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  • So about two years ago,

  • I was featured in a New York Times article called,

  • "Adventures of a teenage polyglot,"

  • which featured my passion for learning foreign languages,

  • this peculiar hobby that I had.

  • And at first I thought it was great.

  • I loved the fact that language learning was getting more attention

  • and that it wouldn't always

  • seem like an isolating hobby

  • that was suddenly putting me into contact with people all around the world.

  • And as I spent more time in the media spotlight,

  • the focus of my story began to shift.

  • So whereas I've always been interested in talking about the why and the how,

  • why I was learning foreign languages, how I did it,

  • instead, it turned into a bit of a circus,

  • in which media shows wanted to sensationalize my story.

  • So it would go a little something like this,

  • "Hello, I'm here today with 17-year-old Timothy Doner

  • who's fluent in 20 languages.

  • Oh, I'm sorry.

  • He actually can insult you in 25 languages

  • and he's fluent in another ten.

  • Tim, how about you tell our audience 'Good morning'

  • and 'Thank you for watching', in Muslim?"

  • (Laughter)

  • "Er... Arabic."

  • (Arabic)

  • "Great Tim. Now can we get you

  • to introduce yourself and say,

  • 'I'm fluent in 23 languages' in German."

  • "It's not really true. But..."

  • "No, no, just tell the audience."

  • (German)

  • "Perfect. Now how about

  • a tongue twister in Chinese?

  • (Laughter)

  • "Well, we could talk about Chinese,

  • you know, a lot more Americans are learning Chinese these days,

  • and I think there's a lot of value in that."

  • "No, no, no. Just give us a tongue twister."

  • (Laughter)

  • (Chinese)

  • "This guy! Tim, how about

  • another tongue twister in Chinese?"

  • "I will prefer not to, but you know

  • we could talk about China.

  • There's a lot you can gain by learning a language.

  • "Oh Tim, I'm sorry, That's all the time we have."

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • "Now why don't you to tell our audience

  • 'Goodbye' in Turkish

  • and we will be over here?"

  • "You know we haven't talk about anything substantive."

  • "But Turkish please."

  • (Turkish)

  • "How about that kid, right,

  • wonder if he gets any girls...

  • (Laughter)

  • Now stay with us because up next,

  • a skateboarding bulldog in a bathing suit."

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • So, as funny as that was,

  • it highlighted two pretty major problems

  • in the way my story was covered.

  • On a personal level,

  • I felt that language learning was now becoming like a bit of a task, almost.

  • It felt like something that was suddenly had to be rigidly organized.

  • Something that had to be compartmentalized, rationalized,

  • expressed in a concrete number.

  • I speak X languages.

  • I know Y languages.

  • As opposed to what I'd always done,

  • which was just learning languages for the fun of it.

  • Learning to communicate with people,

  • learning about foreign cultures.

  • And on a bigger level, it's cheapened what it meant to speak a language,

  • or to know a language.

  • Now if I can impart you with anything today at TEDxTeen,

  • it's that knowing a language

  • is a lot more than knowing a couple of words out of a dictionary.

  • It's a lot more that being able

  • to ask someone where the bathroom is,

  • or telling them the time of day.

  • But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

  • So for those of you who aren't familiar with my story,

  • maybe a lot of you here don't know what the word polyglot is,

  • and it's a pretty weird one.

  • I started here.

  • So this little tot is me, circa 2001,

  • and this is the beginning of my language learning journey.

  • I actually was a child actor

  • before I'd learned any languages.

  • And I always had a little bit of a gift for accent.

  • So I'm going to auditions for radio commercials,

  • or for TV commercials,

  • and I'd do an Austin Powers impression.

  • I'm not going to do one now.

  • (Laughter)

  • Or maybe I would do

  • Apu from the Simpsons.

  • In fact there was actually one time an audition

  • which I was asked to leave,

  • because they told me to speak like a little kid with a lisp,

  • and I wanted to do Darth Vader in a French accent.

  • (Laughter)

  • But, that taught me the basics of

  • of how to breakdown sound.

  • How to pick up a foreign accent,

  • or foreign speech patterns,

  • and really live with it.

  • Now fast forward a little bit,

  • I'm now in about third grade,

  • and I've just started French for the first time.

  • But six months into a year,

  • into even two years later,

  • I can't converse with anybody.

  • French is just another subject in school,

  • and even though I can tell you words

  • for elbow, knee bone, shoelace.

  • I couldn't really have a fluent conversation with anybody.

  • Fast forward a little bit more.

  • In seventh grade, I started Latin.

  • So Latin of course is a dead language,

  • and in learning Latin, you really learn

  • how to breakdown language,

  • to see language as a system

  • with rules, and as a bit of a puzzle.

