TED Talk: Timothy Doner – Breaking the Language Barrier

Breaking the Language Barrier: Timothy Doner at TEDxTeen, 2014.

Timothy Doner runs the YouTube channel and Facebook page Polyglotpal, and in his TED talk, he eloquently deomonstrated the benefits of knowing multiple languages. I first encountered the polyglot when I saw the fascinating video of him speaking 20 languages – and he is fabulous. Learning a new language can be a daunting process. When I had to learn Japanese at the age of 6, I did not have a systemic method of learning. Instead, I had the “privilege” of being thrown into a Japanese school where English was not spoken and I was the only gaijin. *Eigo ga hanasa rete imasen* However, that experience has taught me that immersion is really the only way to go if you wish to attain fluency in a language.

One of the most important points Doner made in his presentation is that the process of learning a language can be made easier by creating a system of memorisation that is tailored to the strengths of the learner. He demonstrated how he learns vocabulary in batches of 10, using a photo for each batch. I thought it was extremely interesting how he relied on his visual sensors to remember the words because that never worked for me. I often find the need to have an organised and systematic process of remembering things. (I guess you could argue that grouping words into one photo or sound is a systematic process, but I would say that these methods rely more on visual and phonological sensors rather than a more “mathematical” approach.)

The majority of language acquisition relies on one’s ability to recall abstract pieces of knowledge and to synthesise that information For example, when I had to learn Latin this year, I found it especially challenging because I had not studied a language form scratch in 8 years. Although the aspect of synthesis in Latin was easier for me because I had an intermediate knowledge of French beforehand, I still struggled with memorising the specific pieces of information such as declensions and pronouns. And I think this illustrates how memorisation and synthesis are two different sets of skills that need to be constantly practiced in order to be fluent in a language.

While Doner, in the video above, chooses the method of using a photo to memorise his vocabulary in Japanese, I prefer to draw tables, with lines and grids, and use minimal colours and arrows to figure out the relationships between the declension endings for Latin. When I have to write an exam, I know that forcing myself to write out the declensions in order will be an uneconomical approach for me. Instead, I remember the colours and where the arrows are pointing to, and will spare some time to write out the declension table:
Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 3.48.25 PM
First declension for Latin
Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 3.35.15 PM
How I memorise it

There are many ways of memorising things and the example above is just one of them. I think it is important for anyone who is learning a language to create a system that plays their strengths and make the process of language acquisition an enjoyable one. Personally, I prefer to establish connections and relationships between the components of a language because I tend to remember things better when I can assign meaning and significance to them. It took me a while to realise that and I think that method of learning has not been limited to my experience of language acquisition.

And with that, I’ll leave with you benefits of being multilingual:

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