Strategies From A Teenage Hyperpolyglot


A few years ago, the Economist ran an article on Tim Doner, a 17-year-old hyperpolyglot. His natural curiosity has led him to speak at least 20 languages, including Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Mandarin Chinese, and the American-Indian Ojibwe language. Quite an uncommon set of tongues!


He is largely self-taught, and employs methods often discussed in this blog, such as Skyping with native speakers, watching or listening to shows and podcasts in the target language, reading simple articles and books, visiting ethnic stores or cafés, etc.

You can see videos of his speeches and interviews below this post. But what are the main takeaways from his experience?
The questions “how many languages do you speak” and “how many languages are you fluent in” are very misleading. Fluency can be defined and measured in infinite ways, and as Doner says:

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.

Therefore, the goal of most language learners should be to achieve the ability to have a basic conversation with a native speaker in the target language. That conversation could be as basic as describing your family background, your professional and leisure activities, etc. Being able to speak to those aspects in a foreign language can go a long way towards achieving conversational fluency. And, of course, the more time you invest in that language, the broader the spectrum of topics about which you will be able to have a conversation.

Realizing this fundamental truth removes a large portion of the intimidation you initially experience when faced with the daunting task of “becoming fluent” in a language.

Think about it: You do not need to become a master of that language’s vocabulary, grammar, syntax, or pronunciation. All you need is to be in a position that you can have a basic conversation with a native speaker. And as long as what you are saying is being understood, it hardly matters how many errors you make while speaking.

After that first step, the rest will follow much more easily than you imagine.

How do you arrive at that initial level of conversational fluency? You will find plenty of suggestions on InstaLang’s Resources page, or you can contact us for a personalized learning consultation.
Here is his Economist interview:

And here is the YouTube video that popularized him:



And his TED Talk:





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