Timothy Doner began studying foreign languages intensely at the age of thirteen. Today, Doner, still a teenager, can speak more than twenty languages, making him one of the world's most famous polyglots – but equally impressive is his mature perspective on the subject of his linguistic fame.
In the video featured here, Doner demonstrates varying levels of proficiency in no fewer than twenty tongues. The 15-minute video was actually recorded back in 2012, when Doner was just 16, but has recently circled back around in its viral orbit of the Internet. Its most recent appearance was on reddit, where it was posted with the description: "This 16 year old is a Hyper-polygot. He speaks over 20 languages fluently and is the youngest and one of the only people in the world who can do this."
This video is obviously very impressive, but it's a little old. I decided to post it, anyway, in light of an interview Doner gave recently to the Harvard Gazette. In the piece, which ran earlier this week, Doner talks about linguistics, fame, and an unfortunate side-effect of unclear and inaccurate headlines.
While not half as sensationalized as most (e.g. "Meet the incredible teenager who taught himself 23 languages... mastering each one in just a few WEEKS"), the description of the video that appears on reddit does call attention to a brand of "sexy headline" that Doner takes issue with. In an interview with the Harvard Gazette published earlier this week, Doner calls the debate over "polyglots" and so-called "hyperpolyglots," a term coined by linguist Richard Hudson to describe a person who can speak six or more languages fluently, as "cultish."
As with "mastery," the linguistic requirements for achieving "fluency" are far from prescriptive. The definition for a term like fluency, which lends itself to various subjective interpretations, is something of a moving target. This can make it difficult to accurately describe exactly how impressive, or exactly how rare, Doner's abilities are. (Which, when you think about it, is a pretty laughable specification to become preoccupied with – you might assume that most people would be perfectly satisfied to rank the impressiveness and rareness of Doner's abilities as "very" and leave it at that. Perusing the reddit thread where this video was posted yesterday calls this assumption into question.) The ambiguity surrounding words like "fluency" also makes it easier to confuse an innate aptitude for languages with the intense interest and all-consuming dedication required to learn and know them well – again a baffling quibble, in light of the fact that Doner clearly possesses these qualities in great supply.
Doner calls these arguments (and the breathless headlines that incite them) distracting, and the wrong way to think about language:
"What does it mean to speak a language? Technically you and I speak English, but if confronted with a legal text or a Shakespearean text or maybe some very obtuse form of poetry, you would be just as in the dark as a foreigner," Doner says. "So, in a lot of ways, you're still learning your native language every day. From that end I think it takes a big act of hubris to say, 'I speak X language,' or, 'I'm fluent in X languages.'" Doner prefers to talk about the cultural backgrounds and interactions of languages he's studied, and, when given the chance, to explain that he considers himself fluent in about five or six tongues—including French, Farsi, Arabic, Hebrew, and German. He humbly explains that he's familiar, conversant, or engaged in about 15 more, ranging from Indonesian and Pashto to Ojibwe, a Native American language, and several African languages, including South African Xhosa, which he says he picked up mainly "because of the clicks."
Doner's motivation for this extensive study varies from language to language, but his overarching focus is culture. "Any sort of interest you have in your English-speaking world, you can multiply that many times over by learning a foreign language," he says.
Sounds like a smart kid. (Notwithstanding his offhanded remark, at the end of the Harvard piece, about majoring in astrology, which I'm still not convinced wasn't some kind of joke. Or a transcription error.)