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Speaking many languages

Timothy Doner looks like an ordinary American teenager. However, videos going round the internet show him chatting with a bookshop owner in Urdu, responding to a teacher in his Mandarin class, discussing the similarities between Hebrew and Arabic in Arabic.

The speed with which he learns different languages, the comfort with which he speaks, and of course his youth make this nothing short of astonishing.

The Economist invited Mr Doner to a studio in New York to talk with several native speakers in an unscripted (1) conversation. These were told to try to ask him a question he might not expect; he handled each of them with ease, never once asking them to repeat themselves. Native speakers will see tiny mistakes—a missed Russian case ending here or a Mandarin tone there—but they stick out in a stream of otherwise relaxed and easy conversation. And it should be stressed that we did not test his best foreign languages, which are Arabic and Farsi. He has had formal instruction only in Arabic, Farsi, French, Chinese and a bit of Japanese, Hebrew and Swahili. Others (like Russian, a hard language he speaks comfortably) are self-taught.

Many people want to know what makes an eager language-learner tick (2). Most hyperpolyglots are male. Many have some combination of being gay, left-handed or ambidextrous, and poor in visual-spatial skills. A surprisingly large number are boorish anti-social types. A variant of the theory has it that hyperpolyglots might have a highly „male“ brain, driven to systemising rather than empathising. (A subset of this theory is that autism is the result of an „extreme male brain“.)

Mr Doner hardly fits the profile (except for being a left-handed male). He has the will to sit and memorise verb tables, as one must do to come as far as he has. But he is a sociable and confident teen with a ready smile. He loves memorising pop lyrics and watching movies. He virtually inhabits (3) the languages he speaks; as a colleague said on seeing his video, „he shrugs like a Frenchman and frowns like a Russian.“ Most of all, it is obvious how much he enjoys speaking his languages with other people, not just learning them for the purpose of translation or reading (or boasting).

What else is he good at? He gets good grades in maths, but finds it frustrating, and struggles with physics and chemistry. He loves history, a big motivator in his language-learning. His father was once a professional pianist, and the young Mr Doner says that after a few years of lessons, he could „sight-read and accurately play pieces in one go“, though he is out of practice now. He can also quickly learn things by ear. This is perhaps the most intriguing clue to his ability—not just a „systemising“ brain, but one highly adept at processing and producing in a given compositional system (musical or linguistic) on the fly (4), plus a world beating auditory ability.



  1. What is special about Timothy Doner?
  2. How did Mr Doner pass the “test“ that he agreed to take at the Economist studio in New York?
  3. Did the Economist test all his foreign languages?
  4. What is a hyperpolyglot (3rd paragraph)? What are, according to the article, the typical traits in hyperpolyglots?
  5. Does Timothy Doner have these typical traits?
  6. How does, according to the article, Mr Doner perfom in school?
  7. What is, according to the article, perhaps the most important factor in Mr Doner’s foreign language learning ability.
  8. Do you think switching between different languages also implies switching between different ways of thinking?
  9. Which language-learning methods work best for you?


unscripted (1) – an unscripted broadcast, speech etc is not written or planned before it is made

what makes somebody tick (2) – the thoughts, feelings, opinions etc that give someone their character or make them behave in a particular way

inhabit (3) – if animals or people inhabit an area or place, they live there

on the fly (4) – while dealing with a situation, rather than before dealing with it


You can find additional explanation and more examples to help you understand and use English words and phrases at https://dictionary.reference.com, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/, https://www.merriam-webster.com/ or https://www.ldoceonline.com/