hyperpolyglot interview

Interview with

a Hyperpolyglot

The Economist magazine interviews a hyperpolyglot.


author Hebrew quite a number of
relatively Bar Mitzva blow right through
in a way push myself counterintuitive
intuitive loan word as odd as it sounds
multiple strategy get a sense
skip over lead/led code/encode
profound structure specifically
emphasis audience for that matter
regret perspective extensively
take on equilibrium Having said that
absorb harmonious the other way around
shrug keep abreast exaggerated
frown pick it up in that sense
in favor linguistics controversial
obvious inherent get to practice
inhibit connotation of that nature
humble influence would you mind
conscious standing (2) as opposed to
strategy trade off all the time
leg up phenomenon at this point
atrophy hypothesis for the most part
dabble headline any one time
slang emphasize if you don’t mind






Today, I’m joined by Tim Doner. He’s a 17 year old high school student here at Dalton High School in New York City, and a speaker of quite a number of foreign languages.

I invited him in today to talk about his passion for languages, and to have him speak to a few of my colleagues in their own languages.

Journalist: Tim thanks for speaking with The Economist.

Tim Doner, High School Student: Thanks for having me.

Journalist: So your first foreign language was Hebrew for your bar mitzvah, is that right?

Tim Doner: That’s correct.

Journalist: And how did you realize that you wanted to blow right through Hebrew and keep learning more, more, more languages?

Tim Doner: Well, I found that listening to a lot of song lyrics and watching movies in Hebrew, I started to internalize the language and repeat it naturally.

And so I found that this is an effective method of language learning.

So after that I went into Arabic. I did a month long Arabic program, and a lot of that was my interest in the Middle East and the history of that region.

And then Arabic, I found that after a month or so, I could have a relatively decent conversation, I decided that I wanted to see how far I could push myself with other languages like that.

And I started to find as well that if you know Arabic very well, in a lot of ways it’s the Latin of the Muslim world, in the sense that there are dozens, if not hundreds of languages that have loan words from Arabic or have taken in an enormous amount of Arabic vocabulary due to the historical influence of Islam.

So after that I started learning languages like Farsi, Indonesian, Swahili, Hindi. And I found from there, it actually began to get easier, as odd as that sounds.

It’s a bit counterintuitive.

But actually by studying multiple languages, from different families or from the same family, you begin to get a better sense of the differences between your own language and the foreign language and also just in general very good strategies in language learning.

And you skipped over a lot of easy European languages you might have studied like Spanish or Portuguese or Swedish in favor of learning something Ojibway and American Indian language.

What led you to Ojibway?

Ojibway specifically I thought was interesting because if you look at the structure of Amerindian languages, they are profoundly different from anything you see in Europe or Africa or Asia. for that matter.

Huge emphasis on agglutination, as well as ergativity in some languages and other features that are generally very rare in European languages.

Journalist: You’re going to explain agglutination and ergativity to our audience.

Tim Doner: Agglutination is a function within languages where you stack multiple particles onto a word, you can effectively have a very long word that expresses something that in English might be several sentences or paragraphs.

Anyway, in addition to that, I thought it was interesting too, because we don’t necessarily learn very much about Native American cultures, just in the general American school system.

So that was the other inspiration there. So I’ve never had regrets about that.

As for European languages, I think I’ve studied French very extensively; I’ve let it atrophy unfortunately.

But once you’ve studied French or Latin or ancient Greek, as I’ve done, you start to find that if you want to take on other languages like Romanian or Portuguese or Spanish, you probably do have a leg up when you start.

Journalist: And for you specifically, do you find that you’re very good with pronunciation but struggle more with grammar memorization or vocabulary or anything like that?

What’s the easier and the hardest part for you?

Tim Doner: For me it’s often the other way around.

Because I generally find that it’s easier for me to absorb grammar structures and to remember vocabulary than to pronounce well or to have a sentence that is melodic or harmonious as a native speaker might be.

And a lot of that comes from the fact that I don’t put time into studying a lot of languages. I found that I’m interested in something for a couple of months and then I’ll have conversations but I won’t necessarily take it to a level of perfection.

And I think for that reason, if you do want to attain a native-level prose or just general pronunciation, for those matters you may need to live in that country or dedicate an enormous amount of time to it.

Having said that though, I do think that actually by listening to music in foreign languages I tend to improve my pronunciation a lot.

Journalist: My colleague who saw one of your videos, one of your YouTube videos, you said you shrug like a Frenchman and frown like a Russian.

Do you find that you kind of get into a character when you’re speaking these foreign languages?

Tim Doner: I do. And sometimes it gets a little bit exaggerated.

One of the ways that I keep things different in my mind is that I tend to have a certain personality or voice attached to every language.

