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 familyâs 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 â 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 âBabel No More: The Search for the Worldâs Most Extraordinary Language Learners,â describes these autodidacts as a âneural tribe,â 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 Timothyâs videos to the online forum he runs, How to Learn Any Language.
âWhen Moses e-mailed me, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world,â Timothy said of Mr. McCormick, who posts his videos under the handle Laoshu505000. âThis is a guy with videos in 50 languages. It was like talking to a celebrity.â
Mr. McCormick, 30, said that incomprehension was the most common response from people outside the tribe. âSo many people tell me Iâm insane,â he said. When he was an undergraduate at Ohio State University, he said, âpeople told me to choose one language and master it. But I have a true passion to learn a lot of languages.â
When he went online, Timothy said, âI found videos of people who had been studying for a year, inching along, and I thought, yeah, I can do that. I never imagined Iâd be the center of so much attention.â