One blustery afternoon this past winter, a Volkswagen Tiguan sped through Brooklyn, headed for 770 Eastern Parkway, the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Hasidic Judaism. Frankie Light sat in the back seat, anxiously looking over some notes that he’d prepared the night before. At the top of the page was the working title of the video he was about to shoot: “Black Man SHOCKS Orthodox Jews by Speaking FLUENT Yiddish.”
Frankie Light is what’s known on social media as a YouTube polyglot. He studies various languages and practices them on the streets of New York, enlisting strangers as impromptu conversational partners. The often-charming results are then posted online. His most popular videos have gotten more than seven million views.
Other YouTubers have a similar shtick. Some can converse in dozens of languages — or at least that’s what their videos would lead you to believe. On YouTube and Reddit, skeptics have accused them of feigning fluency. “They’re people who learn just a tiny bit of a lot of different languages,” a teacher of Japanese charges in a video titled “Exposing YouTube’s FAKE POLYGLOTS and Their Lies.”
Mr. Light speaks several languages well, but Yiddish doesn’t happen to be one of them. He’d uttered his first Yiddish phrase (“Shalom aleichem”) only a couple of weeks earlier. Now he was about to hit the streets in the heart of one of Brooklyn’s Hasidic communities. “I feel the adrenaline,” he said.
He had hired two camera guys to document whatever was about to happen. One, a 19-year-old from Georgia (the country), was driving. Mr. Light, who has a magnetic presence, with high cheekbones and a scruff of hair on his chin, wore a black shearling coat over a silver-gray sweater with a shawl collar and had a curving side part carved into his fade. It was the afternoon of the fifth day of Hanukkah, and the streets of Crown Heights were bustling. Outside the synagogue, scores of bearded men in black fedoras were milling about. “This video is about to go viral,” he said. “Super viral.”
The most popular of the YouTube polyglots is probably Mr. Light’s friend and occasional collaborator Arieh Smith, a white New Yorker known to his millions of followers as Xiaoma (Mandarin for “Little Horse”). Mr. Smith didn’t speak any language other than English until he was 18. In college, he studied abroad in Beijing, where he learned Mandarin. Since then, he has dipped into Cantonese, Fuzhounese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog, Tibetan, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Arabic, Amharic, Yoruba, Igbo, Wolof, and Mayan. He recently spent a week with a family in the Arizona desert, learning some Navajo.
As unconventional as that career path may sound, Mr. Light, who is 27, has followed an even less conventional track. He dropped out of community college after two semesters and had never traveled outside of the United States until a monthlong trip to Dubai four months ago. He became a YouTube polyglot without leaving New York City.
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He grew up as Frankie Smith in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, among people who spoke Haitian Creole and Jamaican Patois. At home he used American Sign Language. His parents are deaf, which he says made him something of an outcast on the block and at school. “Kids bullied me,” he said. “I was different because my parents are different.”
Over time, he developed a knack for disarming people who saw him as odd. “I realized that I could find common ground with all kinds of different people,” he said. “I could hang out with the geeks, and I could hang out with the street dudes. I always had that sense of trying to fit in.”
About seven years ago, he discovered the work of Moses McCormick, better known in the polyglot community as Laoshu (“Mouse” in Mandarin), a Black YouTuber from Ohio who made a career out of finding common ground with all kinds of people. Mr. McCormick, who died last year of heart complications at the age of 39, claimed to have taught himself some 20 languages and could manage rudimentary exchanges in perhaps 30 more. He made videos of himself chatting with surprised immigrants in supermarkets and shopping malls, developing the style that Xiaoma, Mr. Light and others would eventually adopt.
When Mr. Light first encountered these videos, he was amazed. By then, he had left college and was working in a barbershop. Although he loved learning, he had always struggled in school. “I believe that I have ADHD,” he said. “If things are not interesting enough, it takes a lot of mental fortitude and strength to focus.” Laoshu’s videos expanded Mr. Light’s sense of what was possible. “If that guy can learn 50 languages, I can learn one,” he thought.
Inspired, he decided to try to learn Mandarin, mostly because he had read that it was one of the hardest languages for native English speakers to master. “I wanted to prove that I could do something challenging if I put my mind to it,” he said.
He used a few language-learning apps, with disappointing results. He knew he had to immerse himself in the language, but how? He didn’t have the means to go to China, so he took the 7 train to Flushing, Queens, and its Chinatown, and started asking random people on the street if they could point him toward their favorite hair salon.
He eventually arrived at an outpost of MG Hair Artistic Salon, a chain with branches in Queens and Boston, and he begged the owner, Wang Qin Bin, for a job. Mr. Wang turned him down, but Mr. Light persisted, saying he’d accept any position, no matter how little it paid. After a day or two, Mr. Wang relented. “We were impressed by his courage,” he recently recalled, through an interpreter.
Mr. Light was tasked with sweeping the floors; later, he effectively assumed the role of marketing director, creating videos in English that helped the business expand its clientele beyond Chinese speakers. By the time he left, a year after arriving, he was so adept at Mandarin that, as one of the salon’s employees recently noted, he had adopted the Chinese habit of sprinkling the sayings of ancient philosophers into everyday conversation.
