Why I Taught myself 20 Languages

Timothy Doner:

During the past few years, I’ve been referred to in the media as “The World’s Youngest Hyperpolyglot” — a word that sounds like a rare illness. In a way it is: it describes someone who speaks a particularly large number of foreign languages, someone whose all-consuming passion for words and systems can lead them to spend many long hours alone with a grammar book.

But while it’s true that I can speak in 20 different languages, including English, it took me a while to understand that there’s more to language than bartering over kebabs in Arabic or ordering from a menu in Hindi. Fluency is another craft altogether.

I began my language education at age thirteen. I became interested in the Middle East and started studying Hebrew on my own. For reasons I still don’t quite understand, I was soon hooked on the Israeli funk group Hadag Nachash, and would listen to the same album every single morning. At the end of a month, I had memorized about twenty of their songs by heart — even though I had no clue what they meant. But once I learned the translations it was almost as if I had downloaded a dictionary into my head; I now knew several hundred Hebrew words and phrases — and I’d never had to open a textbook.