  • So that was great,

  • but I still didn't feel like language was for me.

  • So, forward a little bit more.

  • About 13,

  • and I've been interested in learning more

  • about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,

  • I started studying Hebrew.

  • Now, I had no way of doing it.

  • I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing,

  • so I listen to a lot of Rap music.

  • I memorize lyrics, I'd spit them back out,

  • and I would just try to chat with native speakers,

  • once a week, once a month,

  • and I've got that incrementally,

  • I started to understand a lot more.

  • Now I didn't sound like a native speaker,

  • I couldn't speak very articulately and

  • I certainly didn't know the grammar.

  • but I had done what I'd never managed to do in school,

  • which was to pick up the basics of a language

  • all on my own.

  • Forward a little bit more.

  • I started taking Arabic when I was 14

  • in a summer program going into 9th grade.

  • This is summer of 2010.

  • After a month I found that I could read and write

  • without a problem.

  • I'd learned the basics of the formal language

  • and one of its major dialects.

  • And it turned me onto the fact that I could really pursue languages as a hobby.

  • So, it finally came to March 24th 2011.

  • So I've pretty vicious insomnia,

  • and as I was studying more languages

  • using grammar books or watching TV shows,

  • and let's say Arabic or Hebrew, became one way of focusing my time.

  • So on that night, while I was awake till some ungodly hour,

  • I recorded myself speaking Arabic into my computer screen,

  • subtitled it,

  • and I uploaded it to YouTube

  • under the title, "Tim speaks Arabic."

  • (Arabic)

  • Next day I did the same thing,

  • (In Hebrew)

  • Tim speaks Hebrew.

  • And the comments, when I trickled in, were fantastic.

  • I got things like,

  • "Wow, I've never seen an American speak Arabic before."

  • (Laughter)

  • You blame them?

  • In addition to that I got things like,

  • "Wow, maybe you should fix your vowels here."

  • Or "maybe this word is pronounced this way."

  • So suddenly language learning had gone

  • from the solitary pages of a book,

  • or my computer screen,

  • into the wide world.

  • After that I was hooked.

  • I had a community of speakers to interact with,

  • and essentially had a teacher or conversation partners

  • for any language that I wanted to do.

  • So I'll show you a quick montage of that.

  • Video: (Arabic) I started studying Arabic roughly, 6 months ago.

  • (Indonesian) This started... one, two, three, four...

  • maybe four days ago.

  • (Hebrew) I actually feel

  • that reading and writing are easier in Arabic

  • (Ojibwe) I certainly find Ojibwe difficult!

  • (Swahili) But I came home the day before yesterday.

  • (Pashto) How is my pronunciation? Thanks so much!

  • Have a great day. Goodbye!

  • (Applause)

  • Tim Doner: That became my way

  • of reaching out to the world.

  • But as I was learning all these languages,

  • I faced a number of obstacles.

  • So number one, I had no idea how to teach myself.

  • In fact, I'm sure many of you if you were told

  • you have to learn Pashto by next month,

  • you wouldn't know what to do.

  • So I experimented.

  • Here's one thing.

  • So in my Latin class, I read about something that Cicero described,

  • called, "Method of Loci."

  • technically Locurum.

  • But it's a technique in which you take mnemonics.

  • So let's say you want to learn

  • 10 vocabulary words on a list.

  • You take each of those words and

  • instead of memorizing them in blocks.

  • you integrate them into your spatial memory.

  • So here's what I mean.

  • This is Union Square.

  • It's a place I go every day.

  • If I close my eyes

  • I can imagine it very, very vividly

  • So I imagine myself walking down Union Square,

  • and in each spot in my mind that has resonance,

  • I associate it with a vocab word.

  • I'll show you right now.

  • I'm walking down Park Avenue,

  • and in Japanese "to walk" is "iku"

  • I go a little bit further, turn right,

  • sit on the stairs where I can "Suwaru".

  • Directly north of there is a statue George Washington

  • which I used to think was a fountain,

  • so that's "nomu", "to drink".

  • Right next, there's a tree that you can "Kiru", "cut".

  • If you want to go north for Barnes & Noble,

  • you can "Yomu", "to read".

  • Or if I'm hungry and I want to go to my favorite Falafel place,

  • I can go one block west of there, so I can "Taberu", "to eat".

  • I missed one.

  • Alright. So 8 out of 10! Not bad!

  • So I found that most of the time

  • by experimenting with methods like these,

  • it made language learning a much more interactive experience.

  • It made it something that I can remember much better.

  • and I had a lot of fun with.

  • Maybe that's not for you.

  • Here's another one.

  • So a lot of people often ask me,

  • if you're studying so many languages at the same time,

  • how do you not confuse them?

  • Or how do you learn