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Gathering the pieces of the tower of Babel
April 23, 2012 7:32 AM   Subscribe

Tim Doner is a 16 year old polyglot from New York city who currently speaks 23 languages. (warning: video) He uses flash cards on his iPhone and posts youtube videos to get feedback from native speakers.

It all started when he learned Hebrew for his Bar Mitzvah.

He quickly learned Egyptian Arabic, Indonesian, Swahili, Farsi, Russian, Ojibwe, Pashto, Hindi and many others.

He filmed the video in Indonesian after only four days of study.

Here is a half-hour long interview where he discusses his love of learning languages with a fellow polyglot friend in Paris.
posted by double block and bleed (72 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
He believes that no special talent is required to do this. After years of trying and failing to learn French, I respectfully disagree.
posted by double block and bleed at 7:36 AM on April 23, 2012 [11 favorites]


On the other hand, French kids are capable of learing it at an age of two. Meaning that you're officially worse at languages than a two-year old.
posted by daniel_charms at 7:42 AM on April 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


I stumbled upon™ something related on Lifehacker earlier. I think a lot of this learning-things-easily stuff comes with being incredibly organised and focussed, something I've never come remotely close to being.
posted by pipeski at 7:42 AM on April 23, 2012


Is it wrong that my first thought was "Oh god we got to get him inside an fMRI machine when he's learning a new language"
posted by The Whelk at 7:44 AM on April 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


Psssh...whatevs..is Klingon one of them?
posted by spicynuts at 7:46 AM on April 23, 2012


Is it wrong that my first thought was "Oh god we got to get him inside an fMRI machine when he's learning a new language"

Yes.
posted by daniel_charms at 7:46 AM on April 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


He said he found the polyglot videos on YouTube more interesting than television.

How do you say "low bar" in Pashto?
posted by chavenet at 7:46 AM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


“They were saying, ‘Yeah, these American Jews eating Israeli food,’ ” meaning that Timothy and his father were cultural tourists, trying to absorb their identity through food. The two continued eating without acknowledging their neighbors. Finally, at the end of the meal, Timothy turned to them. “I can speak Hebrew,” he said. Then he and his father walked out.

Hee hee hee. My mother -- an immigrant Russian Jew just under five feet tall -- spent all her free time on the beach and picked up her speech habits and mannerisms from working in Harlem for 20 years, would constantly do that to strangers who didn't think she spoke Russian and tried to talk shit (literally) behind her back.

Unfortunately for this kid, trying to shame an Israeli is like trying to smoke underwater: you can get all the motions right, but it's never going to work.
posted by griphus at 7:47 AM on April 23, 2012 [22 favorites]


He also knows English very well.
posted by eugenen at 7:47 AM on April 23, 2012


No Dothraki? Disappointed.
posted by runningdogofcapitalism at 7:59 AM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


oh how i hate him.
posted by modernnomad at 7:59 AM on April 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


IS IT WRONG THAT MY FIRST THOUGHT WAS "OH GOD WE GOT TO GET HIM INSIDE AN FMRI MACHINE WHEN HE'S LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE"

Yes.

Seconding: yes.
posted by Nomyte at 7:59 AM on April 23, 2012


daniel_charms: "On the other hand, French kids are capable of learing it at an age of two. Meaning that you're officially worse at languages than a two-year old."

Everyone is worse at languages than a two-year old. They're wired for it at that age.
posted by octothorpe at 8:00 AM on April 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


I always wonder about these people......I seriously doubt they are fluent in all the languages they "know". There just isn't enough time or opportunity to speak 12 or 24 languages enough for fluency
posted by thelonius at 8:02 AM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Define "know" in terms of his ability with these languages. Can recognize? Can be dropped in relevant country and keep self alive for a day? Can understand idiomatic TV show in that language?
posted by DU at 8:06 AM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


OH! Another funny story:

One of my best friends moved to Denmark at the age of 20something. A few years after he moved, I went to visit him. At least in Copenhagen and tourist-y areas of the rest of the country, just about everyone our age speaks English (and also happens to be the face of the entire service industry.) So he's having a bit of a hard time. But he keeps trying, even if once in a while we'd get the wrong food because he wanted to Do A Basic Thing and mixed up the numbers "5" and "15."

