We humans

Why I taught myself 20 languages — and what I learned about myself in the process

Apr 9, 2015 /
Illustration by Dawn Kim/TED | ideas.ted.com

During the past few years, I’ve been referred to in the media as “The World’s Youngest Hyperpolyglot” — a word that sounds like a rare illness. In a way it is: it describes someone who speaks a particularly large number of foreign languages, someone whose all-consuming passion for words and systems can lead them to spend many long hours alone with a grammar book.

But while it’s true that I can speak in 20 different languages, including English, it took me a while to understand that there’s more to language than bartering over kebabs in Arabic or ordering from a menu in Hindi. Fluency is another craft altogether.

I began my language education at age thirteen. I became interested in the Middle East and started studying Hebrew on my own. For reasons I still don’t quite understand, I was soon hooked on the Israeli funk group Hadag Nachash, and would listen to the same album every single morning. At the end of a month, I had memorized about twenty of their songs by heart — even though I had no clue what they meant. But once I learned the translations it was almost as if I had downloaded a dictionary into my head; I now knew several hundred Hebrew words and phrases — and I’d never had to open a textbook.

I decided to experiment. I spent hours walking around my New York City neighborhood, visiting Israeli cafés to eavesdrop on people’s conversations. Sometimes, I would even get up the courage to introduce myself, rearranging all of the song lyrics in my head into new, awkward and occasionally correct sentences. As it turned out, I was on to something.

If the standard of speaking a language is to know every word — to feel equally at home debating nuclear fission and classical music — then hardly anyone is fluent in their own native tongues.

I moved on to Arabic, which I’d study every morning by reading news headlines with a dictionary and by talking to street vendors. After that it was Persian, then Russian, then Mandarin … and about fifteen others. On an average day, I’d Skype with friends in French and Turkish, listen to Hindi pop music for an hour and eat dinner with a Greek or Latin book on my lap. Language became an obsession, one that I pursued in summer classes, school, web forums and language meet-ups around the city.

By March of 2012, media outlets such as the BBC and The New York Times featured stories about me, “The Teen Who Speaks 20 Languages!” For a while, it was a fantasy; it made what many thought of as a bizarre hobby seem (almost) mainstream, and gave me a perfect opportunity to promote language learning.

After a while, though, my media “moments” felt more like gruesome chores than opportunities to spread the word. Most news shows were interested only in the “dancing bear” act (“You wanna learn more about the Middle East? Cool… Say ‘you’re watching Channel 2’ in Arabic!”) As lighthearted as that might have been, it left me with an uncomfortably personal lesson in modern media: when the goal is simply to get the viewers’ attention, the real importance of a story often gets lost in translation.

When I was beginning to discover languages, I had a romanticized view of words like “speak” and “fluency”. But then I realized that you can be nominally fluent in a language and still struggle to understand parts of it. English is my first language, but what I really spoke was a hybrid of teenage slang and Manhattan-ese. When I listen to my father, a lawyer, talk to other lawyers, his words sound as foreign to me as Finnish. I certainly couldn’t read Shakespeare without a dictionary, and I’d be equally helpless in a room with Jamaicans or Cajuns. Yet all of us “speak English.”

My linguistics teacher, a native of Poland, speaks better English than I do and seems right at home peppering his speech with terms like “epenthetic schwa” and “voiceless alveolar stops”. Yet the other day, it came up that he’d never heard the word “tethered”. Does that mean he doesn’t “speak” English? If the standard of speaking a language is to know every word — to feel equally at home debating nuclear fission and classical music — then hardly anyone is fluent in their own native tongues.

Reducing someone to the number of languages he or she speaks trivializes the immense power that language imparts. After all, language is the living testament to a culture’s history and world view, not a shiny trophy to be dusted off for someone’s self-aggrandizement.

Language is a complex tapestry of trade, conquest and culture to which we each add our own unique piece — whether that be a Shakespearean sonnet or “Lol bae g2g ttyl.” As my time in the media spotlight made me realize, 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.

Watch Breaking the language barrier, Timothy Doner’s talk at TEDxTeen 2014. Featured illustration by Dawn Kim/TED.