Breaking The Language Barrier by Tim Doner at TEDxTeen 2014 (Transcript)

October 25, 2015 11:14 am | By More

Transcript – Breaking The Language Barrier by Tim Doner at TEDxTeen 2014


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Tim Doner – Polyglot

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. I loved the fact 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?”

“Er… 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.”


“Perfect. Now how about a tongue twister in Chinese?”

“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.”


“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.”

“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.”


“How about that kid, right, wonder if he gets any girls…

Now stay with us because up next, a skateboarding bulldog in a bathing suit.”

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 would go into auditions for radio commercials, or for TV commercials, and I’d do an Austin Powers impression. I’m not going to do one now. 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.

But that taught me the basics 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 listened to a lot of Rap music. I memorized 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.”


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.” 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! – Concludes]


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.

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