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Doner: 'I was really interested in trashy electronic Israeli music' Photo: Reuters
Doner: 'I was really interested in trashy electronic Israeli music' Photo: Reuters
 
 

Teen polyglot speaks of affinity for Hebrew

Timothy Doner, 17, who speaks 20 languages, began linguistic journey with Hebrew: 'I was interested in learning about Israeli history, politics and music'

Reuters
Published: 04.13.13, 08:15 / Israel Culture

VIDEO - Timothy Doner isn't the captain of the basketball team. He's not the student council president and he's not starring in his school's play. But the 17-year-old teenager easily stands apart from the rest of his peers at school, if not the rest of the youth in America.

 

Doner can speak 20 different languages.

 

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"Some of the languages that I speak, or I've studied, are French, Latin, ancient Greek, Mandarin, Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Hindi, Indonesian, Wolof, Hausa, Swahili, IsiXhosa, Ojibwe, Dutch, Italian," listed Doner, who is referred to as a polyglot, or individual who can write or speak several languages.

 

Doner calls New York City home, and so do Italians, Muslims, Africans, Russians, Germans and Japanese. And if Doner wanted to, he could communicate with any of these cultures.

  

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"I started studying Hebrew very seriously 'cause I was interested in learning about Israeli history and kind of, the politics of the Middle East, and I wasn't necessarily trying to teach myself. I just found that I was really interested in Israeli music, kind of trashy electronic and hip hop," Doner said, of how he became interested in studying language.

 

"And I found that just by memorizing song lyrics and parroting them back to people, I started to be able to form new sentences. And after about six months of this, it became a bit easier for me just to start having more fluid conversations with people, just based off of words that I learned from songs."

 

Hebrew was his first language. He then moved onto Arabic.

 

Doner can not only speak Farsi fluently, but he keeps up with local politics by reading one of Iran's newspapers, The Tehran Post.

 

After that, his lust for new languages spurred from there.

 

"Most of the time, people are very receptive to it," Doner told Reuters.

 

"They're very interested to see that Americans are learning about foreign cultures, or that people are speaking their language because for the most part, when immigrants come to this country, they're expected to learn English and they only operate in English, and there's a certain stereotype that Americans don't learn foreign languages, so I think most of the time, people are very receptive to it. And you get, obviously, comments like, oh are you going to be a spy, oh are you going to do this, that, but for the most part, I would say it's positive."

 

Doner will practice languages at restaurants and meet-ups throughout the city, speaking Arabic in Astoria, Queens to Mandarin in New York City's Chinatown neighborhood. He'll even order his kabob from street vendors using arabic.

 

"Learning a serious number of languages kind of helps you become an eavesdropper. I find most of the time that I accidentally follow people perhaps for a little bit longer than I should, listening to their conversations. I also take the subway to school every morning, so over the course of those twenty minutes or so, I tend to hear a fair number of conversations in foreign languages. Most of the time it's pretty mundane, but you do hear the, you hear kind of soap opera conversations, as well," said Doner.

 

"It can also be incredibly awkward. I've had, been listening to people insult me in foreign languages, and I've actually been able to respond to them and say, hey, I speak it as well. I had an incident a couple years ago at an Israeli restaurant. I was eating food with my dad and there were a couple Israelis at the other table who were chatting in Hebrew about, oh look at these American Jews over here eating Israeli food. They were making fun of us, making fun of the way we were dressed, so I went up to him and said, hey I can speak Hebrew too, in Hebrew, and then I went out," he later added.

 

Skype, he says, has been a major tool in fine tuning his fluency.

 

"I have a lot of Skype friends from Afghanistan, for example, from everywhere in Europe pretty much, or even from Japan, China, Singapore. More or less everywhere," said Doner, who estimates he has over 150 contacts on the site.

 

"So I think it's great, the fact that, you know, I can log on and just on my computer, sitting in my bedroom in New York, can be in contact with over 100 people from all over the world."

 

But despite the global contacts, New York's melting pot of cultures makes for the perfect place to practice. But foreigners beware, Timothy Doner just might be listening.

 

 

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