A Teenage Hyperpolyglot, 2




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I feel that language gives you something with which to connect to another person.

Each language is in many ways an expression of how one society or culture thinks.

I feel that when I start to learn a foreign language, a lot of times, I become a bit of a different person.

Perhaps I say things I wouldn’t necessarily say in English. Perhaps I’m more differential to others, perhaps I’m more up front with what I say.

Polyglot is a word that comes from two Greek words, poly and glos or glotis, which together means many tongues, many languages.

And it just refers to anyone who speaks three or four or more languages at a pretty high level.

Loraine Obler, Professor, Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences: “The term hyperpolyglot that’s the people who have a commitment to learning and maintaining a lot of languages.

Most of them put in a lot of work on it and take pride in knowing these languages.”

I’m really comfortable having a conversation in more or less any topic in French, Arabic, Hebrew and Farsi. I think maybe a tier down would be Chinese, German and Russian.

I’ve done a fair amount of Latin and Greek in school, but that’s obviously a different skill range for dead languages.

I’m pretty comfortable speaking in languages like Hindi or Urdu, Indonesian.

With a little bit of practice I feel confident in languages like Turkish for example. My Italian isn’t so great, but I feel like I can understand it pretty well.

And then there are languages that are dormant that I haven’t studied for a while, such as Ojibway, or Yiddish or Wol or Hausa.

And languages that I’m more or less a beginner in such as Japanese, Dutch, and a couple others.

Betsy Doner, Mother: “The languages that we speak as a family, it’s really not impressive. Erza and I studied French for many, many years. So we can understand French people who are slowed down incredibly.”

Erza Doner, Father: “I lived in Hong Kong for a while. I studied Cantonese, but studying 20 hours a week for the summer, I didn’t make anywhere near the progress Tim made studying for example, 20 hours a week, for example Persian.”

Loraine: “In North America, we mostly learn one language as we’re growing up. And that language gets to be so good, that it interferes our learning other languages.

Tim Doner’s talents in the American context are extremely unusual, particularly at his young age. The hyperpolygots one tends to hear about in the world are older as a rule.

So coming up with people who started this in high school doing this, are extremely rare.”

Maria Lee, Mandarin Chinese Teacher: “Tim is passionate about learning languages, and for him, this is not just a hobby, basically it’s his way of life.

He actually spends most of his waking hours learning languages.”

I find that most of the time, when I’m starting to learn a language, one of the most important things to do is have a lot of audio input.

So I generally start out with any series and I’ll try to absorb the language as much as possible.

I think by repeating to yourself over and over, it’s a good way to train.

Mother: “Tim will watch movies, we’ve seen many movies in Farsi, and movies in Arabic.”

Watching TV shows and movies is really helpful in any kind of language learning because it exposes you to normal rate of speech in a language and maybe a more colloquial register than you get in a textbook.

I think it trains you to be able to comprehend a lot more.

When I start a new language and I start watching TV and after I’m comfortable enough, maybe I’ll understand four or five words out of ten.

And that really helps because that bleeds over into conversation.

So I think watching TV is really the basis of learning in a lot of ways. Plus it’s a lot of fun.

I think for me the internet has been absolutely crucial for me for learning languages.

Anytime I learn a language, I post a video of me speaking with someone or just me delivering some kind of monologue to the camera.

And the response I get are really helpful.

They show which direction I should go on and what I have to work on still, and what I’ve done well and that’s fantastic.

I think the great thing about living in New York is that you can practice any language you want, this is arguably the most linguistically diverse spot on the earth.

For me there are plenty of things that are fascinating things about languages.

Primarily it’s the fact that I was a bit of a history nerd. You can see any entire language an entire history of its people interact with others.

For a while when I was 12 or 13 I had a very big interest in learning about the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So I thought that by learning a language, I might be able to break through the wall that’s been built around it.

A little bit after my bar mitzva when I was 13, I started to teach myself Hebrew.

After I learned Hebrew, I found thought that maybe I could be quite successful in teaching myself languages, so after that I tried Arabic to get the other half of the equation of the history of the Middle East.

I feel that my studying languages, by looking at their development, by looking at what’s old and what’s new, you gain a greater appreciation for society’s values and for it’s entire history.

It’s something, it’s a little bit hard to communicate and it sounds disingenuous, but that’s sort of the breakthrough I had in studying.

There’s this idea that seems to circulates, that’s completely false, that Americans don’t like learning about other cultures that they don’t like learning foreign languages.

I hope I can do my part to disprove that.

I think if you raise people with other languages, you open them up to foreign cultures, to foreign ideas, and again in the future, in a world that’s increasingly globalized, you give them solid opportunities for more connections when you get older.

There’s a quote from Nelson Mandela that goes something like “If you talk to a man in his second language, you talk to his brain; but if you talk to him in his mother language, you talk to his heart.”

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English. Is Tim Pakistani or Persian? Does he live in Russia or China?

Spanish. Define the terms polyglot and hyperpolyglot. Is he equally fluent in Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, Greek, Italian, Hindi, Japanese, Latin, Ojibway, Russian, Turkish?

Chinese. Tim has studied and learned many languages because his parents and teachers forced him to. True or false? Did he pick up foreign language skills from his parents?

French. What do many people think about Americans and their language skills?

Portuguese. It makes no difference where a person lives to learn different languages: France, China, Russia, Kansas, Mexico, The Netherlands, New York City, Norway, Tokyo, Switzerland. What do you think?

Russian. How does he feel about learning other languages?

Arabic. With globalization is it becoming more or less important to learn other languages? Why is learning other languages becoming more important?


Hebrew. Do you think Tim has “natural ability”, does he work and study very hard, is he extremely passionate about (or addicted to) learning new languages, does he use secret methods and techniques, or some or all of the above?

Turkish. How many languages can you speak? What about your friends? Have you met anyone who can speak many languages? Who is the language learning champion?

Hindi, Urdu. Are the people in your city monolingual, bilingual or multilingual? Are there different people in your city or country who speak different languages?

Indonesian. If you could speak different languages fluently, what languages would you like to know? If I could speak many different languages fluently, I would like to speak . . . . . . . . .

Korean. What will happen in the future?

Japanese. People should study languages instead of only socializing, partying, drinking, listening to loud music, driving luxury cars. Do you agree?


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