Today’s post is on Tim Doner’s TEDtalk. Tim (I’m sorry… I’m 30 years old and he’s 10 years my junior so calling him Mr. Doner is just out of the question)… anyhow, Tim made quite a splash a few years back when THINKR did a short piece on him and video went viral. That’s at least how I came to know of him anyhow. Here’s the link if you haven’t seen it. Tim is possibly the youngest hyperpolyglot out there. He’s definitely the most well-known one right now in the community. He has taught himself over 20 languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Pashto, Urdu, and more. This TEDtalk gives his views on language learning as well as insight into the last few years of sudden Polyglot fame.
I’ve gone back and forth on how to do this review. I think I’m going to go with the basic “Good”, “Bad”, and “My Thoughts” approach.
I actually overall enjoyed the content of Tim’s talk. What I perhaps didn’t like as much was the structure. He couldn’t seem to decide WHAT to talk about. He flits from his recent experiences, to his polyglot history, to some random techniques, with why embedded throughout and then closing with that. I can’t think of anything he said that I didn’t at least somewhat agree with but I felt the talk would have been better if it had focused on one or two main ideas. Personally for this talk I would have focused on the why, especially as that seemed to be his biggest frustration with the interviewers, who just wanted to use him as a cheap parlor trick. I give him somewhat of a pass as he is young and probably not super used to speaking in that kind of venue. I’m curious to see his style if I end up going to the Polyglot Conference in New York this October.
1) Polyglot does not equal parlor trick. Bless Tim’s performance there at the beginning. Most of us have experienced this on some level in our polyglot lives. You start learning a language or you say you know certain languages and everyone you know is like “OH! Say something in _____!” To some degree, I understand that to them this is a way of connecting with you and/or something they find fascinating. But like Tim, I’d rather discuss the how and the why or at least have some quality conversation around what I’m saying in another language, rather than just become a virtual talking dictionary.
2) The concept of knowing a language is both more and less than what people think. I enjoyed these points as well. By having Tim say a variety of phrases, it can limit a viewer’s perspective as to what “knowing” a language actually means. He’s right, some people start to think “oh I can just memorize words and know a language!” At the same time, we have the opposite issue. They were calling him fluent in X number of languages and he wasn’t comfortable with that. He may know enough of a language to get by but not feel comfortable using that word fluent yet. Most of us have our own markers for when we are willing to declare fluency and it is always measured in a definable moment. Most of us are in various degrees of knowing our languages and being asked to quantify our fluency isn’t always an easy task to achieve.
3) A gift for imitating accents helps. I used to imitate accents a lot as a kid. In fact, it was a game with my dad and me. He’d start talking in a proper British accent and I’d match it, then I’d switch to an Irish brogue and he’d match, and so on. I do think this has helped me manipulate my mouth muscles more efficiently when learning a new language. While I still think pronunciation gets too heavy a focus, I don’t deny that I seem to have a bit of a knack for picking it up over time.
4) The more interactive you can make it, the more fun it will usually be. What I really liked about Tim’s talk was he looks at this from two lenses. He doesn’t just talk about it in terms of going out and talking to people (though that is certainly valuable) but he also mentions that by making his memorization techniques more interactive, they were more effective AND more fun. The interactionist model has gained a lot of traction in education theory and right now it seems to be taking the lead with good cause. Don’t just hope to passively absorb the material, you need to work WITH it.
5) We can translate words, but not as easily meaning. Love this quote at the end. While our thoughts are not limited by our language, much of our culture is embedded in our speech. His examples with Persian are fantastic for this. In my classes, I hope my students walk away feeling they can speak some Spanish. But if they walk away with a better understanding that not everyone in the world has the same view of certain events and that people approach basic daily tasks differently, I feel I’ve ultimately won. A multicultural lens is a must in my book.
I’m interested to watch Tim find his voice as he is clearly becoming a major spokesperson in the Polyglot Community. I think we share similar hearts- we both love that languages open us up to new people, new experiences, and new views. I’m just curious what his overall message will start being.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’ve started to have a reasonable following (thank you all so much for that by the way) but I’m certainly not a lead voice in the Polyglot community like Benny Lewis or AJATT. I’ve been wondering what it is I have to contribute that is different from these gentlemen and other great blogs. What I’ve come up with is this: There is no ONE true way, but there IS a way for you.
Let me be clear- I really ENJOY Benny’s material and I think AJATT has some quality information to offer. But I also think that both operate under the mistaken and frankly dangerous perception that EVERYONE will be successful if they just DO what THEY did. They mean it as a positive- look, I did it, you can too! But by saying their method is THE way to learn a language, they actually hurt their own message. Because for every person who finds success with their method, there will be at least 1 (and probably more like 3) who it doesn’t work for. And unfortunately, now those people may think “well if that didn’t work, I’m just not suited to learn languages.”
Which just isn’t true. All that means is their methods aren’t the right fit for those individuals. I truly believe that with the right CUSTOMIZED tools and sufficient motivation, one can achieve any language goal. But what works for me may not be the key to your particular language lock.
So far, what I’ve seen from Tim hasn’t promoted a “one true way” approach. I’m hoping this continues, though I know it is easier as a speaker to find a few quality go-to techniques to discuss. I’m interested to watch how his voice grows in this community because I, for one, am interested in what Tim has to say. And for now, I hope all of you are still interested in what I have to say as well. As always I think you for taking your time to read my various language musings. I hope they are at least occasionally useful to you.
For now, I’m off to bed. Keep Calm and Polyglot On!