In this fascinating article, American college student Timothy Doner explains why (and how) he set about learning 20 different tongues over the course of seven years.
Doner is widely referred to in the media as “the world’s youngest hyperpolyglot” – a speaker of many languages. Written in 2015, when the author was just twenty, Doner makes some canny observations about the concept of fluency. Clearly gifted and wise beyond his years, he writes that during the process of learning and attempting to master the many languages he heard spoken around him in New York City, he “realised that you can be nominally fluent in a language and still struggle to understand parts of it”.
“Language,” he states, “is a complex tapestry of trade, conquest and culture to which we each add our own unique piece — whether that be a Shakespearean sonnet or ‘Lol bae g2g ttyl’.”
Word, Mr Doner
After all, age, culture, industry, education, experiences and a multitude of other factors influence and determine our fluency in not only our mother tongue, but in any language we attempt to communicate in.
Because a word is not simply just a word.
To your average English-speaking 50-ish-year-old, the word “word” would mean, as an online dictionary helpfully informs one, “a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed”.
To someone younger, or in touch with modern slang, the word “word”, when used in the context of the subheading above, has a very different intended meaning. It implies: “I agree with what you are saying.”
We know a highly educated 70-year-old professor of English who would not have a clue as to this latter definition and its modern usage. While the same professor might bandy about words such as “subaltern” or “vagary” without batting an eyelid, this is an individual who operates in a different universe to that of those who “word up” regularly.
English is many languages. It is not just one.
In 2015, the same year Doner’s article was published, the Oxford Dictionary selected a pictograph officially called the “Face with tears of joy” emoji as its word of the year.
The judges observed that while “there were other strong contenders from a range of fields… was chosen as the “word” that best reflected the ethos, mood and preoccupations of 2015.”
“Emojis are no longer the preserve of texting teens – instead, they have been embraced as a nuanced form of expression, and one which can cross language barriers,” observes the article.
Yes, languages evolve constantly. They are like the slippery skins of a moulting snake, constantly shed and renewed to adapt to their environment. In the current age, the influence on modern technology, for example, is more prevalent than ever.
Remember when “google” became a verb?
And it is not only our vocabularies that expand and mutate. The rules of grammar are constantly being challenged by tweeting (another favoured neologism) presidents and feisty millennials whose paradigms have shifted and whose online presence wields influence. The result? They have altered and flagrantly flouted conventional rules, with interesting results. (Read this article.)
You cannot be 100% fluent in any one language. But what you can do is broaden your vocabulary and your sense of connection to others by doing the following:
- Read widely.
- Listen carefully.
- Ask questions.
- And consider context.
As Timothy Doner puts it in his own concluding paragraph: “Language is about being able to converse with people, to see beyond cultural boundaries and to find a shared humanity. And that’s a lesson well worth learning.”