Anyway, we're at the airport because I'm going home. And I needed some information, so he flags down a dude who looks like he works there, and asks him, in English, if he speaks English. Airport Guy shakes his head and says, in Danish, that he only speaks Danish. My friend then tries to piece together the question he needs to ask. After a few words, Aiport Guy grins and says "I work in a fucking airport, of course I speak English" and we all have a good, long laugh.
posted by griphus at 8:07 AM on April 23, 2012 [11 favorites]


I'm interested that he said that learning Russian was the hardest for a native English speaker -- that seems unlikely to me, especially compared to Mandarin or Japanese? But maybe he meant out of a particular subset of languages? This is of personal interest to me since I'm trying to learn Russian in order to speak to my boyfriend's parents, so what do other people think of that?
posted by peacheater at 8:07 AM on April 23, 2012


I always wonder about these people......I seriously doubt they are fluent in all the languages they "know". There just isn't enough time or opportunity to speak 12 or 24 languages enough for fluency

Well, I just watched his Russian video, which is the only other language I know. If he's truly speaking off the cuff, then I'd say he's pretty close to fluent w/r/t vocabulary and grammar. His pronunciation is not good, but that's not surprising if he's studying on his own.
posted by eugenen at 8:10 AM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


DU, I heard him on the CBC (audio here) and the host (Jian Ghomeshi) was pretty impressed with his handle of colloquial Farsi. Whether that's the same for the rest of his languages, who knows, but I don't see why it couldn't be.
posted by greatgefilte at 8:10 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is it wrong that my first thought was "Oh god we got to get him inside an fMRI machine when he's learning a new language"

No. And I can't understand why some in this thread think that nonintrusive study of an interesting brain is a bad thing.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:10 AM on April 23, 2012 [37 favorites]


He has wonderful confidence that will help him acquire better fluency in some of these languages. Willingness to speak, formulate thoughts, and make mistakes is what holds many students back.

On the other hand, let's be reasonable about his results. His Russian, for example, is pretty unintelligible: many grammatical endings are either missing or wrong, half the words have the wrong emPHAsis, his pronunciation is very heavily accented, etc. It sounds like something he learned to speak from a textbook, which he, of course, did.

Let's remember the famous words of Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai:
Es ist wirklich Brach- und Neufeld, welches der Verfasser mit der Bearbeitung dieses Themas betreten und durchpflügt hat, so sonderbar auch diese Behauptung im ersten Augenblick klingen mag.

I had taught myself German out of Teach Yourself German, and I recognized several words in this sentence at once:

It is truly something and something which the something with the something of this something has something and something, so something also this something might something at first something.
Best of luck to him in his language pursuits.
posted by Nomyte at 8:12 AM on April 23, 2012 [14 favorites]


I'm interested that he said that learning Russian was the hardest for a native English speaker -- that seems unlikely to me, especially compared to Mandarin or Japanese? But maybe he meant out of a particular subset of languages? This is of personal interest to me since I'm trying to learn Russian in order to speak to my boyfriend's parents, so what do other people think of that?

peacheater, I've always heard Mandarin and Cantonese were harder than Russian. Japanese doesn't have tones, so verbally it's not as tough a curve; the written language is very similar, though.

Of course, it's always YMMV.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:13 AM on April 23, 2012


Lot of international coworkers use the cubicle next to me at work. They, and I, often stay late. I, sitting alone, am so quiet they may not know I'm even there, much less able to follow.

Last week I got the chance to chime, "Bon soir, gentilhommes" as I left, in the hopes of making them do an, "Oh, merde, what has he heard?" kind of moment. Alas, I just got a cheerful "Bon soir!" back, without a guilty pause... :)
posted by IAmBroom at 8:16 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm interested that he said that learning Russian was the hardest for a native English speaker -- that seems unlikely to me.

No, I agree with him. Chinese is very straightforward; no declensions, no tenses, no conjugations. If all you care about is speaking and don't mind remaining illiterate, Mandarin is easy-peasy.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:20 AM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


His Russian, for example, is pretty unintelligible: many grammatical endings are either missing or wrong, half the words have the wrong emPHAsis, his pronunciation is very heavily accented, etc.

My little old grandmother, who has suffered a pretty debilitating stroke and has dementia, is just generally a complete space case these days. However, she still corrects my Russian pronunciation. She doesn't know what day it is and picks the right door three times out of ten, but damn if I'm going to be mispronouncing words in her presence.
posted by griphus at 8:20 AM on April 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


No. And I can't understand why some in this thread think that nonintrusive study of an interesting brain is a bad thing.

Not so much a bad thing as built on a misunderstanding of how fMRI works. What's your control condition? Where are the other subjects you need to get an acceptable N? Plus, bilingual/non-fluent language studies are common. I can't imagine that the 24th language is going to be much different from the second.
posted by supercres at 8:21 AM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


He avoids claiming that he is fluent in most of the languages that he's learned, since the definition of fluency is unclear. Does it mean able to carry on an idiomatic conversation with a native speaker or indistinguishable from a native speaker?

