The Boy Who Speaks 20 Languages: Real or Fake?

Business-Intelligence-and-Management-leadersIf you have ever tried to learn a second language such as English or French, you know how frustrating and difficult it can be. Sometimes we feel like we will never be able to understand and express ourselves in another language, even after months of trying. But some people seem to have an innate ability to acquire languages, speaking several and always learning more.

That was the case for American teenager Timothy Doner, who has received a lot of attention over the past couple of years for being a polygot—or rather a hyperpolygot—someone who speaks a large number of foreign languages. But how did he learn so many—is it even true?

In an article he wrote recently for TED.com, Doner explains how he began his multilingual educational journey: with music.

Having become interested in learning Hebrew, he acquired an album by a popular Israeli funk group. He liked it so much, he listened to it every day, learning the lyrics by heart even though he could not understand their meaning. After a month, having learned several songs in Hebrew by heart, he simply translated the words, and the language was unlocked for him as if by magic. From there, he began immersing himself more and more in environments where he could try to speak the words he had learned, such as local shops and restaurants in that culture. Before long, he was communicating with others in Hebrew. While he did study some grammar to supplement the phrases he was hearing, his main education came from real life: people and music.

This system is well known among language educators as the most effective way of learning a language, with elements such as rhythm, repetition, emotion and experience. Quite different from a traditional language classroom using grammar exercises.

But the question remains: can he really SPEAK 20 languages?

Well even though he was able to teach himself at least 20 languages, including Hindi, Arabic, French, Greek, Persian, Russian, Turkish and Mandarin, Doner himself now understands that speaking a language enough to survive and communicate does not mean you are fluent: that is something altogether different, he says.

In fact, according to Doner, hardly anyone is completely fluent, even native speakers; not enough “to feel equally at home debating nuclear fission and classical music.” Just as there will always be words and topics that we might not be familiar with in our own language, we shouldn’t become disappointed or frustrated when we don’t know everything in our second or third language either.

To quote Doner, “saying you ‘speak’ a language can mean a lot of different things: it can mean memorizing verb charts, knowing the slang, even passing for a native. But while I’ve come to realize I’ll never be fluent in 20 languages, I’ve also understood that language is about being able to converse with people, to see beyond cultural boundaries and find a shared humanity. And that’s a lesson well worth learning.”

Wise words from a young person, who can start to enjoy not only the knowledge of those languages, but also bits of the history and culture that each one emparts. It can take a lifetime to learn to speak several languages, but true fluency in all of them would take several lifetimes.

And that is the ultimate proof that when it comes to learning a language, perfection is not important—it’s not even possible! What is important is that you are living the language, breathing it, singing it, and sharing it!


Do you know any polygots?

How did they learn so many languages?

Do you think this technique could work for anyone?

We love to read your thoughts and comments!




April is an e-marketing specialist, English instructor and freelance writer living in Grenoble, France.

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