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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 Teenage Polyglot.

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 an online forum in which he participates, 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.

“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.”

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.

Although the following is a sales video for the Pimsleur approach, all the concepts in learning another language is outlined. Believe me, it works. The ONLY wrong advise in the sales video is regarding a private tutor, saying that he would charge you $50 every 30 minutes. As a private tutor myself I can assure you no one would charge such an outrageous fee, unless, of course,  he knew you to be a millionaire.

You can hire a tutor from $25 to $50 an hour if you live in the United States and you can divide that cost among the friends in your group. So your cost could be as low as $5 an hour. As a freelance instructor in Bolivia for decades the most I charged was $5 an hour and the individual cost per student usually worked out to about a dollar an hour. So the price of a tutor in your area would depend on the standard of living in your country. A good estimate should be about 2½ times the average hourly wage. In other words, if the average hourly wage is about $10 an hour, a tutor should charge about $25 since he must schedule, prepare and travel to the location, making it virtually impossible to dedicate 8 hours a days to strictly teaching.

Usually a teacher can schedule one tutoring session in the morning, another in the afternoon and an additional one or two at night. If he has his own place he could schedule more classes but he would also have to spend extra income on renting the location and the utilities. If you would like to start your own tutoring service under the guidelines of IOBE, please email me for more details.

A tutor can compliment your personal studies and give you the encouragement to achieve your goal. Hire a private tutor because you can customize your learning with a class or two every week or even every month or so. Paying for tutoring is always a good investment since the teacher will not waste your time like most schools, institutes and universities are famous for doing.

Language, as well as many other skills, can be obtained by hiring an instructor that will give you hands-on training and practice. A tutor can teach you 10 times faster than going to a school, institute or university where you spend years to obtain a piece of paper saying you majored in something you could have mastered in months or even weeks! Plus a piece of paper cannot prove you are fluent in any particular language or have mastered a skill no more than a diploma proves you know how to type or spell; the proof really lies in your ability to perform. A letter of recommendation that IOBE can provide you with could be all that you would really need for the employment you may be seeking. Today more than 60% of college graduates work at jobs that do not require a degree.

IOBE.co will be geared toward teacher training and the promotion of preemptive tutoring. Absolutely no importance is given to credentialism. More information on this will be forthcoming.

 


 

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