January 7, 2013

Learning Languages


Gary: Tim Donner is a hyper-polyglot.

Tim Doner: I’ve kind of studied, or taken a look at, about twenty-five languages or so at this point.

Gary: A polyglot is someone who can communicate in four or more languages.

A hyper-polyglot, like Tim, can speak six or more fluently.

Tim: At this point I think I’ve dreamed in about twelve or so.

Gary: In 7th grade, Tim took Latin but…

Tim: The real language that I really took off with, and that started me on this path, was Modern Hebrew. Because after I had my bar mitzvah, I knew how to read it but I didn’t know anything about the language. From there, I started listening to any sort of media I could find, so, songs, movies, the news, whatever that may have been.

Gary: He picked up Hebrew in six months – quicker than he expected.

Tim: And that’s when I really thought maybe I can do this with other languages.

Gary: Tim gained attention from all over the world when he began posting YouTube videos of himself speaking different languages.

So how does he do it? Does he have a bigger brain?

Dr. Loraine Obler: We don’t know that it gets really bigger. What we think is connections between cells increase or become stronger when you’re learning a language or when you’re learning anything.

Gary: Dr. Loraine Obler, a linguist, says for some people, learning languages comes naturally.

Dr. Obler: I infer that the brains of some people are more setup to learn language. The same way math comes more easily for some people than for others.

Gary: Some polyglots quickly learn to unlock the language code. For instance, romance languages are all derived from Latin. So if you know one, it can make it easier to learn another. Take the English word ‘concentration.’ It looks pretty similar in French, Italian and Spanish.

Tim: You can see how they’ve kind of added to one another or they’ve developed from the same root or the same origin. You’re able to dabble and communicate in maybe three or four or five other languages without even knowing it. So, that’s what I think is so great.

Ankit Panda: So, language to me is essentially a window into another world, into another culture, another way of thinking. So, for me, languages are, in a way, tools to kind of access that area.

Gary: Ankit Panda speaks six languages. His father was a diplomat from India, so he went to school all over the world.

Ankit: I actually noticed that after I came to the U.S., that monolingualism is pretty common here. And honestly, I don’t really feel like there is that push to learn a lot of languages.

Gary: Only 9% of Americans speak another language. Compare that to Europe, where more than half are bilingual. About 35% of American high school students enroll in language classes. And the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that routinely graduates students without knowing a second language.

Michigan, for example, just passed a new curriculum requiring graduates to have world language credits. It is just one of only sixteen states to have any type of language requirement.

Ankit: America’s number one export – I’ve always felt – is culture.

Gary: For people around the world, their first exposure to English is often American music, movies and television. And both Tim and Ankit say if you want to learn another language, jump right in and have conversations in that language, even if you don’t understand most of it.

Ankit: You know, if you put us in a sink or swim scenario, we’re going to try our hardest to swim. So, I feel like that applies to learning languages. This app has radio stations in about seventy-five languages.

Gary: As for Tim, he doesn’t know yet what he wants to do with his talent.

Tim: The joke I get a lot of times is, ‘Are you going to work for the CIA?’ ‘Are you going to be an assassin?’

Gary: So, what would you tell someone who says, ‘you know what, I know English. It is the most dominant language in the world. I don’t need to know another one.’

Tim: I think, definitely, that’s not really a healthy mindset to have because at this point, I mean, the entire world is interconnected. There’s so much more out there and there is so much more that will really enhance you and enlighten you once you just try to take that one step into learning a new culture and learning a new language.

Gary: Gary Hamilton, Channel One News.


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