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American teenager Timothy Doner teaches himself 23 languages

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LegalTransform  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 19:15
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
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Pure journalistic hyperbole Apr 12, 2013

You cannot "master" a language in two weeks. He is a normal person like everyone else who spends a lot of time studying languages. There is nothing miraculous or astounding about it. It just takes a lot of time (something he has not yet invested). End of story.



[Edited at 2013-04-12 21:20 GMT]


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Helena Chavarria  Identity Verified
Spain
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It takes a lifetime to master just one language Apr 12, 2013

I've been speaking English for over fifty years and Spanish and Catalan for over thirty, and I'm still learning.

I would far rather be proficient in (only) three languages than be able to discuss everyday topics in 23 langauges.


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Elizabeth Frohn  Identity Verified
United States
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Pretty cool Apr 12, 2013

Maybe he hasn't mastered these languages, but I watched this video a couple times and you have to admit it's pretty impressive. Even if he isn't a genius it's admirable that anyone would invest the time into learning what he has and that he is self-disciplined enough to be able to do it. And I wouldn't completely take talent out of the equation either. The guy has to have a knack for words.

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steven fung  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:15
French to English
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He's doing ok :) Apr 13, 2013

I agree with Jeff. The YouTube clip is too short to assess his 'mastery' fairly, but purely based on that clip, it looks like he can repeat basic phrases in quite a few languages - not really what I'd call 'mastery' either. In that sense, he's a learner of 23 languages. I do, however, commend his enthusiasm, passion and commitment for language learning at such an age - a pastime worth pursuing in my view. How many people (other than professional linguists and people of mixed backgrounds) can even speak just one foreign language?

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Michele Fauble  Identity Verified
United States
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Misleading title Apr 13, 2013

"American teenager Timothy Doner teaches himself a smattering of 23 languages"

There, I fixed it.


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Robert Forstag  Identity Verified
United States
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Setting off the B.S. detectors... Apr 13, 2013

Helena Chavarria wrote:

I've been speaking English for over fifty years and Spanish and Catalan for over thirty, and I'm still learning.

I would far rather be proficient in (only) three languages than be able to discuss everyday topics in 23 langauges.


I completely agree. I'll even settle for just two!

There are a good many individuals on this site offering "professional" services in several languages in which they have only limited proficiency. This is clearly visible to me among those offering services into English who make very basic errors in their profiles and forum posts.

There are of course people who offer genuinely professional services in two or more language pairs, but I would have to say that there is a positive correlation between my suspiciousness of a translator's real competence and the number of language pairs in which he or she offers services...


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Max Deryagin  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
Local time: 05:15
Member (2013)
English to Russian
Give me a break Apr 13, 2013

I'm always skeptical when I hear of people who ostensibly have mastered over 5 languages. Of course, lingual genii exist, but there is a limit to what you can and what you can not. I myself am struggling with only two.

Besides, what does it even mean to “have mastered” a language? At what point do you become “a master”?

[Edited at 2013-04-13 14:10 GMT]


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 00:15
Hebrew to English
Oh dear...another one.... Apr 13, 2013

...of these stories.

It would be a bit harsh of me to criticize the guy too much (his so-called "best" language - Hebrew - was not without flaws and his accent was quite strange for an American - whose accents in Hebrew are strange enough as it is) ....so I won't - apart from what I just said and to question the use of learning dozens of languages to an intermediate level. Sure, it's a great party trick that impresses monolinguals no end, but beyond that? Not many (if any) language careers look for this intermediate level of language proficiency.

There are also questions involved of the complex issues of what constitutes "fluency" and "speaking" a language (he admits himself that he struggles reading and writing Hebrew, and although "fluency" usually does refer mainly to speaking, you definitely cannot claim "mastery" of a language you are basically illiterate in).

What's really criminal in these stories is the reporting of them, which without fail demonstrate a lack of knowledge of even basic linguistics and language awareness.

For example, in more than one media outlet's reporting of this story they report that he can speak "Persian" and "Farsi" as though they are separate languages and not one and the same.

Sloppy journalism at its best.


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 08:15
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Languages not for language careers Apr 13, 2013

Like all of you, I react pretty negatively to these headlines. But this kid is young and enthusiastic, and that's pretty charming.

