Tim Doner: Breaking the language barrier

So about two years ago, I was featured in a New York Times article called, "Adventures of a teenage polyglot," which featured my passion for learning foreign languages, this peculiar hobby that I had. And at first I thought it was great. I loved the fact that language learning was getting more attention and that it wouldn't always seem like an isolating hobby that was suddenly putting me into contact with people all around the world. And as I spent more time in the media spotlight, the focus of my story began to shift. So whereas I've always been interested in talking about the why and the how, why I was learning foreign languages, how I did it, instead, it turned into a bit of a circus, in which media shows wanted to sensationalize my story. So it would go a little something like this, "Hello, I'm here today with 17-year-old Timothy Doner who's fluent in 20 languages. Oh, I'm sorry. He actually can insult you in 25 languages and he's fluent in another ten. Tim, how about you tell our audience 'Good morning' and 'Thank you for watching', in Muslim?" (Laughter) "Er... Arabic." (Arabic) "Great Tim. Now can we get you to introduce yourself and say, 'I'm fluent in 23 languages' in German." "It's not really true. But..." "No, no, just tell the audience." (German) "Perfect. Now how about a tongue twister in Chinese? (Laughter) "Well, we could talk about Chinese, you know, a lot more Americans are learning Chinese these days, and I think there's a lot of value in that." "No, no, no. Just give us a tongue twister." (Laughter) (Chinese) "This guy! Tim, how about another tongue twister in Chinese?" "I will prefer not to, but you know we could talk about China. There's a lot you can gain by learning a language. "Oh Tim, I'm sorry, That's all the time we have." (Laughter) (Applause) "Now why don't you to tell our audience 'Goodbye' in Turkish and we will be over here?" "You know we haven't talk about anything substantive." "But Turkish please." (Turkish) "How about that kid, right, wonder if he gets any girls... (Laughter) Now stay with us because up next, a skateboarding bulldog in a bathing suit." (Laughter) (Applause) So, as funny as that was, it highlighted two pretty major problems in the way my story was covered. On a personal level, I felt that language learning was now becoming like a bit of a task, almost. It felt like something that was suddenly had to be rigidly organized. Something that had to be compartmentalized, rationalized, expressed in a concrete number. I speak X languages. I know Y languages. As opposed to what I'd always done, which was just learning languages for the fun of it. Learning to communicate with people, learning about foreign cultures. And on a bigger level, it's cheapened what it meant to speak a language, or to know a language. Now if I can impart you with anything today at TEDxTeen, it's that knowing a language is a lot more than knowing a couple of words out of a dictionary. It's a lot more that being able to ask someone where the bathroom is, or telling them the time of day. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. So for those of you who aren't familiar with my story, maybe a lot of you here don't know what the word polyglot is, and it's a pretty weird one. I started here. So this little tot is me, circa 2001, and this is the beginning of my language learning journey. I actually was a child actor before I'd learned any languages. And I always had a little bit of a gift for accent. So I'm going to auditions for radio commercials, or for TV commercials, and I'd do an Austin Powers impression. I'm not going to do one now. (Laughter) Or maybe I would do Apu from the Simpsons. In fact there was actually one time an audition which I was asked to leave, because they told me to speak like a little kid with a lisp, and I wanted to do Darth Vader in a French accent. (Laughter) But, that taught me the basics of of how to breakdown sound. How to pick up a foreign accent, or foreign speech patterns, and really live with it. Now fast forward a little bit, I'm now in about third grade, and I've just started French for the first time. But six months into a year, into even two years later, I can't converse with anybody. French is just another subject in school, and even though I can tell you words for elbow, knee bone, shoelace. I couldn't really have a fluent conversation with anybody. Fast forward a little bit more. In seventh grade, I started Latin. So Latin of course is a dead language, and in learning Latin, you really learn how to breakdown language, to see language as a system with rules, and as a bit of a puzzle. So that was great, but I still didn't feel like language was for me. So, forward a little bit more. About 13, and I've been interested in learning more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I started studying Hebrew. Now, I had no way of doing it. