languages you know, the easier that is), but reading and speaking at a reasonably educated level requires tens or hundreds of thousands of words of vocabulary. You can't pick that up in a few days.
Meanwhile, I'm pretty confident that everyone mentioned in this article is gay. I think most polyglots are.
- I sure hope this thread doesn't get invaded by the usual scum mentioned in the heading because it's a lovely topic for a lazy, thoughtful weekend day. I learned a new word, ergativity, on the DL, always a treat.
Now I'll be looking up things on this subject and get nothing else done. Which is just fine.
- OK, and what is the connection to pedophilia or anti-semitism by praising a bright Jewish kid learning so many languages or commenting that he's adorable? You can't say a young person is adorable without being accused of harboring sexual thoughts for him or her? Is that what the world has come to? That's pretty fuckin' sad.
- That kid is pretty amazing.
- [quote]You can't say a young person is adorable without being accused of harboring sexual thoughts for him or her?
- The BBC had an article about polyglots recently, with a video of the youngest polyglot they could find speaking eleven languages
I can speak eleven myself ranging from conversational to fluent, but the guy in the video has better pronunciation across the board than I can claim.
- Some people just have a talent for learning languages. I have English, and nominal Spanish and Italian in my repertoire.
Knowing those last two have lead to comical moments.
I chose to go off into computer languages instead. Parle COBOL, PHP, C++,?
- Meh. Just clicked on the pic at link.
I'm glad she's brainy, because she's not all that cute.
- [quote]I'm glad she's brainy, because she's not all that cute.
If you couldn't even tell it was a boy, you can't pretend to be much of an authority on who's cute.
- The kid in the NYT article, Tim Doner, is at a different level than the guy in the BBC video.
Doner's achievements are more remarkable because he has gone for totally unrelated non-Indo European languages.
- I was pretty good at languages and was very interested. Took German, French (lots,) Latin, Japanese and finally Swahili. After that last one, my interest and talent fell off.
- Ich bin ein bump.
- Spelling bee people do this also, but don't get credit for it.
Actually what you'll find is that his mastery of those languages is paper thin. To talk to someone in another language only requires a few hundred words. To be fluent, a few thousand. But to know the langugae well enough to get by under immerson conditions, probably 10,000 words. Chances are he doesn't know any language but English that well.
- A highly skilled English literary type will know 50,000 words, which is probably the total he knows from all 50 of his languages.
- He doesn't claim to have or want fluency in these languages. He just wants to understand how they work and to be able to speak to people.
- R6 One of my experiences of that was both good and bad. I went over to a friend's home and we sat down for some casual chow. Her brother when we started eating made some snarky remark in Vietnamese to his uncle about how quickly I was eating and basically compared me to a pig. You could tell the uncle was a little embarrassed and ignored him. The uncle engaged me in some small talk where it came out that I'm of Chinese descent but WAS born in Vietnam and understood rudimentary Vietnamese. You know just like him and his family. The brother looked at me and said, "You understand Vietnamese?" Yep, you dumb fucker. He smiled sheepishly, picked up his bowl and left the table.
It was good that the idiot found out he fucked up. I mean I'm of Asian descent, I looked him and his sister and we all lived in a community brimming with Vietnamese and Chinese people--did it not occur to him that there may have been a chance I would have the same linguistic background as him?
It was bad because it was awkward for my friend's family and of course my friend as well. We never said anything about it. The brother stayed away from me whenever I had any contact with the family.
- r22, the brother was just rude, first of all, for speaking a language thought to be unfamiliar to an invited guest. Second, I just don't understand this impulse to be mean to perfect strangers or to new acquaintances. Is being mean seen as intelligent or cool or something?
- [quote] I just don't understand this impulse to be mean to perfect strangers
Are you sure you belong on Datalounge?
- [quote]Is being mean seen as intelligent or cool or something?
You dare ask that HERE?
- R23, exactly. That's why in that circumstance, it was good to blow the tard out of the water, but a part of me felt bad because perhaps I should have taken the high road and played dumb and not said anything.
As it was, initially I ignored it and wasn't going to make a big deal out of it. I think my friend the sister knew of course because she was aware of my background. It was only when the uncle started chit chatting to me about my background that it all came out.
But yeah, what a classless idiot.
- R26. Of course, taking the higher road would also include not referring to him as "the tard."
- Here he is speaking 20 languages. Which ones are most pleasing to the ear?
- I think it is a great thing to spend your time working on, especially young people, instead of wasting it on video games.
The only thing is I wonder about the depth of the knowledge of each language.
- You can absorb a lot of knowledge when you're young. He's only just begun to learn!
- I think it would be a lot easier to learn an European language if your first language is English? At least they are much more similar to each other than to some language in Asia.
- Most interesting to me -- I've never heard of a Jewish person named Timothy before.
- Who is he? Cypher? The gayest X-Man?
- Wish I could do this.
I speak English, lame but well-pronounced versions of French and Spanish, and I could speak Italian if I learned a bit of sentence structure and grammar. I pronounce it very well, I've been told.
But Timothy is terrific. Truly got a gift. And he's a good ch-cher (thanks, Seth Cohen). And adorable.
- [quote] I think it is a great thing to spend your time working on, especially young people, instead of wasting it on video games.
Get off r29's lawn!
- How nice. Now he can be smug in 37 languages.
- r7 Once I got into the article I had the thought that maybe this kid is gay and wanted to communicate with other gays all over the world. A gay social world network of polyglots. That would be amazing.
- So, is he still a virgin?
- r32 probably his mother is Catholic/xtian or converted to Judaism.
- And here I can't even speak English good.
- Very jealous.
- "And he's a good ch-cher (thanks, Seth Cohen)."
Sorry, I don't know what that means. Can someone explain, please? Thanks.
- How long before the CIA comes calling?