Ty Kendall wrote:

Sure, it's a great party trick that impresses monolinguals no end, but beyond that? Not many (if any) language careers look for this intermediate level of language proficiency.

But I wonder if there is now a class of people for whom it might be useful: "international business people". Multinationals often post upcoming execs to multiple positions around the world to give them experience. Having a basic grasp of the language in a country you've just been parachuted into by HSBC or similar could be quite helpful.

Additionally, of course, it's a shame to look at language learning purely as a means to an end. We can celebrate it just like stamp collecting: with no point beyond itself, but a cool thing to do, nonetheless.

What's really criminal in these stories is the reporting of them, which without fail demonstrate a lack of knowledge of even basic linguistics and language awareness.

Bingo. Being a bad reporter is not a cool thing to do.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 00:15
Hebrew to English
I do agree but... Apr 13, 2013

Phil Hand wrote:

Like all of you, I react pretty negatively to these headlines. But this kid is young and enthusiastic, and that's pretty charming.


I agree and I would never want to dampen anyone's enthusiasm for languages, I just hate how these stories lack perspective (i.e. he hasn't achieved the impossible) and rely so heavily on linguistic myths and half-truths.

Additionally, of course, it's a shame to look at language learning purely as a means to an end. We can celebrate it just like stamp collecting: with no point beyond itself, but a cool thing to do, nonetheless.


Again, I do agree. I just wonder whether it does much to promote languages as useful to invest time in learning (especially in the Anglosphere cultures). Some of the comments which are attached to some of the articles might attest to this suspicion, something along the lines of "apart from getting into the Guinness Book of Records, what else can he do?" and whilst I do indeed think that language learning doesn't have to have a purpose in itself, it's a shame that on the rare occasions when languages are thrust into the limelight, it's as a quirk of someone's personality and they are presented as an eccentric hobby and seldom as a useful and rewarding path to an interesting career in languages.


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Helena Chavarria  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 01:15
Member (2011)
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Languages are operating systems Apr 13, 2013

Ty Kendall wrote:

Again, I do agree. I just wonder whether it does much to promote languages as useful to invest time in learning (especially in the Anglosphere cultures). Some of the comments which are attached to some of the articles might attest to this suspicion, something along the lines of "apart from getting into the Guinness Book of Records, what else can he do?" and whilst I do indeed think that language learning doesn't have to have a purpose in itself, it's a shame that on the rare occasions when languages are thrust into the limelight, it's as a quirk of someone's personality and they are presented as an eccentric hobby and seldom as a useful and rewarding path to an interesting career in languages.


I always tell my students that English, or any other language, is just like an operating system: it's not an end in itself. It's what you do with it that's important.


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finnword1
United States
Local time: 19:15
English to Finnish
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YouTube, really? Apr 13, 2013

Has to be true then.

[Edited at 2013-04-14 01:11 GMT]


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Catherine Howard
United States
Local time: 19:15
Portuguese to English
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"Babel No More" Apr 13, 2013

Michael Erard, a linguist and journalist, investigates the phenomenon of so-called hyper-polyglots in his book, "Babel No More," assessing the evidence, interviewing polyglots and scientists, and rethinking notions such as "fluency," "language boundaries," etc. It's a great read, especially for translators and interpreters. It also provides enough context to see through claims like Doner's.

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Diana Coada  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 00:15
Portuguese to English
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I'm sorry to see Apr 13, 2013

that the so-called journalist has no idea of the definitions of the words ''proficiency'' and ''mastery'' .

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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 19:15
Russian to English
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Well, he apparently has a good sense of hearing, and can repeat phrase quite well Apr 14, 2013

I could easily repeat phrases in almost any language without even knowing what they mean. I don't believe it is possibly to mater 23 languages -- master meaning being able to write academic papers in all of them. You can have a smothering of many languages, and be able to pronounce things correctly -- I agree. I think someone can translate from up to a few languages -- not too many though. I can personally only translate legal texts from Polish and Russian, although I have spoken more languages from practically my childhood, and lived in those countries as well.

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American teenager Timothy Doner teaches himself 23 languages

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