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Word Play

May 13, 2012

On Saturday 5th May 2012 a piece called “Word Play” appeared on Canada’s GlobalTV. It formed part of the 16×9 programme and was hosted by Carolyn Jarvis.

The programme brought together a panel of Canadian polyglots, spoke to linguists and Michael Erard, author of “Babel No More”. As part of the story Tim Doner (a 16-year old from The US) and I were brought together in New York. Tim had already appeared in a number of newspaper articles, since an initial story came out in The New York Times about him. The article has been translated into a variety of languages, including Italian, Russian, Spanish and probably many more.

Tim has also done a TV interview for NBC’s The Today Show in the US and a radio interview for the BBC. All of this media attention has, of course, raised questions about Tim and his ability to speak foreign languages, particularly in the online language community.

When I was offered the chance to meet Tim for the show, I was very excited for a few reasons:

1. He reminded me of how I was when I was 16
2. I always love meeting other extreme language learners
3. I wanted to meet the real Tim

Why so motivated?

It was an honour to be cited as an inspiration of his. My main goal for having a public online presence was always to encourage other learners and to let them know that they are not alone. It was something I didn’t have growing up. When I was young, what I was doing with languages was considered by many around my passion as being a bit odd. Some even said that I would drive myself mad with all of the languages I was studying. Having a community of like-minded people is fabulous! :)

Meeting Tim

Tim and I first met on camera in Washington Square. The scene of us on the programme is entirely real and that was the goal – to capture that first moment when we met.

Following that meeting, we walked and talked about languages all around New York, interacted with various people in a number of tongues. Whilst it was something that took us both out of our comfort zones a bit (having everything recorded), the experience was really enjoyable. I had some really good talks with Tim about his learning and we discussed many things in different languages. He could certainly hold his own out on the street too! :)

Quotes in the media

I have been quoted and asked to say things about my language knowledge before, which I don’t always feel comfortable with. I am very cautious about describing my ability to speak languages because I am aware of the issues that can arise from big claims. We only have to look at Ziad Fazah to see how this can play out in extreme cases.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, can you put it back in?

It is tough to backtrack on claims, but an immediate, “that’s not what I said” can go a long way to restoring your public profile. Tim did address some of this publicly by giving a more detailed appraisal of his language skills (see PolyglotPal). I always cite “Chinese Whispers” (“Telephone” if you’re form the US) when I am misquoted! :D

Some don’t even seem to want to backtrack and still maintain that they have fluency in a number of languages long since discredited. This puzzles me but does not affect me personally, so I leave them be. :)

If it’s dangerous…Why join in the numbers game?

Wisely Professor Arguelles refused to give a figure for his language speaking ability. Recently he was also quoted in The Guardian as being able to “speak 50 languages”. Prior to that quote he had only ever said “studied”. At first I had thought perhaps there was a change in his position following reactions to him in “Babel No More”. However, he has since corrected that in comments querying this change in position. Of course, the difference in the two (“studied” and “speak”) is important, especially in the online community. I know I made such a correction when I was cited as being able to “speak 30 languages” too.

The difference in experience…

I naturally wince when I see any “I speak 30+ language claims”. I know what it involves to speak and retain 10 to a high level, let alone 20 or 30+. Michael Erard describes what most polyglots know – there are usually a handful of languages at a high proficiency. The rest of the languages on the list tail off in ability until you are talking about languages where you have just a few basic phrases at your fingertips. C3P0 we ain’t! ;)

I was therefore shocked to hear that Professor Arguelles’ quote as I have a great respect for him as an accomplished language learner. I have also had first-hand experience of communication with him in 9 languages.

Whilst some of the quotes from Tim have been put under the microscope, Tim has never made any ridiculously absurd claims, like “I speak 23 languages like a native”. When I spoke to him he had his head screwed on too. He is an extremely mature, kind and generous soul with a HUGE passion for languages. I know only too well the pressures of putting a number on languages spoken can be like and I am not sure how I could have handled myself at 16.

I was aware that Tim would not speak 23 languages fluently. I would not and could not expect that of anyone in all seriousness. I knew there would be some media razzle-dazzle on it to make the story sexy.

So what’s true?

Tim has covered ground in an astonishing number of languages. His ability to discuss linguistics (yes linguistics and not just language) amazed me. I am definitely NOT a linguist, but he really wants to study the subject. This impressed and surprised me.

What else surprised me was his ability to communicate with natives in Chinese, Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew. He could more than hold his own in French and he could talk to me in German too. Sadly our language overlap is not huge. I say all of this and then I have to think…

1. He is a 16-year old in the US
2. He is, for the most part, self-taught
3. He has all of his school work too

Final thoughts…

Tim Doner is an incredible language learner. He has a knack for picking things up and for making connections in his head very quickly. His eyes light up when he speaks about languages and I was fortunate to spend a few days with him on his turf! :)

Here is the first video we made together following the filming in with GlobalTV – Enjoy!

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10 Comments
  1. Philip Erm permalink

    Excellent post Richard, however I do believe that Professor Arguelles has repudiated claims about being able to speak X numbers of languages in light of The Guardian article about him.

    In the comments on his video ‘On the Difficulty of Learning Foreign Languages’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHvpq0Aj9js), a Youtuber comments:

    “The interview that The Guardian published about you on Friday 16 March 2012 bears the title “Experience: I can speak 50 languages,” and in it, you are quoted as saying that you can read three dozen languages and that you speak most of those fluently. In the past, you have always shied away from giving any numbers and insisted on nuanced discussions of fluency, so I can’t help but wonder if you are really claiming these figures now.”
    - Jonzwelet

    And Professor Arguelles replies:

    “No, no, no, absolutely not! I suspect a copy editor stepped in with a catchy title. I truly enjoyed giving that interview as the interviewer was genuinely interested in the intellectual side of polyglottery, and we spoke on the phone for several hours. Since he had to condense all of that into a single page article, I don’t mind that he did a lot of first-person paraphrasing for me, but you clearly know already that I myself would never quantify my knowledge in this fashion.”
    - ProfASAr

    I thought it would be important to clear up what appeared to be a factual inaccuracy in your post. As I said however, excellent post, we are all looking forward to more in the future!

  2. Great post!
    One of the reasons I haven’t gone “more” public yet (especially uploading videos) is exactly that one point, about being accused to have “claimed” something. It’s a pity that nowadays it just seems to be all about numbers. The better if there are still a few who are more interested in quality than quantity.
    PS: I loved the video (all but the squeaky chair) ;-)

  3. Jeff Lindqvist permalink

    Hello Richard, I watched your inspiring video with Tim earlier today and just wanted to thank you for writing such an excellent post! (Jeff from HTLAL) :)

  4. Richard. Great, great post. You write with real passion and yet honest humility. You’ve done a masterful job handling subjects that so many seek to discredit and destroy. You give Tim nothing but props, respect and honor everyone in your world and reveal a character in yourself that is to be comended and hopefully emulated. Thank you for being a hyperglot with grace and humility. Keep doing what you are doing. Your an inspiration to so many.

    • Aaron, what can I say? Thank you so much for your extremely kind words. I appreciate the time you took to read when I wrote and watch my videos too. I hope I can live up to everything you said there. All the very best, Richard :)

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