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, so I listen to a lot of Rap music. I memorize lyrics, I'd spit them back out, and I would just try to chat with native speakers, once a week, once a month, and I've got that incrementally, I started to understand a lot more. Now I didn't sound like a native speaker, I couldn't speak very articulately and I certainly didn't know the grammar. but I had done what I'd never managed to do in school, which was to pick up the basics of a language all on my own. Forward a little bit more. I started taking Arabic when I was 14 in a summer program going into 9th grade. This is summer of 2010. After a month I found that I could read and write without a problem. I'd learned the basics of the formal language and one of its major dialects. And it turned me onto the fact that I could really pursue languages as a hobby. So, it finally came to March 24th 2011. So I've pretty vicious insomnia, and as I was studying more languages using grammar books or watching TV shows, and let's say Arabic or Hebrew, became one way of focusing my time. So on that night, while I was awake till some ungodly hour, I recorded myself speaking Arabic into my computer screen, subtitled it, and I uploaded it to YouTube under the title, "Tim speaks Arabic." (Arabic) Next day I did the same thing, (In Hebrew) Tim speaks Hebrew. And the comments, when I trickled in, were fantastic. I got things like, "Wow, I've never seen an American speak Arabic before." (Laughter) You blame them? In addition to that I got things like, "Wow, maybe you should fix your vowels here." Or "maybe this word is pronounced this way." So suddenly language learning had gone from the solitary pages of a book, or my computer screen, into the wide world. After that I was hooked. I had a community of speakers to interact with, and essentially had a teacher or conversation partners for any language that I wanted to do. So I'll show you a quick montage of that. Video: (Arabic) I started studying Arabic roughly, 6 months ago. (Indonesian) This started... one, two, three, four... maybe four days ago. (Hebrew) I actually feel that reading and writing are easier in Arabic (Ojibwe) I certainly find Ojibwe difficult! (Swahili) But I came home the day before yesterday. (Pashto) How is my pronunciation? Thanks so much! Have a great day. Goodbye! (Applause) Tim Doner: That became my way of reaching out to the world. But as I was learning all these languages, I faced a number of obstacles. So number one, I had no idea how to teach myself. In fact, I'm sure many of you if you were told you have to learn Pashto by next month, you wouldn't know what to do. So I experimented. Here's one thing. So in my Latin class, I read about something that Cicero described, called, "Method of Loci." technically Locurum. But it's a technique in which you take mnemonics. So let's say you want to learn 10 vocabulary words on a list. You take each of those words and instead of memorizing them in blocks. you integrate them into your spatial memory. So here's what I mean. This is Union Square. It's a place I go every day. If I close my eyes I can imagine it very, very vividly So I imagine myself walking down Union Square, and in each spot in my mind that has resonance, I associate it with a vocab word. I'll show you right now. I'm walking down Park Avenue, and in Japanese "to walk" is "iku" I go a little bit further, turn right, sit on the stairs where I can "Suwaru". Directly north of there is a statue George Washington which I used to think was a fountain, so that's "nomu", "to drink". Right next, there's a tree that you can "Kiru", "cut". If you want to go north for Barnes & Noble, you can "Yomu", "to read". Or if I'm hungry and I want to go to my favorite Falafel place, I can go one block west of there, so I can "Taberu", "to eat". I missed one. Alright. So 8 out of 10! Not bad! So I found that most of the time by experimenting with methods like these, it made language learning a much more interactive experience. It made it something that I can remember much better. and I had a lot of fun with. Maybe that's not for you. Here's another one. So a lot of people often ask me, if you're studying so many languages at the same time, how do you not confuse them? Or how do you learn so many vocabulary words? In Spanish I learn a word for table and the word for book goes out the other ear. What I do is I embrace those. So for example, take these three words in Indonesian. These were actually among the first 50 words that I learned. "Kepala", "Kabar", "Kantor". Lexically there're unrelated to each other. "Kepala" is a head. "Kabar" is news. "Kantor" is an office. But they all sound similar "K", "A". Right? So what I would do, is I would memorize vocab in batches of sounds that were similar. So if I hear the word "Kepala" in Indonesian, I automatically think the words "Kebar" and "Kentor". Same in Arabic, "Iktissad", "Istiklal", "Sokot". These three words are unrelated. One is economy, one is independence, one is downfall. But if I hear one, it triggers... (Laughter) (Laughter) it triggers the rest. Same thing in Hebrew. (Hebrew) Even that those are return, remember and to shine. Or in Farsi in which they are related. So for me if I hear the word "Pedar", which means father, I automatically think in the words, "Mada", "Barodar", "Dokhtar". Mother, brother, daughter. So again this is one method, and I'm not saying this will make you fluent in a language, but it has been one of my ways of overcoming those obstacles. So you may be wondering, what's