For 20-year-old Tim Doner, a trip to the kebab shop isn’t just a means to spiced meat — it’s a way to teleport himself far, far away.
Doner, an American who speaks between 6 and 20 languages depending on how you define “speaks,” was vacationing in Norway when he found himself speaking Persian to an Afghani man behind the counter.
Doner learned the man had a tumultuous back story, having survived civil war in Kabul in the early nineties and eight years of illegal occupation in Iran before eventually making a home in Norway. As Doner recalls now, none of that would have been apparent with a language barrier between them.
“As far as everyone else was concerned,” Doner says, “he was just a kebab guy behind a counter.”
These glimpses into foreign culture are fundamental to the experience of being a polyglot, or someone who speaks multiple languages. People like Doner don’t need to rely on outside opinions to learn about the world. If they want to hear about someone’s lived reality, all they need to do is ask.
“This might sound a bit hippie, but you can’t understand the world properly, or humanity properly, without being able to take into account the sheer amount of languages we all speak,” says Matthew Youlden, 32, a consultant at the language-learning company Babbel, who’s fluent in nine languages and conversational in a dozen more.
That newfound perspective can’t help but rub off sometimes.
When Doner, a Harvard sophomore, encounters a German-native while strolling through Boston, suddenly he becomes a more direct person, he says, because German sentences are packed with active verbs. Later on, when he meets someone who speaks Persian, a language that tends to be more polite and deferential, Doner leans into that personality.
Multiply that across all the other languages polyglots may speak — in Doner’s case, Arabic, Hebrew, French, Mandarin, Russian, Hindi, and a handful more — it becomes a lot more obvious how keeping a consistent identity could prove difficult.
“That’s a really careful balancing game,” Doner says. “It requires you to be monitoring the situation while also monitoring all the grammatical processing that’s going on in your mind. For me, it’s sort of an immersive acting experience.”
Doner’s fascination with languages began when he was just 12. He was intrigued by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and hungry to understand more than just what the American media was serving him. So he began listening to Hebrew pop and hip-hop, reverse-engineering the catchiest tunes to spot key phrases and pin down the grammar.
More than five years and a dozen languages later, Doner’s method hasn’t changed much. He still begins with popular culture and uses keywords and sentence structure as his points of entry. Once he learns those basic rules, more specific forms of speech — slang, idioms, obscure words — can branch out from there.
Both Doner and Youlden say they dream in different languages and frequently find themselves shouting foreign exclamations, sometimes for no reason.
“I’ll be speaking to someone in German and at some point I’ll just yell mare meva in Catalan, which is like ‘Oh, my god’ — literally, it means ‘my mother’ — which is an expression that shows you’re annoyed or somehow frustrated,” Youlden says. “And there’s no reason why I’d be telling someone who doesn’t speak a word of Catalan mare meva.”
Learning so many languages might seem like an impossible undertaking, maybe even a waste of time.
But one of the biggest drawbacks to knowing only one language is that you can only form close relationships with people who also speak that language. Think of all the possible friendships and romances you would have developed in an alternate universe where you and a non-English speaker could communicate.
Now realize how small your all-English world really is.
Polyglots don’t have that problem. When Doner meets someone from Beijing, he can trust his Mandarin will ease the introduction. The byproduct is livelier, less awkward conversation. “In a lot of ways, people are more outgoing and natural in their native language,” he says. And it’s an experience he’s treated to every single day of his life.
Most people could too, Doner and Youlden agree, if only they put the effort in.
Very little of their language-learning ability is somehow hardwired, they say. Youlden practices in Babbel, which helped him learn Turkish in only a week. Doner is acting as a contributor and advisor on an app called FluentWorlds, which puts mobile users in social situations to get them thinking in whichever foreign language they are learning.
Of course, there are always the people who will gawk at polyglots and label their talents “superpowers.” Just how often do people ask Doner to swear in a foreign language, you may ask?
His reply: “I’d say a good 8 times out of 10.”
By Chris Weller/ Tech Insider