In the longer youtube interview, I didn't know that his friend Luca was speaking English as a native Italian. I thought he might be from New York or New Jersey.
posted by double block and bleed at 8:29 AM on April 23, 2012


It doesn't sound like the subjects are claiming fluency - in fact in the BBC interview Doner has a very nuanced opinion on it: being able to communicate with a native speaker, find a way to to express yourself and understand expressions is enough for him. I agree that his Russian pronunciation is sloppy but I'd say he made himself understood.

@peacheater: I've studied and spoken both Russian and Mandarin (at differing levels), so I can provide my impressions. If you ask me to type in it, it will take me forever though :)

For Russian it helps to understand English grammar and have a willingness to understand language grammar in general - which sounds harder than it actually is, since all that grammar boils down to sounds in practice, many of which 'sound' like other parts of a sentence.

Russian's unfamiliar alphabet is still that, an alphabet. Once you can sound out Russian words, the pronunciation is more predictable than English (though easily as accented) and looking things up works the way you're familiar with in English. I personally found Mandarin harder (and progressed less far) from a written perspective because of the compositional complexity of the characters. The sound of the language, however, as @1adam12 said, was straightforward - tones aren't as scary as they sound, and the same number of Mandarin speakers and English speakers are linguistically tone-deaf, just like there are Spanish speakers physically incapable of rolling an 'r'. [I'll go find a cite on those]

For Russian, if you listen until you can 'hear' basic declension (nouns, adjectives, and 'things other than verbs' changing form due to their grammatical function) - when spoken many of those rules munge into one another and the way words which should agree in grammatical form sound together can help you fake it effectively. My experience has been that speaking with native speakers with some confidence, then letting the feedback loop of their subtle (or direct) corrections happen is the most effective - a lot of good grammar is mimicry of effective speakers.

Actually, that's my biggest thought on language: relax. Language is spoken by humans, humans are very lazy (in a brilliant way). Most prescriptive rules are negotiable into descriptive behaviors that get you understood and reflect how humans imitate one another.

Of course, I would also define "fluency" as being able to understand, compose and discuss things like jokes, poetry, puns and rhetoric in a particular language. Not necessarily philosophy or finance or any other jargon-rich topic but rather the art of language itself.

Just one severalglot's opinion, though.
posted by abulafa at 8:30 AM on April 23, 2012 [13 favorites]


Mmmm, I've been studying Japanese for about ten years, and lived in the country for maybe five or so. I treat this gentleman the same way I do all "polyglots:" with extreme cynicism.
It's lovely that he has a hobby that he loves to lovingly spend time on, but it's never going to be anything other than a hobby. A favorite quote of mine, told to me by my uncle is that "just about anyone can learn two languages, but learning two languages WELL is what's actually impressive."
If, instead of having 23 languages that he can "speak," he were to master reading/writing/speaking FIVE languages, then I think we'd actually have someone with a novel brain worth studying.
posted by GoingToShopping at 8:31 AM on April 23, 2012


Everyone is worse at languages than a two-year old. They're wired for it at that age.

I'm not a linguist, but this is sort of disputable. Yes, the critical period hypothesis is widely accepted, but no conclusive evidence has been found to prove it (nor disprove it, for that matter). Personally, I prefer to think that there is no critical period; that while our language acquisition capabilities are better at an early age, it's not because we're physically wired for this but because it's just something we *need* to do to communicate, to survive. And while our cognitive abilities do tend to degrade over time, we stop learning new languages mostly out of habit (never underestimate the power of habit!), not because we're suddenly just physically incapable of it.

If there's someone here who knows more about these matters (I've literally read just one book on the subject) and can point out why I'm mistaken, I'd be interested to hear it, though.
posted by daniel_charms at 8:36 AM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's interesting that he claims Russian as the most difficult language for English speakers. The State Department has collapsed their well-known four-point scale of language difficulty into three (See page 46 of this PDF), and does not place Russian on the top level.

The Level 3 languages are Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and at the very top Korean, which confuses me a bit, as its writing system is phonetic and it's not tonal.

A commendable effort, though. I absolutely bombed in Spanish of all things, there is definitely a talent to this that some people don't have.

His Mandarin has a very strong rhotic accent typical of, for example, Beijing residents. My Taiwanese-accented mother would imitate that sort of speech by pretending to chew on marbles.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 8:52 AM on April 23, 2012


Is it wrong that my first thought was "Oh god we got to get him inside an fMRI machine when he's learning a new language"

No. And I can't understand why some in this thread think that nonintrusive study of an interesting brain is a bad thing.