the point in doing this? Why learn Pashto or Ojibwe when you live in New York? And there's a point to that. In fact, I've lived in New York my entire life, and I'm always blown away by the number of languages you can hear on a given day. Walking at a street, I see billboards in Chinese or in Spanish. I see Russian bookstores, Indian restaurants, Turkish bath houses. Yet for all that linguistic diversity, mainstream American culture remains decidedly monolingual. And if you don't think that's true, look at the reactions to Coca-Cola Super Bowl video. So as I started to play around more with language learning, I found that I had my own community of learners here in New York. I'd go to outer boroughs, and for lack of a better word, embarrass myself. I try to talk to people all day, get their views on things, and use my new found language skills. Video: (Russian) What's your name? - Natan. Natan. - Good day. What's your name? I'm Tim. Pleased to meet you. Pleased to meet you. Where are you from? (Urdu) This book is written by Qudratullah Shanab himself. What is 'nawist'? It means the writer has written... Oh okay, Khod-Nawist (self-write). >From khod-nevashtan in Persian! TD: So maybe you have to use a lot of English, maybe you're not really that particularly interesting when you talk, but the point is you're getting out there and you're getting exposure. So I don't speak Urdu that well, it was kind of an awkward conversation, but just from that, I've learned a new word: "Khod-Nawist". I'm not going to forget it now. So moving on, you may wonder again what's the point in doing this? And I try to explain to people a lot what my various motivations are, but I often feel that this quote from Nelson Mandela is the best expression of that. "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart." So as I began to see, there's an enormous connection between language and culture, language and thought. And quite honestly if you want to learn Persian for example, you pick up a dictionary, you say, "I know how to say 'thank you', I know how to say 'how much is this?', and I know how to say 'goodbye'. Oh, I speak Persian." Probably not, let's see actually. In fact, if you want to buy something in a Persian bookstore, you might ask someone 'how much is this?'. Generally, he will tell you this: "Ghabeli nadaareh." Which means, 'it's worthless'. (Laughter) So in fact this is an ingrained cultural practice called, "Taaraf", in which two people having a conversation, both try to behave more humble than the other. So if I go to buy a book, it's rude for that person to tell me 'it's five bucks'. He has to say "it's worthless, please. You're so good-looking, you're so talented, (Laughter) Take it for free, I'm so humble, take it for free." (Laughter) Or you might find something like this phrase: if you want to thank somebody, if you want to show your gratitude towards them, or say 'nice to meet you', I could say, "Well, I know how to say 'thank you' in Farsi. I speak Farsi." Maybe not though. In fact I've often heard this phrase when I talk with Iranians, "Ghorbanet beram." Which literally means, "May I sacrifice my life for you." (Laughter) So again, it's poetic, you might call it melodramatic. but this is something you really have to understand the culture to get. I don't want to exona-size this, because, think about it, we have this in English all the time. If you ask somebody 'how are you?', what you're expecting to hear? 'I'm fine'. If you tell me anything else, I'm not interested. (Laughter) But we do it anyway. We say 'bless you', even though that has no real religious connotations now, when people sneeze, right? So, it's interesting we think about the fact that most linguists believe language doesn't inherently affect the way you think. Right. There's no language that will make you a math genius. There's no language that will make logic problems impossible to understand. But there's a real tie between language and culture. There're so much language can tell you about one culture's mindset. And in fact on planet Earth, every two weeks, another language dies. No more people are speaking it. Because of war, because of famine, oftentimes just because of assimilation. Maybe it easier for me not to speak my village language but to speak, Arabic let's say. Or maybe I'm from a tribe in the Amazon, my habitat is cut down and it just makes more sense for me to learn Portuguese and lose my culture. So think about that. Two months from today is April 1st. For many of you that day maybe stressful because you have a paper due, or the rent is due. But for two groups of people around the world, for two cultures that means the death of their language. The death of their mythology, their history, their folklore. Their understanding of the world. Now again, you, brushing up on your Spanish, going to Japanese class, is not going to stop language death. But what is does do, is begin to open up your mind to the idea that language in its sense, in essence, represents a cultural world view. And if I can impart you with anything today at TEDxTeen, it's this: you can translate words easily but you can't quite translate meaning. Thank you. (Cheers)

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