When emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of London, Richard “Dick” Hudson, coined the term “hyperpolyglot”, he had initially been searching for the individual who held the world record for the most number of languages spoken. Hudson’s inquiry was initially posted online in 1996, but it was not until 2003 that he received a belated reply from someone who claimed that his Sicilian grandfather was able to speak seventy languages at the time of his death.
A hyperpolyglot can speak six or more languages and is very rare among the world’s population today. Such individuals possess an uncanny talent that allow them to master languages in a short time frame, and like New York teenager Timothy Doner, hyperpolyglots can reach an accumulated language count that is beyond ten. Not only can Doner speak twenty-three languages, but he is also only seventeen years of age and has branched out into more obscure languages, such as South Africa’s isiXhosa and the Native American Ojibwe language.
The public first became aware of Doner after he published video footage of himself on YouTube and was inspired to expand his linguistic repertoire following the comments that were posted by impressed viewers. With the aid of iPhone flashcard apps and instructional booklets, Doner can now relay experiences such as speaking Hebrew to fellow diners in an Israeli restaurant and watching World War II films to further his fluency in German.
While linguist Michael Erard, who has written a book on hyperpolyglots, has found that people who possess such a remarkable ability can be misunderstood or socially isolated. Doner’s biggest concern has arisen from being able to overhear a greater number of conversations in public, “I find most of the time that I accidentally follow people perhaps for a little bit longer than I should,” he says. However, it appears that the teenager’s eavesdropping issue will only grow, as Doner’s next goal is to master either Sudanese or Malay.
While Doner has not yet reached the unfathomable sum of seventy that Hudson discovered in 2003, a review of the full list of twenty-three languages that he can speak is impressive: Arabic, Croatian, Dutch, English, Farsi, French, German, Hausa, Hebrew, Hindi, Indonesian, isiXhosa, Italian, Mandarin, Ojibwe, Persian, Pashto, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, Turkish, Wolof, and Yiddish. Other hyperpolyglots have entered careers in Hollywood or global politics and only time will tell whether Doner will use his skill vocationally, or whether it will continue as an extraordinary hobby.