Yeah, I mean.... wrong would be "let's cut him open and see what's inside! let's see if he can learn language while being waterboarded! POKE HIM WITH A POINTY STICK!"
posted by elizardbits at 8:52 AM on April 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


Also toddlers have all day every day to learn the language, their mistakes are ignored and they get lots of external praise when they do something right and ...yeah they need to learn the language to socialize properly.
posted by The Whelk at 8:52 AM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


No. And I can't understand why some in this thread think that nonintrusive study of an interesting brain is a bad thing.

Not a bad thing, just not the first thing you want to do to a person, even if you're trying to learn something about him.
posted by daniel_charms at 9:14 AM on April 23, 2012


I require all new acquaintances to have at least one invasive medical procedure in my presence before they can be considered for actual friendship.
posted by elizardbits at 9:19 AM on April 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


What's your relationship with elizardbits? (optional)

Friendship [x] contact [ ] acquaintance [ ] friend [ ] none
Physical [ ] I have met this user in the real world [x] I have had at least one invasive medical procedure in the presence of this person
Professional [ ] co-worker [ ] colleague
Geographical o co-resident o neighbor o none
Family o child o parent o sibling o spouse o kin o none
Romantic [ ] muse [ ] crush [ ] date [ ] sweetheart
posted by daniel_charms at 9:30 AM on April 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


I knew a guy at uni who was from Belgium who could speak French, Dutch, German, Italian and English fluently, was proficient in a number of other European languages and was studying for a degree in Japanese. No one would play him at Scrabble at was it considered to be too embarrassing to be annihilated by someone for whom English was not their first language but at least fourth.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:34 AM on April 23, 2012


No. And I can't understand why some in this thread think that nonintrusive study of an interesting brain is a bad thing.

Because it would be a totally underpowered study that could be incredibly misleading?
posted by en forme de poire at 9:38 AM on April 23, 2012


(The post is really interesting, though.)
posted by en forme de poire at 9:47 AM on April 23, 2012


I'm always fascinated by people's responses to polyglots. I speak a number of languages but only one other besides English so fluently that people ask me what part of that country I'm from.

Invariably monoglots assume if you're speaking another language you must be talking about them. Some people get very defensive. Others get a feeling of superiority by questioning how fluent, what fluent means, which element of the conditional subjunctive he missed in Dari, why he didn't pull his nasal hairs to improve that glottal stop, etc., etc.,

FFS people, he's 16 years old, he could be eating his boogers while scratching his balls watching porn, wondering where he's going to score some hash for the weekend party...................................
..........but no, he decided to learn a new language instead so let's knock him down a few pegs!
posted by Wilder at 9:48 AM on April 23, 2012 [25 favorites]


Chinese is very straightforward; no declensions, no tenses, no conjugations. If all you care about is speaking and don't mind remaining illiterate, Mandarin is easy-peasy.

Well…

His Mandarin has a very strong rhotic accent typical of, for example, Beijing residents. My Taiwanese-accented mother would imitate that sort of speech by pretending to chew on marbles.

Where is he speaking mandarin? It isn't in any of the videos on his channel.
posted by flippant at 9:52 AM on April 23, 2012


Nevermind, found it.

Very basic Mandarin - I think he dabbled for an afternoon or something. Nothing serious.

But goddamn he's impressive.
posted by flippant at 10:03 AM on April 23, 2012


Maybe some day this kid will teach a Chinese-language immersion course at an ibex farm.
posted by brundlefly at 10:04 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just a note on terminology, first and second languages are like like first and second cousins: you can have more than one of each.
posted by Nothing at 10:33 AM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Excellent, I hadn't yet gotten a chance to feel inferior yet today. *goes back to mispronouncing 25% of the words in her native language*
posted by schroedinger at 10:37 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


The point made upthread about the need to communicate rather than some critical period around age 2 is pertinent. Many people learn their second (or nth) language via pillowtalk. Also, I would assume that having English as your first language might be an impediment, given that many many people all over the world speak English (or "enough English") to get by. It is always a bit embarrassing to be the native English speaker in a meeting where Italians and Greeks and Chinese are doing business in English, their only shared language.
posted by chavenet at 10:49 AM on April 23, 2012


Ugh it depresses me that his Mandarin is (seemingly) better than mine. I start out a sentence in Mandarin, halfway through it collapses into Cantonese-accented jibberish and then it ends with me throwing up my arms and saying fuck and doing the point-and-smile thing.

I'm trying to learn Russian and German off free podcasts - I don't know how this kid does it, because I'm not picking up very much beyond a few phrases here and there, but count me in on wanting a (non-invasive and totally consensual) metaphorical poke at his brain.
posted by zennish at 10:55 AM on April 23, 2012


Bonjour, je suis aussi un polyglot.

