Amazing story of Tim Donner – hyperpolyglot

In the Anglo-Saxon world, it’s unusual to find people fluent in more than one language. It’s even more unusual to find people who can speak more than 2 or 3 languages. So there’s no way to describe Tim Donner except to say he’s incredibly talented. Tim is from New York, and started learning Hebrew at 13. He has since managed to learn 20+ languages. His secret to language language learning? Watch more TV shows in the language you’re learning.

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From the Economist:

Mr Doner hardly fits the profile (except for being a left-handed male). He has the will to sit and memorise verb tables, as one must do to come as far as he has. But he is a sociable and confident teen with a ready smile. He loves memorising pop lyrics and watching movies. He virtually inhabits the languages he speaks; as a colleague said on seeing his video, “he shrugs like a Frenchman and frowns like a Russian.” Most of all, it is obvious how much he enjoys speaking his languages with other people, not just learning them for the purpose of translation or reading (or boasting).

What else is he good at? He gets good grades in maths, but finds it frustrating, and struggles with physics and chemistry. He loves history, a big motivator in his language-learning. His father was once a professional pianist, and the young Mr Doner says that after a few years of lessons, he could “sight-read and accurately play pieces in one go”, though he is out of practice now. He can also quickly learn things by ear. This is perhaps the most intriguing clue to his ability—not just a “systemising” brain, but one highly adept at processing and producing in a given compositional system (musical or linguistic) on the fly, plus a world-beating auditory ability.

What’s next for a 17-year-old hyperpolyglot? He still has a year of high school, and then university, where he plans to study linguistics. He has already taken an interest in language science alongside all of the languages themselves. In an e-mail to me, he recommended Mark Baker’s “The Atoms of Language”, a fairly difficult work of Chomskyan theory (though written for lay readers). In our video, he mentions skipping over easy languages like Spanish, instead choosing new languages like Ojibwe, because they pose novel challenges like agglutination or ergativity.

And after college? Everyone, naturally, asks him if he will be a spy, which he laughs off. In any case, he is by now too well-known to disappear into the shadows. Diplomacy interests him, though. And America’s foreign service would be lucky to have him.

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About The Author

Kenneth is Director of Euroasia. He is passionate about languages and cultures.

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