As “the world’s youngest polyglot,” Tim Doner has gained the attention of many language learners and admirers who want to know how he has achieved what he has.
Today I will share Tim Doner’s language-learning method, in a cohesive format, gathering statements from his public appearances.
Stick around until the conclusion, where you’ll find out what Tim says is the crux of language acquisition.
Playing the Part
First, Tim is very entertaining when he speaks another language. Part of this is, of course, his surprising proficiency — another part is that he is hardly recognizable as Tim. In his video interviews and vlogs you can watch him transform not just into another language, but into another personality altogether…
…and it’s intentional! Tim knowingly gets in character, “sometimes a little exaggerated,” where he attaches voice or personality to each language.
Tim used to be a child actor, called upon to imitate accents in commercials.
Doing this helps him to maintain his pronunciation, and more importantly, helps him keep the many languages separate in his mind.
One at a Time?
Like me, Tim doesn’t tend to study any one language on its own for a long duration at a time.
At most he will spend maybe a few months at a time focusing hard on one language at a time, but since he “doesn’t try for perfection,” he is free to continue revising and working with the previous languages, as we’ll see in detail below. Thus his only limit is whatever interests him at the time!
When an interviewer was gearing up to ask about ways to get more vocabulary, Tim’s response came quickly: “I love lists!”
Through use of “a copious amount of flashcards,” and flashcard applications on his iPhone, he maintains constant repetition of vocabulary he has acquired. By making use of the “quiz” feature on many of these apps, Tim says he “tends not to forget them.”
Vocabulary in Assonant Bunches
In his TEDx Teen talk, Tim mentions a technique I’d never heard before. When he learns a new vocabulary item, he learns two more alongside it that sound similar — normally the three carry the same consonants in the same order, which is hugely helpful in Semitic languages and Farsi.
He also mentions his use of the method of loci using Union Square in New York City as his “memory palace”.
Grammar… is Important!
First, Tim says if you’re just aiming to visit and play the tourist, grammar is unnecessary. But for him, since language is a crackable code, each grammar item is a “key to saying anything else,” as it unlocks the formula into which different vocabulary can fit. But Tim always makes sure to break down the grammar because that’s what interests him:
Tim does acknowledge that he may make things harder for himself by insisting on grammar study. Nonetheless, for Tim, learning grammar has benefits, which is why he is constantly flipping through, as it keeps languages interesting for him.
“Communication is a second point, because what really interests me is the structure of it.”
The benefits are confirmed by Tim’s first experiences with foreign languages, starting with French when he was in third grade (roughly 8 years old). After two or three yearsof learning in a classroom, he couldn’t speak or converse with anyone in French, presumably including his parents who had studied it. This should speak volumes about the traditional classroom setting and the folk wisdom that a child is necessarily a lightning language learner.
But his experience with Latin a few years later showed him that language can be unlocked and decoded by taking apart the grammar, the pieces that fit to make a unified whole; this was an integral step in the process for him.
All in all, grammar is easier for Tim than pronunciation, he admits. The great thing about it, he explains, is that having structural knowledge of a language means “if you want to come back to it later, you can.” This shows that, like me, Tim understands that grammatical structures, once learned, stick in the brain better than simply vocabulary or rote learned phrases in the form of bare audio.
Music, TV and Exposure
Tim mentions nothing more than he mentions the importance of exposure. “All it takes” for a good accent, he recommends, “is a lot of dedication and practice and listening.”
Here’s how he goes about it:
Primarily, when learning Hebrew in his first self-study, he memorized hundreds and hundreds of songs in Hebrew, and sang them to himself in the middle of the day.
What happens through this process is:
- his pronunciation improves a lot, so much so that he doesn’t focus on it elsewhere, and
- he starts to “internalize” the language naturally from the songs, a process he continues to this day:
Tim cites the following benefits of watching TV in another language:
- You will hear a native rate of speech,
- often a more colloquial register,
- which trains you to comprehend more
- while having fun!
- (Perhaps additionally, Tim explains, it helps him feel better about watching “trash TV”)
But don’t limit yourself to TV, Tim says, just make sure of one thing: “it has to be constant, 24/7 exposure. Anything on the Internet, YouTube bloggers, newspapers, music, whatever comes to mind…”
Tim has been known to watch television in Hindi and Farsi.
