Folium: Why I Taught Myself 20 Languages… via TED-Ed

Folium: Why I Taught Myself 20 Languages... via TED-Ed

Folium: Why I Taught Myself 20 Languages… via TED-Ed

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If you don’t know what a hyperpolyglot is… that’s ok, because neither did I. But a hyperpolyglot is someone who is gifted at massively accumulating languages. They possess a particular neurology that’s well-suited for learning languages very quickly and putting them to good use. While rare, hyperpolyglots are often those we may see at random times make the news because of their extraordinary gift. Timothy Doner only discovered he possessed this gift after becoming obsessed with a Hebrew music album. He says that he would listen to it every day without knowing any meaning to the words he sang, until one day he decided to look up the translation. Once he knew what the songs were actually saying he decided to put his new found language knowledge into practice.

Doner was only thirteen when he fell in love with the thought of speaking to others in their native tongue and became interested mostly in Middle Eastern culture and languages. He would sometimes force himself to move out of his comfort zone and work with the song lyrics he previously had in his head to create a semi-logical sentence in Hebrew. But then it wasn’t only Hebrew, but now Arabic. Doner says that after he started with the two, he couldn’t put language books down and had to know more. Doner says that’s when “after that it was Persian, then Russian, then Mandarin … and about fifteen others.” While living in New York City, he would purposefully eavesdrop on conversations around his neighborhood. It didn’t occur to Doner until later that he possessed such a unique gift until the New York Times and BBC began to get in contact with him. They called him “The teen who speaks 20 languages!” This gave him the perfect outlet for promoting language learning. After a while he got sick of all of the interview and felt as if he was just another act in a freak show.

Doner says that when he was beginning to discover languages, he had a romanticized view of words like “speak” and “fluency”. He realized that you can be nominally fluent in a language and still struggle to understand parts of it. For me, English is my first language, but what I really speak is a hybrid of slang and college terms. When you put a variety of “English speakers” in the same room, you can get a just what you put in, a variety.

[When I was beginning to discover languages, I had a romanticized view of words like “speak” and “fluency”. But then I realized that you can be nominally fluent in a language and still struggle to understand parts of it.] – Doner

Doner calles language a “complex tapestry of trade.” We each add our own unique qualities to culture and language, everyone contributes. Timothy finishes up his article saying: you speak a language can mean a lot of different things; it can mean that you memorize verb charts, know the slang, or you can even pass for a native. He believes that he’s come to realize that he’ll never quite be fluent in 20 languages. Language is about being able to converse with people, to see beyond cultural boundaries and find a shared humanity. That in of itself is a lesson to be learned.

Julie Martin
LEAF Editor & Contributor

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