Saturday, September 27, 2014

Hyperpolyglots, Language, and Hype

How about a menu?
Can you read one?
I’ve always felt that stories of hyperpolyglots are more hype than polyglot. There have been many such stories over the years, including early Esperanto speaker Winifred Sackville Stoner Jr., and in all of these cases there seems to be a lack of independent documentation. In the case of the younger Winifred Stoner, our source for her talents is the elder Winifred Stoner, who could not be relied upon for accurate information about her own parentage.[1]

So when io9 did an article on Timothy Doner, my skepticism kicked into high gear. The article, which includes a YouTube video of Doner demonstrating his skills, was prompted by a recent interview he did with the Harvard Crimson. He did the video at the age of 16, and it has given him a bit of fame. I’m sure that there are people who speak many languages, simply from extrapolating from my own abilities, still, I meet extreme claims with skepticism.

So let’s talk Shakespeare. No matter what Doner’s linguistic ability may be, he’s dead wrong when it comes to Shakespeare. Admittedly, he’s a college freshman (though at Harvard), but you would think he’d have enough of a familiarity with Shakespeare to realize that it just isn’t that difficult. He said to the Harvard Crimson that:
Technically you and I speak English, but if confronted with a legal text or a Shakespearean text or maybe some very obtuse form of poetry, you would be just as in the dark as a foreigner.
I mean, come on. “Just as in the dark as a foreigner”? In what way? As an example, I offer the opening lines of Twelfth Night. Rather than copying this from some source, I have transcribed it from a photo of the First Folio, with the only substitution I’m making is that I’m using the modern s, rather than the long s.
If Musicke be the food of Loue, play on,
Giue me excess of it : that surfetting,
The appetite may sicken, and so dye.
That strain agen, it had a dying fall :
O, it came ore my eare, like the sweet sound
That breathes vpon a banke of Violets;
Stealing, and giuing Odour. Enough, no more,
’Tis not so sweet now, as it was before.
Read it for yourself
That’s not something a native English speaker would approach as if it were a foreign language. He’s thinking Beowulf.

Unfortunately, Doner doesn’t seem to delineate his level of proficiency in the various languages. He claims fluency in French, Farsi, Arabic, Hebrew, and German. I watched a moment of the video (sorry, really not up for watching fifteen minutes of this), and while his French was perfectly understandable,[2] I knew I couldn’t judge him on the other languages.

Also, the ability to say things in front of a camera doesn’t equate to language skills. I’m certain that I could construct a speech in German, check it for correctness, and then red it to a camera. I know I couldnt’ ad lib, because it’s just not a skill I have, irrespective of language.[3] So, he’s good on film. But, is he ad-libbing, or did he prepare a text in advance? I suspect he did.

It would be interesting to see him in a series of conversations with native speakers of the five languages which he claims to be fluent in. Can he hold more than a basic conversation? He claims it, even saying that a New York cab driver pulled over so that Doner could speak to the driver’s family in Egypt. I dunno…I expect cabbies in New York to be more sophisticated than that, since there are probably plenty of New Yorkers who speak Arabic, not all of whom are going to be immigrants from the Middle East.

Perhaps Doner has, at some point, given a fuller description of his strengths and limitations, otherwise it’s just anecdotes like this one from a New York Times piece on him from 2012:
Once, at an Israeli restaurant near Avenue A in the East Village, Timothy was eating with his father — an entertainment lawyer, who, like Timothy’s mother, does not share their son’s polyglotism — when three customers made comments about them in Hebrew.

“They were saying, ‘Yeah, these American Jews eating Israeli food,’” meaning that Timothy and his father were cultural tourists, trying to absorb their identity through food. The two continued eating without acknowledging their neighbors. Finally, at the end of the meal, Timothy turned to them. “I can speak Hebrew,” he said. Then he and his father walked out.
Again, I don’t think I find this credible. It’s set in a restaurant in New York, not Ramat Gan. It seems no more credible than expecting someone at a French restaurant in New York to question why the people at the next table were there if they weren’t French.

Since I have mentioned my own abilities, in the interest of disclosure, I will attempt to delineate my own abilities, without resorting to any dodges. In Mandarin, I can say “hello” and “thank you,” though I probably pronounce them incorrectly. We’ll call that a zero. I can read French and Esperanto with relative ease and I can carry on fairly lengthy and complex conversations in either. In both cases, I’d like to improve my vocabulary.[4] I can carry on only the most basic conversation in German; most of what I learned (twenty years ago) is lost.[5] I can read Old English and Latin. Don’t ask me to speak. And that’s that for me.

Call me unfair, but I remain skeptical. And the kid is dead wrong on Shakespeare.

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  1. At some point, I really should do some more research on Mrs. Stoner. Perhaps the document that reveals her real parentage is somewhere.  ↩
  2. And perfectly reasonable for eight years of study.  ↩
  3. I once decided that it would be nice to make a little video in Esperanto. I thought about the thinks I wanted to say, but found that while I could say them when the camera was off, trying to focus on shooting a video left me tongue-tied.  ↩
  4. I recently learned that while a cod swimming in the sea is a morue (a word I already knew), but when it swims in butter, it might become a cabillaud.  ↩
  5. But not forever, right, Duolingo?  ↩

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