Hola, estoy tambien el polyglot.

S'il vous plait, pas des plus questions.
posted by crazylegs at 11:12 AM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can't imagine that the 24th language is going to be much different from the second.

supercres, you seem to have hypothesized a testable statement. Sounds like a good reason for an MRI!
posted by IAmBroom at 11:21 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I once saw Samuel Eilenberg dictate much of a NYTimes crossword puzzle by doing the 'across' words in order, about as fast as he could say them. English was no better than his 3rd language, after the usual European set.
posted by hexatron at 11:22 AM on April 23, 2012


It's a bit much to demand that he be fluent in the languages he studies. Half the native English speakers I know aren't even fluent in English.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:23 AM on April 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


It was a Tuesday puzzle, though.
posted by hexatron at 11:23 AM on April 23, 2012


Sounds like a good reason for an MRI!

Sadly, like most things in science, MRI is a numbers game. Without sufficient numbers, MRI cannot answer this or any other question.

I think that MRI is particularly fallible to naive thinking. Although you do get pictures out, they are not "pictures of the brain in action." They are pictures of the magnetic properties of water molecules. But moreover, science today only has a vague notion of what "the brain in action" does, which physiological changes represent this "action," or when the "doing" happens (before the change occurs? during? after?).

MRI only gives you a second- or third-hand surrogate measure of something possibly happening somewhere with some probability. Even then you're dealing with multiple assumptions about circulatory dynamics and cellular metabolism.

Really, it's best not to think about MRI as if it gave researchers the ability to open up the brain and look inside. It's like that problem in philosophy: if you show someone something blue, there is nowhere you can look in the brain to see "the feeling of blue." The relationship between the external world, the brain, and the mind is much more complicated.
posted by Nomyte at 11:56 AM on April 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Indonesian/Malay is actually pretty straightforward. Simple tenses, hardly any conjugation, pronounced as it's spelled, ungendered nouns, and a grammar which similar to english. Bloody thing still took me forever because I was stubborn, though.
posted by ooga_booga at 12:07 PM on April 23, 2012


Tim Doner is a 16 year old polyglot from New York city who currently speaks 23 languages. (warning: video) He uses flash cards on his iPhone and posts youtube videos to get feedback from native speakers.

What an asshole.
posted by gallus at 12:16 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Exactly what I was think-wait no, what?
posted by Think_Long at 12:41 PM on April 23, 2012


Some people get very defensive. Others get a feeling of superiority by questioning how fluent, what fluent means ...

I think myself and others are simply skeptical of how much he could be "gaming" the language learning process to set up some sort of "display" of fluency. I mean, he edits his own videos in which he speaks his own self-selected, textbook-style sentences.

A true test would be engaging in an impromptu conversation with a native speaker on a substantive topic without more than a couple of errors.

Seriously, show that to me and I will be impressed. That is a test of fluency.

Until then, I remain skeptical. Case in point, when his Mandarin was tested. I speak Mandarin. I listened to him exchange a few basic, non-substantive textbook sentences in that BBC video. Predictably, his tones were way off, and, thankfully, the native speaker sort of called him out on it; otherwise, no one would ever know the difference and he comes off looking "fluent".
posted by stroke_count at 12:42 PM on April 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


His Farsi is quite decent. He definitely has an accent that marks him as a non-native speaker, and he pronounces some words with a marked Arabic accent, likely because he learned Arabic first and pronounces the loan words as he learned them in Arabic. I'm pretty impressed though. His Persian is better than most of my non-native speaker classmates' was after 3 semesters in a college Persian class.

Also, so much word on it being a pain in the ass to read newspaper articles in Persian. It can sometimes feel like quite an ordeal to wind your way through a long, complex sentence that doesn't make much sense until the very end when you read the verb. Persian was my first language, but I became literate in it only in college, and I'm still a slow reader, something which subject-object-verb sentence structure does not help with at all.
posted by yasaman at 1:22 PM on April 23, 2012


One theory is that a spike in testosterone levels in the womb can increase a brain’s asymmetry, creating a greater incidence of left-handedness, autoimmune disorders, learning disorders, homosexuality and talents in art, music and languages.

