How Timothy Doner Became Fluent in Arabic (and 21 other languages) Without Leaving his Country

Have you heard of Tim Doner?

I have.

And the reason I heard about him was when I was watching Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months giving a TED Talk on Hacking Language Learning and showed a video of Tim switching effortlessly from one language to another, covering a total of 20 languages in 20 minutes.

Needless to say, my jaw was on the floor.

Do you know what else was so impressive?

Not only is Tim only 17 years old, he’s never spent an extended period of time in any country except for his maiden city New York.

Yep, Tim has been called not just a polyglot, but a superglot and has been interviewed by news channels like Al-Hurra, ITN and Sunrise and featured in newspapers like GlobalPost and MSN.

Intrigued, I tracked down an interview of Tim with Luca Lampariello of Lingholic on the secrets of his success.

Here’s a breakdown of what the articulate teen had to say about his method for success:

1. Be Interested

Before learning any language, understand your motivations for learning it. If you’re learning it for career advancement or to get a good grade in school, chances are you’re not going to be very good at it. As long as your motivations are extrinsic as opposed to intrinsic, it’s not going to be enough to get you through hours and hours of verb conjugation, vocabulary memorisation and grammatical deconstruction.

The reason why Tim picked up Ojibwe (the language of Native Americans) was because he said ‘it was unlike anything else I’d ever heard of’ and the reason why he picked up Farsi was because he was enthralled by the beauty of Persian poetry. Similarly, I decided to pick up Arabic not because I was gunning for Saudi money but because being part Arab, it felt like a natural extension of my self-identity. I was also driven by the desire to communicate and understand the people and culture from a separate region in their tongue instead of mine.

Decide what your genuine, authentic motivations are for studying a language, and getting through the blood, sweat and tears won’t be as overwhelming because you’ll have your motivations to see you through it.

2. Explore Your City

Fair enough, Tim does live in cosmopolitan, international New York. However, your city might be more diverse than you expect.  Keep an ear out for people or tourists who might be speaking the language that you want to practice in, or sign up for a language group on Meetups or even spend some time at a language institute that has teachers who can speak the language that you want.

If you want to practice your Chinese, scope out Chinatown, if it’s Italian, go to Little Italy, if it’s Hindi or Bengali then Little India might be useful. Since these are places that tourists largely frequent, you have the added advantage of bumping into more people who speak the language you want to practice in.

Singapore might not have a huge community of native Arab speakers, but there’s always Arab street, where you’re bound to bump into some resident or visiting Egyptians and Khaleejis. I also try to spend time at least once a week at the Arabic institute I used to study at to touch base with the teachers there and to not lose touch with the language. Tim mentions that the reception he’s received from random encounters with foreigners has been warm and encouraging, and I’m inclined to agree.

3. Get Creative with Learning Resources

Want to know how Tim picked up Egyptian Arabic dialect? By having an online conversation partner with whom he speaks to regularly on Skype. Even while I was abroad living in Jordan, I met some of the most amazing, helpful conversation partners on Conversation Exchange who remain some of my good friends till today.

Don’t just depend on textbooks to learn what you need to – the Internet is abound with songs, lyrics, and movies in foreign languages. Tim says that he learnt Hebrew by literally memorising hundreds of Hebrew songs until played them over and over in his head until he was comfortable enough with the phrases that were being used.

Even before I left for the Middle East, I was using resources like BBC Arabic and Al-Jazeera Arabic for reading and YouTube clips for listening to expose myself to the language.

4. Start practicing as soon as possible.

Tim says that all he needs are 100-200 words in his target language, the most rudimentary understanding of grammar, and he’s out on the streets starting the conversation – which probably explains why he’s able to cover so many languages in such a short period of time. And here is where most of us trip up – we wait and wait and wait, for that one magical day when we’ll wake up and realise that we can speak fluently, perfectly and smoothly. I know because I used to think like that.

But the rude truth is that that day will never come unless you’re willing to put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to stumble, stutter and make mistakes, in fact, I’d recommend make as many mistakes as possible, because chances are that’s the fastest way you’re going to learn.

Another trick that Tim says he continually uses is self-talk. Quite literally, it means he talks to himself about regular, every day topics in a target language to get used to the pronunciation and sentence construction. In this way, by the time he’s actually engaged in a conversation with someone, he’s already done the mental groundwork with certain phrases and responses and it takes him a shorter amount of time to respond.

5. Leave What You Can and Take What You Want

There is no single, Holy Grail method that will 100% work for you. Some people prefer the Pimsleur method and others prefer the Assimil method. Some people prefer learning vocabulary words off a list while others prefer learning them in context. Don’t be afraid to pick and choose between a range of methods, the important thing is to pick whatever works for you and leave whatever you feel is not important, or at least not important right this minute.

For example, I didn’t really start concerning myself with Arabic grammar until about 6 months into my language study, because the sentence construction was already consuming so much of my brain power that having to add another factor over and above that would turn me away from it completely. Similarly, Tim says that in order to have a regular, everyday conversation in a foreign language, you don’t to be concerned with the grammar just yet. The reason he likes to delve into it is because of the additional challenge that it provides, but that’s his personal style of doing it. You don’t need to do the same.

What works for someone else might not work for you, so you need to figure out what is the easiest and most comfortable method for you to learn, and then gradually the rest of the puzzle pieces will fall into place.

The Ultimate Lesson Here

The reason I wrote this post was to show you that even though you might not be able to travel and live in another country for an extended period of time doesn’t mean that it’s going to be impossible for you to learn a foreign language. Many of us are not as fortunate, with work, study and family commitments and we tell ourselves ‘I’m never going to be able to do this’.

As Tim has showed us here, there’s hope. As long as you’re willing to commit to finding these creative, unusual ways of creating your own immersive environment in your home country, there’s nothing standing in your way.


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