Tim tries to read an article every day to build vocabulary. For German, he frequents Wikipedia, which is available in nearly every language he has studied.
He also recommends reading material of interest to you with the help of a dictionary to look up new words.
The first thing Tim does is buy a textbook with CDs, and begin translating everything he can immediately, second-by-second, using what he learns from the first half-dozen or so lessons.
While Tim strongly recommends Teach Yourself, Assimil, his reviews of Pimsleur is only generally positive as “a good way to pass the time in the mornings.” When he used Pimsleur for Dutch, however, Tim admits that when transitioning to reading it was completely unhelpful, as he “had absolutely no idea how to read it.” He goes on, “It made no sense to me.”
(For the more nit-picky among us, there are shots of his desk in several interviews and televised appearances that show, for example, German Made Simple.)
Inside Tim’s Head
Tim uses two fascinating self-training techniques:
- Translating real-time conversations mentally, and
- Internal monologuing, all day every day.
For translating his conversations, Tim Doner does not limit himself to one language pair. This means even if he’s speaking Farsi with someone, he works to translate what they are saying into, say, German. This keeps him practicing would-be back-burner languages even if he isn’t speaking them.
Tim explains that has made a habit of talking to himself 24/7 for a matter of years, adding “it even gives me a cheat sheet.”
“I’ve been through so many fake conversations in my mind, by the point I start talking to someone, there are really only so many things they’re gonna say to me, and I can pull out phrases that have already been in my head for weeks and make a conversation out of that.” — Tim Doner
Tim finds motivation to study languages partly in his interest in history, political science, and cultural hybridity in languages. Language study, Tim says, “exposes a layer of history” a learner wouldn’t know otherwise. Moreover, Tim says he sees languages as “new ways of conceptualizing the world,” providing the basis for his brief study of Ojibwe.
In addition, Tim recommends taking what you like doing and incorporating language learning into that; for those who like culinary arts, why not read a cook-book or watch a cooking show in another language?
In the end, Tim sums up his motivation with a quote from Nelson Mandela: “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”
Speaking about the essence of language learning, Tim explains, “It all comes down to practice and exposure.” That, he says, is how you can switch effortlessly between multiple languages. “Try to make it as organic, … relaxed, and normal as possible” and “do as much audio listening as you can.”
Pair these essentials with the confidence that comes from constant mental training and the kind of dedication that has Tim spending “most of his waking hours” on it, and you are on your way to learning languages the Tim Doner way.
Conclusion of Research
Tim Doner has, in large part, not received the type of attention he deserves, namely, a forum to express himself and discuss the ideas that are important to him. Clearly learning languages is a hobby for him, and he admits that like me, he’s addicted. Yet so many of his appearances in media have left him feeling disappointed at the “circus” the coverage became.
Invitation to Tim
I would like to invite Tim to contact me for the chance to have the opportunity his media coverage denied him — to speak his mind about the “why” and “how” (my chief interest as well) and discuss the topics and themes that inspired him to learn languages in the first place (such as Israeli-Palestine and the history of the Middle East), and that motivate him to take on new challenges (the uniqueness of Native American dialects and interconnectedness between languages that prove cultural hybridity). I hereby offer my participation in working with Tim to disprove, in his words, “the completely false idea that circulates about Americans that they don’t like learning about other cultures.”
Currently Tim is involved in creating his 20 Words video series on his YouTube channel, revealing the fascinating links between the related lexicons of different languages. You can also keep up with him through his Facebook page.
Feel free to leave a comment below to let me know what you think! What are your thoughts on Tim Doner?
- Lampariello, Luca. “The secrets to learning foreign languages: Luca Lampariello interview with Timothy Doner.” 1 Jul. 2012.
- Leland, John. “Adventures of a Teenage Polyglot.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Mar. 2012. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.
- Tim Doner’s TEDxTeen talk, “Breaking the language barrier.” 9 Mar. 2014.
- Tim Doner’s video interview with The Economist with Lane Greene. Aug. 2013.
- Tim Doner’s video feature “Prodigies” for THNKR. 31 May 2013.
- Van der Aa, Jan. “Meeting Teenage Polyglot Tim Doner in New York.” 8 Feb. 2014.
- 16×9. Word Play: Hyperpolyglots. 7 May 2012.