This seriously makes me feel a little bit like a mutant. I'm a gay musician who speaks three languages and has had autoimmune problems.
posted by jph at 2:24 PM on April 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


Fascinating. His Hindi is pretty good, in terms of vocab and grammar, although he stumbles here and there. For 4-5 months, that's pretty fantastic. His pronunciation sounds a lot like a Bengali speaker for much of the time. Also, it's interesting that he says he finds Urdu easier to read than Devnagri, because of having learned Arabic early on, but he is clearly speaking Hindi rather than Urdu.
posted by bardophile at 2:49 PM on April 23, 2012


I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that because of their location on a trade route and historic trading relationships, lots of people in Asia Minor spoke several languages as a matter of course. Someone told me that it was "normal" for educated Afghanis in past times to speak eight or ten languages. I don't know how true that is, but the only Afghan person I've met in Calgary was delivering pizza and surprised us by speaking very good Quebecois French, which he learned in Montreal in his first six moths in Canada. Besides Pashtun, he also spoke Russian, Ukrainian, Arabic and very good English.

I'm relating this story because I find it encouraging for my own language-learning efforts, and because I like to believe that humans are smart and can learn lots of things.
posted by sneebler at 8:33 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or months.
posted by sneebler at 8:34 PM on April 23, 2012


Hollywood Upstairs Medical College: You mentioned that the state department lists Korean as a harder language to learn for native English speakers than languages like Mandarin and Japanese, and that this confused you.

Here are a few things that have struck me about learning Korean.

First, there are four different ways to say "I," depending on who you are talking to and what it is you are trying to say. This might not sound difficult, but to someone just learning to speak, having to sort these out can be confusing and intimidating, especially as its not really something that is covered very well in any material that I've come across.

Second, verb endings can get kinda wild. There are lots of different endings that convey information about why the speaker is saying what he is saying, giving rise to all sorts of "tenses" that don't exist in English. On top of this, each of these verb endings change slightly depending on how "polite" the speaker is being to the listener.

Third, simply figuring out how to address people can be difficult. It's not always polite to call people by their names, and saying "you" to someone older than you or that you don't know well is especially not ok. This often leaves me wondering how to address people properly, and causes me to miss chances to practice speaking. This might also be because I'm a shy little baby, but that's another story.

Fourth, there are just tons of little annoying things that are difficult to sort out. This is sort of related to the four different ways to say "I" thing I guess, but anyway. There are two counting systems in Korean which are used differently depending on the origin of the word of the thing you are counting. Hours are counted in the "Chinese" system, minutes in the "Korean" system. There are two words for "month," and they each use different number systems from the other. The word "but" can be used as its own separate word at the beginning of a sentence or clause, just like English, but can also be tacked onto the verb at the end. When it's on the verb at the end, though, it doesn't just mean "but," but also kind of like "and," so figuring out the exact usage of a simple thing like "but" can be difficult. And just like "I," the word "it" can be pronounced maybe four or six different ways depending on the part of speech its acting as.

Last, both pronouncing and hearing different vowel sounds in Korean gives me lots of trouble. I spent a month in Japan and spent a fair bit of my free time there studying Japanese with the help of a friend, and pronunciation in Japanese seems way more straightforward and easy to understand than in Korean. But I really only have a month's experience, so I don't know how valid my opinion is there.

Basically, while most languages seem to have their fair share of difficult things going on, it seems like there are lots of both little and big things in Korean that add up and make it pretty tough. But certainly not impossible. Someone upthread mentioned how important organization and study habits are, and I have to second this. Getting a good system down where you study just a little bit daily can really take you pretty far, if done correctly. IMO the real challenge is coming up with such a system that works for you, and the motivation to keep at it long term. There are stupid people everywhere who have been able to learn at least their own languages.
posted by meows at 9:16 PM on April 23, 2012


I can speak about 45 languages, but only one word or phrase in most of them. For example, I had a good friend from Russia - we drank vodka together and he gave me a t-shirt from the Hard Rock Cafe in St. Petersburg - and one time I told him I wanted to learn to say one thing in russian. He decided to teach me how to say I didn't speak any russian. Just say "ni slowva pahruski" he told me; it means "not a word of russian". So one day I'm at a library in Mexico, wearing my t-shirt from St. Petersburg, and this guy comes up to me and starts speaking in russian. I have no idea what he's saying, but it's clear from his expressions and the context that he's saying something like "I see you have russian writing on your t-shirt, do you speak russian?" And of course, I said "ni slowva pahruski". The guy got a confused look on his face, scratched his head, said "OK", and walked away.

I guess my point is that knowing even a single word or phrase in a foreign language can have a very powerful impact if you meet a native speaker outside of the usual places where the language is spoken. If you run into a native swahili speaker in Tennessee, and you happen to know how to say "hello" in swahili ("jambo") then the impact is far out of proportion to the effort involved in learning that one word. You become an instant friend.

