Timothy Doner is from New York. At age 16, he spoke Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Italian, Persian, Swahili, Indonesian, Hindi, Ojibwe, Pashto, Turkish, Hausa, Kurdish, Yiddish, Dutch, Croatian, German, French, Latin, Mandarin and yes, English. And that was when he was 16 so we don’t know how many more languages he has learned since then. How is this possible? Should we dismiss him as a freak? Is his ability innate or learned? The answer would mean a lot for the rest of us language learners. If he knows something we don’t know, we should find out what it is. If he’s got something special that we don’t have, we should just give up.
We know more about the mapping of our brains through neuroscience using technology that images and records the size and activity of specific parts of our brain. It’s also possible to isolate the functions of particular brain parts by inspecting what happens when they are damaged, but thankfully, this is research methodology used only when that occasion arises. How much is this research helping us to understand if second language learning is more nature or more nurture?
Timothy Doner claims to be mostly self-taught, using flash cards, iPhone applications and in the case of Hindi, Bollywood movies. There is nothing revolutionary about his methods, but he says he has been treated with suspicion. If he learned modern Hebrew after his bar mitzvah and then tackled Arabic, he must certainly be some kind of spy. Where neurobiology can’t explain his motives or methods, he makes the statement himself. “I’m normal. I’m not a nerd. I’m not obsessive. I found my niche. It’s a way of coping with stress.”
His rise to fame came when he started recording and uploading his multilingual abilities, first inspired by Richard Simcott who recorded himself speaking 16 languages in succession. With the help of YouTube and social networking, polyglots emerged from the woodwork, creating what Michael Erard, author of “Bable No More,” describes as a “neural tribe of people joined, not by a common language but by a restless linguistic promiscuity.” Now, these people understand that they are not alone. Someone blogs, “I find it refreshing that I’m not the only one with this kind of aptitude with languages.”
Looking through the online reactions of polyglots and wannabe poloyglots, there is some evidence that supports the thought that some people just have that special “language gene.” One writer admits, “I don’t know how it is that this has happened. Surely, it is the way my brain is wired.” Another writer claims his brain is programmed for a specific language. “My wife speaks Tagalog, but I have had no luck learning more than a dozen words, but give me Italian and it seems to fill me like an empty tank.”
In contrast, there are many cases being made for nurture being stronger than nature. Most polyglots do not see themselves as some sort of genius. Timothy says, “It’s a matter of enthusiasm and effort more than a neurological talent.” Another person describes the experience. “I have an almost burning desire to relate to other people, which broadens my linguistic horizons. The classroom and the textbook had the opposite effect.” And elsewhere, “Innate ability is not going to magically let you absorb vocabulary and idioms.” When school is out, Timothy spends 15 hours a day studying. He teaches himself the basics of a language in two or three weeks.
The amount that these people learn is enormous but nobody is saying that it’s effortless. “As many smart people find out to their disappointment, foreign language ability is 5 percent smarts, 95 percent hard, boring rote memorization and practical use in a native environment.” Refuting the theory of a critical age of learning second languages, one comments, “I don’t believe that age is such an important factor in learning languages. An older person who puts in the same number of hours as a younger person can make the same amount of progress.”
We have to remember that these comments and claims are not coming from teachers, Second Language Acquisition academics or neurobiologists. They are coming from the polyglots themselves. “I am left-handed and artistic, but I am offended by the thought that testosterone and the autistic spectrum inform my intellectual capacity.” We are warned that, “You must be self-taught, because if you put yourself in the hands of a teacher, he or she will teach you what HE wants you to learn.” And for learning methodology, “Yes… dating sites! I use my high school French to Skype with sexy French and Canadian men all the time. It’s good practice.”
It is humbling to consider that our abilities are not limited to what our brains can or cannot do, but by the limits of how we use them. To find out what is possible before telling ourselves what is impossible is good practice.