So again, Russian sounds very manly, very deep, just because most of the Russians I speak to tend to have low voices, and are kind of . . . ah . . . macho in that sense, and that’s just the way I’ve sort of picked it up.

In the same sense too, I’ve learned Swahili from someone who spoke their language, Lingala from the Congo, as a native language. And for that reason a kind of sing song almost non-native pronunciation and I’ve adopted that as I began to speak.

But I think in general that’s one way of keeping yourself abreast of differences in languages if you attach your personality to it, it becomes almost easier to only think or only see in that language.

Journalist: Right. And slightly more controversially there’s that idea out there that different languages encode thought in different ways so that speakers, a speaker in one language will systematically think differently than speakers in another.

A lot of people accept this as folk belief, but it’s controversial in linguistics and psychology. I don’t know if you feel as though the language you speak channel your thoughts in certain ways that you can notice?

Tim Doner: Fundamentally, I don’t believe that hypothesis is correct.

I think in a lot of ways, you obviously will never see, for example, that speaking one language will stop someone from understanding a math problem from a speaker of another language.

Right, I think that in G, there is no language that will necessarily inherently inhibit your sense of logic or your skills with math, science or anything of that nature.

Having said that I think there are certain cultural connotations to language that do influence your way of behaving when you are speaking them.

I find that most of the times, my Chinese classes emphasize the politeness aspect of Chinese society, that I tend to perhaps more humble when speaking about myself when I’m studying or speaking Chinese, the same way in Japanese.

In that sense, it makes you more conscious of your social standing as opposed to others. And I think there are phenomenon like that which do exist in different languages make you think. But in that sense, it’s more cultural, not necessarily something that’s endemic to the language system itself.

Journalist: Do you plan on keep on adding more foreign languages, or do you feel there’s a trade off, and you feel you’d like to deepen rather than add.

What’s your strategy going forward?

Tim Doner: I try to find an equilibrium between increasing my knowledge in certain languages and also adding on more. I’d say at this point, I take Greek, Lain, French and Chinese in school every week, and in addition to that I keep myself using languages like Farsi and Arabic all the time.

Besides that, I’m learning Japanese right now, and unfortunately most of the other languages, I don’t get to practice very often.

I may be just reading an article once a week or listening to a song or talking to a friend.

For the most part though, I think there are plenty of languages that I would like to learn, like Spanish. And besides that I think I start to study whatever interests me.

Journalist: And as you know, many of the videos describing you on the internet, or articles about you say he speaks 20 languages. But there’s always a continuum of learning the languages: there’s no magical point where you get to speak it; the day before you couldn’t speak it; the day after you get to added to the number.

How would you describe this sort of continuum of the languages you speak?

Journalist: I wouldn’t say I speak anything, besides English, realistically.

I find most of the time, there are plenty of things in English that I’m not necessarily aware of as a native speaker.

From that perspective, obviously it’s an easier headline to say than oh, teenager speaks X languages, or teenager is fluent in X languages.

Realistically I would say there are four or five that I’m comfortable in or I’m studying in any one time.

Maybe two, three or four more that I’m very serious about, and then others maybe I dabble in or you know I’ve studied in certain degrees.

But what I think is so great, even to a basic structural knowledge in a language is that if you want come back to it, you can.

Journalist: You’re a speaker of many different foreign languages so I’ve invited a couple of colleagues who are native speakers to come by to say a few words.

So if you don’t mind, I’d like to invite my colleague Stephan Pietri to chat with us at bit in French.

Tim Done: Sounds great.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *


1. Tim Doner is a linguistics professor. True or false?

2. What foreign language did Tim’s first learn? How did he learn it? What was this third foreign language? Why did he learn these?

3. “Arabic is the Latin of the Muslim world.” What did Tim mean by this?

4. Tim has studied only European languages like Spanish and Portuguese. Yes or no? Was Ojibway, an American Indian language, easy to learn? Why did he learn it?

5. Does he spend a lot of time studying each language?

6. Tim’s character and personality can change when he speaks different languages. Is this right or wrong?

7. How does he describe the Russians who he speaks with?

8. People think about math and science differently in different languages. Yes or no?

9. Can different languages influence social behaviors or vice versa? Give examples. Is this due to the language itself or culture?

10. Tim speaks 20 languages equally fluently. Is this correct or incorrect? Does Tim plan to learn as many languages as he can, or will he concentrate on and perfect the languages he already knows?
A. How many languages can you speak? Do you know anyone who can speak many languages?

B. Does Tim have natural talent and abilities, does he study very much and work very had, is he very passionate (if not addicted) about learning languages or all of the above?

C. What kind of career might Tim Doner have? What will he do in the future?

D. If you could speak several languages, what would you like to speak?

E. What will happen in the future regarding languages and language learning?

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