The word "hello" is a pretty good starting place, and there are websites like this one, which purport to teach you how to say hello in 2200 languages. You can become instant friends with anyone on the planet that way.

Plus you can make comments online, bragging that you speak 2200 languages.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:49 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


The linguist Ken Hale, who taught at MIT, was not only a polyglot but also a talented teacher who shared his learning strategies with his students. There is a story about Hale buying a Dutch phrasebook at the airport on his way to the Netherlands, and greeting his hosts in fluent Dutch on arrival. At a boarding high school in Arizona he started by learning Navaho, Hopi, and Tewa from roommates while studying French and Spanish - he claimed he learned better when he studied a lot of languages at the same time. He even brought up his own kids in the Australian language Warlpiri.


Language difficulty is relative - they can be seen as 'hard' or "easy" for different reasons. A Canadian Cree buddy from an ethnically mixed area in northern Manitoba once told me that in his community everybody could speak both Cree and Ukrainian, because "Ukrainian was easy." Go figure. Read the comments on this kid's Ojibwa video: native people who speak Ojibwa are quite encouraging. You can't fake this stuff.
posted by zaelic at 10:44 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah I've known 3-4 people who've spent 10+ years studying Russian who couldn't speak half as freely as this kid (I'm a native speaker). His pronunciation is a trainwreck & sometimes completely unintelligible, but really, that just comes from having learnt it out of books. The fact that he can bust out a profusion of Russian sentences like that, navigating the grammar at such speed, after how many weeks of study? That's crazy.

I've studied a bunch of different languages -- I took Hindi/Urdu for 4 years in college and spent close to a year living in a Swahili-speaking country with very little English contact. And languages have always been a special talent/interest of mine -- I spent hours reading Hungarian phrasebooks and learning Japanese characters when I was like 4, and I totally understand the passion that polyglots have. Yeah, this guy completely kicks my ass at Hindi & Swahili.

It's really amazing the scope of ability that it's possible to have. In summary: TIME 2 WEEP
posted by geneva uswazi at 11:06 PM on April 23, 2012


When teaching in PNG I would have kids who easily spoke five completely different languages - not dialects, separate languages - yet they couldn't do their three times tables. It was because they grew up thinking that having to learn multiple languages was normal and what you do, but maths was hard and they didn't come in contact with it as much. They all thought it was bizarre that this supposedly smart white woman only spoke one language.

I guess what I am saying is that if you think it is possible and just dive in and do it, language learning is probably not all that difficult. I say that as someone who is trying to learn Japanese and finding it incredibly hard, but that is because I am so self-conscious about it and can't kick the idea that it is really hard.
posted by Megami at 1:03 AM on April 24, 2012


It isn't entirely clear to me the manner and extent to which musical aptitude and language acquisition are connected, but as someone with both, I'd say it is pretty solid. Learning a language feels very much like learning to read music felt for me. There is that moment when you stare at the monolithic structure in front of you, with a complete lack of comprehension. I still feel that when I look at Chinese or Japanese, Arabic or anything else that uses a different alphabet. Many people feel that same lack of understanding when they look at a piece of sheet music. It is just a lot of symbols and none of them really mean anything.

Then, as you acquire bits of information, you have a flicker of recognition. Every Good Boy Does Fine. FACE. Now I know the lines and spaces of the treble clef. Or at least, I can work them out. Slowly. And eventually it becomes second nature so that even ledger lines become instantly recognizable. Then you learn that the bass clef is just basically like Treble Clef Bizzarro World, where everything is just sort of shifted a little bit. And then the same for Tenor and Alto Clefs. Those weirdo universes where C IS A LINE AND NOT A SPACE OMG IT IS SO WRONG.

In my experience of learning other alphabets and languages, this is exactly what it feels like. That thing you thought was a "p" - well, now it is an "r" so get used to it. I'm still at the "Every Good Boy Does Fine" level with Cyrillic. I know the alphabet and could sound something out if I had a little bit of time. But it would be purely an academic pursuit. But slowly that academic pursuit gives way to practicality. At some point, you sound something out and then you recognize it. Holy shit, "супермаркет" is SUPERMARKET! I mean, duh?

Also, the learning curve with music and language "feels" very much the same. When I was this kid's age, I was all about learning to play a bunch of instruments. I started playing the flute and dabbling on the piano. But by the time I was in high school, I had learned how to play the clarinet, the saxophone, french horn and trumpet - and I was at least as good as many of my peers. And the more I learned the more of a game it became. I knew that I could pick up the piccolo because I didn't have to learn any new fingerings or how to read in a different clef. Difficulty: super easy. I knew that to learn the trombone or the viola, for example, would be very difficult because that would require learning different instrument manipulation (fingerings/slide positions/etc.) as well as reading music in another clef and mastering a different embouchure.

