New York Times article about 16-year-old Timothy Doner
A version of this article appeared in print on March 11, 2012, on
page MB1 of the New York edition with the headline: Adventures of a
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
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 an online forum in
which he participates, How to Learn Any Language.
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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 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.”
This article has been revised to
reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 14, 2012
Because of an editing error, a previous version of this article
incorrectly stated that Richard Simcott, a British hyperpolyglot, “runs”
the online forum How to Learn Any Language.
After watching Timothy Doner's video (which is on auto-play as required listening), you might wonder how you could ever master a second language. Tim's ability to acquire languages has to do with his interest more so than his gift. People who acquire a gift, be it language, music, art, woodworking, computers, or whatever, receive those skills through
their interest coupled with practice.
Fifteen years ago I copied an audio recording of "The Road Less Traveled" from the public library as listening exercises for my students who were learning English as their second language. The author mentioned an experience of a neighbor who taught him a simple truth, a fact of life. The author thought himself to be mechanically handicapped, unable to repair even the most common automobile malfunctions. When his car would not start one morning he asked his neighbor for help and when he fixed the problem in two seconds, the author
lamented to him: "I wish I had your ability." He was taken back by his neighbor's candid response: "It's because you don't take the time!" He then realized that he never could fix anything because he refused to take the time; it was his choice. It was not because he was mentally incapable or that he lacked a certain "gift".
Some people are better at learning languages than others, but the fact is that we can all learn another language and become fluent in that language if we take the time! The same principle applies to any endeavor we wish to undertake.
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