Timothy Doner from the Lower East Side of Manhattan tells the Daily News about his linguistic journey from general language-learning malaise to becoming a polyglot with an arsenal of about 20 foreign languages. He shares what he thinks of language education in the U.S. today, the perks of being multilingual and what he might do with his remarkable ability.
Most teens stuggle to master a few sentences in Hebrew for their bar mitzvahs.
Not Timothy Doner, now 17. He began studying Hebrew — and then taught himself about 19 more languages in the four years that followed.
Doner is what is known as a polyglot — someone who speaks many different languages. While this is common in many parts of the world it is extremelty rare in the U.S. where most people speak one language, or two at most.
His uncanny ability with language led him to produce YouTube videos about his experiences and these have garnered a huge fan base in the past year.
One of his videos has already been viewed a million times.
“I’m just frankly happy that it’s garnering attention for language learning or for people to start learning about different cultures,” Doner told the Daily News.
The video shows Doner, a student at The Dalton School on the Upper East Side, speaking French, Hausa, Wolof, Russian, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, Pashto, Farsi, Chinese, Italian, Turkish, Indonesian, Dutch, Xhosa, Swahili, Hindi, Ojibwe.
But with so many languages on the tip of his tongue, how does Doner practice them all?
“I really don’t have time to practice everything every day. But in general it’s what I like to do and I’m happy doing it,” he said.
Doner is exceptionally articulate but modest about his gifts — and sometimes fears he might one day lose his remarkable aptitude.
That’s because there is a linguistic theory that holds that there is a critical period for language learning — when you are young.
“The theory basically states that starting between the ages of nine and 12, your ability to comfortably and fluidly pick up a foreign language diminishes with regard to phonology, syntactic processing or whatever it may be,” he said.
One of the things that is most unusual about Doner is that he did not even begin to acquire all of his languages until the very end of that window. In fact, he had been a middling language student at best. He started learning French in the third grade and Latin in seventh but never found either particularly compelling.
But studying for his bar mitzvah sparked something in him. His interest in speaking Modern Hebrew quickly broadened to include Israeli movies and music. For a period, he only listened to rap or electronica from Israeli artists — committing his favorite songs to memory and parroting them, as teens so often do.
As his ability in Hebrew grew he became interested in other languages. The summer before ninth grade, Doner attended an Arabic program at Brigham Young University.
“Learning Arabic was born out of my interest in Hebrew and Middle Eastern culture and history,” he said. “From Arabic, I went onto more or less everything else. That was the key in the beginning.”
Most of the languages Doner speaks come from places that are not as prominent in the American consciousness as Western European languages, such as Pashto (the official language of Afghanistan) or Swahili (the lingua franca throughout much of East Africa).
Many of his fans from other parts of the world are simply astonished and delighted to hear someone who grew up talking English speak their languages at all.
“We don’t learn a lot about Arab or Islamic history in school,” Doner said. “And I think that by learning languages you are effectively learning a lot more. You are learning about the culture, everything from cooking to TV to poetry to politics to whatever it may be. And I think that fosters a much better understanding.”
Donner is often asked if he thinks his aptitude is innate, learned or a little bit of both — but he really is not sure. All he knows is that acquiring more languages feels easier as he goes along.
“You start to get more familiar with different grammatical systems, different ways of idiomatically speaking, different pronunciation systems,” he explained. “And of course, also, they bleed into each other… I think a lot of it has to do with getting through that brick wall of learning your first language.”
Doner just finished the SATs and does not know where he wants to go to college just yet. He is considering a career in translation or working abroad in general. But he can also imagine himself teaching languages here in the U.S.
“I’ve seen from language courses in my school,” he said, “that there are very effective ways of teaching people languages and it is something that can pretty easily be replicated, to a large degree.”
Doner fears that too much language instruction focuses overwhelmingly on grammar study because not all people share his zeal for syntax. He thinks many would-be linguists are discouraged when teachers present foreign language as a sterile, cold subject.
He often gets messages from strangers who struggled with Spanish or French in high school but are inspired to try again or try a completely different language after watching his videos. He tries to write back to everyone he can with tips or advice and helps people on Skype regularly.
“Try to make the language fun,” he suggested. “If you love Jazz or R&B, listen to that kind of music in the target language. Anything you can do to make it relevant and interesting in your own life is definitely a positive step forward.”