But the learning curve gets faster as you acquire these new individual skills. I picked up the baritone one day to test myself. Could I check it out from the band program and come back the next day able to play all my major and minor scales and sightread a piece of music? Yes. But it really wasn't terribly difficult because all I had to do was work on the embouchure. I already read bass clef from playing piano. And I had already learned the fingerings when I learned to play the trumpet. In fact, the embouchure for the trumpet was much more difficult than that for the baritone. (Trumpet embouchure isn't something you can just develop overnight. You really have to practice and consequently strengthen the musculature surrounding the mouth.) My final personal test was the bassoon, because it was almost as foreign as I could get without going into stringed instruments. The terrifying double reed that sounded like a raspy duck call. The tenor clef. The 400 thumb buttons. It was almost entirely foreign. And yet, I went home, plunked down in front of my music stand, and was able to honk out "Memory" from Cats by the next morning. (Don't judge.)

After almost ten years of formal Spanish education, I am actually more fluent in French at this point (after only a couple years of self-study) probably because of the different language skills I've picked up over the years. I learned plenty from Spanish, as an associated romance language. But I also learned a lot from doing things like getting bored in college and learning the Cyrillic and Hebrew alphabets. Once I decided to sit down and learn French, I realized that it wasn't nearly as difficult as I expected it to be. It was the same kind of expedited learning process that I experienced when picking up new instruments when I was in high school. Now, while continuing on with my French studies, I've got my sights set on learning Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian-Montenegran (BCSM, which is such a terribly unwieldy name that I might just insist on using the entirely politically-incorrect Yugoslavian instead). I am hoping that it will prove similarly quick, though with the weird case system, I'm a little doubtful.
posted by jph at 8:31 AM on April 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh, and also: "I Speak Six Languages" from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
posted by jph at 8:32 AM on April 24, 2012


I do find I it odd that I've had great difficulty learning different human languages, but I don't have the same problem learning computer languages. One the one hand, most computer languages are based on English to one degree or another, have strictly defined vocabularies and mostly lack parallels to slang and idiom. However, a problem with computers languages is that having only a passing familiarity isn't good enough to do exactly want. I can't get the forgiving nature of a native speaker who is able to tell that even though I'm saying one word, I probably mean another. Computers are stupid. They don't give hints about poor syntax.

My French was at its best when I visited my sister who was living in Mexico City at the time. I went with her boyfriend from Senegal. Once he learned that I had dabbled in French, he refused to speak to me in any other language. During that two weeks, my French blossomed. Unfortunately, that was 20 years ago and I've lost almost all of it since.
posted by double block and bleed at 10:03 AM on April 24, 2012


I completely accept what you say, stroke_count , but disagree.

He has taped and edited these and is mainly saying the same things (in the ones I understand). But this is not like taking a picture of yourself, photoshopping it, and sticking it on your OK Cupid profile as a true representation of you. This is way, way beyond that.

I understand his Pashto & Farsi, and his level of comfort, his ability to reproduce sounds that are not common in his native language argues for a very strong sense of mimicry, an excellent ear, a lack of self-conciousness, a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them and the honesty to put himself out there and be corrected that from my small experience of his native culture is not common.

I can tell you as someone who not only learns new languages in the same way but has thaught from beginners level to Masters programmes, he is exceptional.
posted by Wilder at 1:37 AM on April 25, 2012


I think it is pretty clear that his videos are well-scripted with the assistance of a native speaker and we see the best take. Unfortunately, I cannot judge his videos based upon my own knowledge because he has not uploaded any in a language of which I have appreciable proficiency, so I am looking forward to a video by him in Japanese. I thought his French in the BBC interview was rather good. A friend did agree with another commenter's opinion that the Russian video was nigh unintelligible.

The claim of a 16-year-old speaking 23 languages can only be believed by credulous monolinguals. I am sure he knows a few hundred words and appropriate textbook phrases in most of these languages, but that does not go much beyond a parlor trick. He seems to have at least B2 proficiency in a few languages, which I think is very impressive for anyone and particularly someone of his age. However, to say "I speak 23 languages" is simply a fiction.

Again, this is not to take away from what he has accomplished. And, I do find him to be likable, unlike another Internet polyglot, Benny the Fluent in Three Months guy. (I also tend to enjoy content from Yearlyglot and Steve Kaufmann.) But, I find the current media tour to be a bit much.

I must second Anki on the iPhone for learning vocabulary. I swear by it for the languages I study.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:51 PM on May 18, 2012


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