After leaving the salon, Mr. Light reached out to Mr. Smith, whose videos were going viral. “He sent me a cold email out of the blue,” Mr. Smith recalled. “He’s like, ‘Hey, I’m a Black guy and I speak really good Mandarin, and I learned it by working in a hairdresser’s in Flushing.’ And I’m like: ‘What? That’s crazy!’” They filmed themselves walking around Flushing together, ordering spicy duck neck and skewers of lamb on the street. At a hair salon (not MG Hair Artistic), Mr. Light, speaking English, asked the barber for a fade. As the buzzer grazed his head, he switched to Mandarin. “So,” he said, “you ever cut a Black guy’s hair before?”
That video — “Black & White Guys Shock Chinese Hair Salon With Perfect Mandarin” — got 4.2 million views, launching Mr. Light’s YouTube career. Within a few months, 100,000 people had subscribed to his channel. Six months later, that number had doubled. Some viewers quibbled with his pronunciation of certain words, or accused him of trafficking in clickbait.
But the response was overwhelmingly admiring. Commenters have praised him for “breaking down barriers” and for his “universal message of inclusiveness and positivity.” A fan who identified herself as a teacher in Cleveland wrote that she’d been showing his videos to her students. “The fact that they get to see other POC thriving, speaking other languages has been really cool,” she remarked.
An estimated 600,000 people speak Yiddish. About a quarter of them live in the metropolitan area, according to Kriszta Eszter Szendroi, a professor in linguistics at University College London. Still, finding a willing Yiddish speaker on the streets of Hasidic Crown Heights, even during Hanukkah, wasn’t easy. A guy throwing a yo-yo outside a kosher grocery store looked promising to Mr. Light, but he turned out to be French. A man handing out religious pamphlets spoke Russian.
Several members of the neighborhood’s Hasidic community suggested that Mr. Light might have more success in Williamsburg, home of the Satmar, a group of Hasidim who famously avoid unnecessary contact with outsiders. The Chabad-Lubavitch of Crown Heights, by contrast, believe they can hasten the coming of the Messiah by bringing secular Jews into the fold. One consequence is that many members come from non-Hasidic backgrounds, and therefore don’t generally speak Yiddish.
Another consequence, though, is that they welcome opportunities to engage in religious discussion. On the way to Crown Heights, Mr. Light had worried that they might take offense to his presence; if anything, the opposite seemed true. Here was a telegenic young person expressing interest in their culture, potentially in front of thousands, even millions, of viewers. One particularly exuberant man insisted on giving him a tour of the Mitzvah Tank, a truck used to spread the teachings of their late leader, the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. An Israeli yeshiva student lectured him on the Seven Laws of Noah.
Mr. Light said he had always been curious about Hasidic culture. He had grown up not far from Crown Heights but admitted he had never even shaken a Hasidic person’s hand. “I was always on the outside looking in,” he said.
There is a long history of tensions between Black and Hasidic people in Brooklyn that goes back even beyond the Crown Heights riot of 1991. But Mr. Light, ever diplomatic, steered clear of such topics. He tried to keep things light. “I’m here to make friends,” he explained.
He ultimately did get to speak some Yiddish that day. As he lingered on the sidewalk, trying to work up enough courage to dive into the crowd outside the Chabad headquarters, an outgoing yeshiva student in his late 20s approached him and asked in English if he played football. It turned out that the student, Moshe Muss, regarded himself as a talented athlete and had sized up Mr. Light as a potential practice partner.
Mr. Light is fit, but you wouldn’t necessarily peg him as an athlete. Still, he agreed to give it a try. As they exchanged numbers, Mr. Light revealed his reason for visiting the neighborhood that day, prompting Mr. Muss to look up from his phone with a smile. “How come you didn’t speak to me in Yiddish?” he asked.
It was Mr. Light’s turn to be surprised. “You speak Yiddish?” he asked, in Yiddish.
Stumbling ahead in the language, Mr. Light explained that he’d been using Duolingo, the popular language-learning app.
“Glahtig, glahtig,” Mr. Muss said. Rough translation: “Cool, cool.”
Their exchange went on for only another minute or so before Mr. Light exhausted his supply of phrases. No matter. A week later, Mr. Light posted the video. In the end, he had thought better of including the word “fluent” in the title. The revised version: “Black Man SHOCKS Orthodox Jews by Speaking Russian Yiddish.” Several Orthodox websites picked it up, helping it go viral (it has had more than two million views).
Mr. Light stayed in touch with Mr. Muss and did end up throwing around a football with him one day. (He made a video about it.) But his Yiddish studies haven’t progressed much further. To succeed as a YouTube polyglot, you have to constantly expand your repertoire of languages, which makes it hard to spend enough time on any one language to become truly proficient. Mr. Light was beginning to share some of the frustrations voiced by critics of the genre. “Sometimes I feel like I rely too much on short-term memory,” he said. “You’re focusing on entertainment.”
In the meantime, he had glimpsed another opportunity. Somewhere on the internet, he had learned that there is a growing demand for gold traders who understand the intricacies of finance in the Islamic world. He is now learning Arabic.