Mango Languages recently interviewed American polyglot and Harvard linguistics undergraduate,Tim Doner, to ask him about linguistics, being a polyglot, and language education advocacy. Let his insights inspire you to learn more languages —and about language itself.
Tim Doner was brought into the limelight when he started posting videos of himself speaking various languages to YouTube – he was 16 at the time and received a ton of media attention. His later video “Teen Speaks 20 Languages” propelled him to polyglot status in the language-learning world. Since then, he has been interviewed in several prominent newspapers and media outlets. He has also used his recognition to be an advocate for language learning. His message is this: anyone can learn a language and it is necessary to try and understand how other cultures view the world if we want to have peace.
Many of you reading this may be thinking, how can I fit language learning into my busy schedule? Well, Tim is a college student (studying Linguistics!), so he doesn’t have a ton of time to study languages. What he tries to do is make language learning as passive as possible: He’ll spend some time watching/listening to the news in his target languages or listening to pop songs. They’ll get stuck in your head without even trying, plus, you’ll have a constant vocabulary list to pull from. Even if you’re learning one new word a day, it’s still at the front of your mind and it’s still relevant.
We asked Tim how he would define fluency, because it’s definitely a tricky term that has a plethora of interpretations. “It’s problematic to say there’s one umbrella definition of fluency”. It really depends on what one’s goals are in the languages learned. For example, you could be conversationally proficient in a language, yet would not be able to discuss philosophy or the tax code. Even native speakers of a language may have difficulty expressing themselves in a given subject. Tim explains, “I have plenty of professors who don’t speak English natively, yet have a command of the language that’s better than mine.” Tim also brings up the idea that you could be aiming for fluency in a subculture of the language. For example, Tim mentioned that he has several Greek friends who studied the Iliad deeply in high school and are often able to reference it in conversation. This subgroup does not reflect every Greek speaker, only those that Tim often interacts with. Therefore, the concept of fluency crosses linguistic and cultural lines, making it even more difficult to pin down.
When it comes down to it, it really depends on your goals with the language you’re learning. “Fluency is something better defined upon personal lines.” Tim is a “firm proponent of the belief that you can reach a C2 level with rigorous study.” C2 refers to the highest level of the CEFR (Common European Framework for Languages), where the learner can understand everything heard or read. “I’ve seen people who haven’t started learning [a language] until their teens or twenties who are impressive speakers.”
Of course, understanding a language is more than vocabulary and phrases — culture-learning makes up about 50% of it. In order to really immerse yourself in the culture, you should learn to understand appropriate cultural behaviors, such as how to be polite and courteous in your target language. Beyond these basics, it would also be a good idea to learn more about the history of the culture, because a shared cultural or literary framework often unites people. You should also take your personal goals into consideration in your culture learning. For example, you can consider trying Capoeira if you’re learning Brazilian Portuguese or making authentic French dishes if you’re learning French. Of course, don’t force yourself to do an activity if you don’t enjoy it — but it’s always good to learn new things!
If you would like to improve the way you learn languages, listen to the full interview for more advice from Tim Doner!
Which language are you inspired to learn next? With Mango, you have over 70 to choose from. Check to see if your local library (in the US or Canada) offers access to Mango Languages!