16 Inspiring TED Talks for Language Learners.

1. “Why I Keep Speaking Up, Even When People Mock My Accent”by Safwat Saleem

If you want to speak a language well, you need to practice speaking it. But very often, German learners have an accent which is very different from the native speakers. This can be embarrassing for the learners and possibly lead to a decline in practice. Stuck in a circle of perceived shame, a large number of learners are never able to become fluent German speakers.

But why is it shameful if someone speaks with a different accent? Safwat Saleem, a Pakistani-American, asks this precise question in his TED Talk. He shares his own personal journey, and tells us how he realized that being different is not the same as being wrong. If you have ever felt embarrassed about your own accent, this talk will surely inspire you and perhaps give you the confidence to speak up again and again.

2. “TED’s Secret to Great Public Speaking”by Chris Anderson


People generally think that to be a good public speaker, you need a good voice, theatrical gestures, emotional stories about childhood and perhaps attractive looks.

Chris Anderson, a curator of TED Talks for 15 years, thinks otherwise. According to him, the main component of a public speech is the idea you want to share with the audience you are speaking to. An impressive speech builds one main idea in your head, piece by piece, through words and images. And most importantly, your ideas should be useful to the people who are listening to you.

Very often language learners focus too much on the technical details of their speech and not so much on the content. This talk helps you make connections between the words you use and the ideas you want to convey.

3. “Let’s Teach for Mastery — Not Test Scores”by Sal Khan

Everyone who has attended school agrees on one thing—that it needs to change. In the name of education, students are put through a process which is not only unpleasant, but perhaps even harmful for learning.

Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, locates the problem in the basic structure of schooling. He asks us to imagine a house. If the foundation of that building is not perfect but only satisfactory, then that building will surely break down some day. Similarly, if the basic skills of some subjects like math or German are only half understood, then as the students’ learning will also break down.

Sal thinks that what should be fixed is the need for mastery and not the time to learn a subject. This mindset is not only useful for school students, but also for every language learner in the world.

4. “The Nit-picking Glory of The New Yorker’s Comma Queen”by Mary Norris

Whenever we read an article in a magazine or a newspaper, we are not just reading the hard work of one writer, but also a team of editors who helped the author create his best work. But these editors work in the background, and their work is never recognized.

Marry Noris is a copy editor in one of the world’s best literary magazines—The New Yorker. In this talk, she shares her experience of being “the comma queen” and how she edits the work of the best writers of our age. She takes real examples and talks about the grammatical and stylistic rules she uses to edit the articles she is assigned.

This talk is very good and also funny way to help advanced learners understand the art of editing and get to know the standards of grammar followed in literary magazines. Many learners will be surprised when they realize that much of the common words we use in day-to-day conversation is considered incorrect by editors. That is why the title has the word “Nit-picking” in it, since it means finding faults in the little details of someone’s work.

5. “Go Ahead, Make Up New Words!”by Erin McKean


If you read the history of language, you will realize that it changes very quickly. Many people regularly wonder about how new words enter the language. For example very few English speakers actually know that most of the words in English today did not exist hundreds of years ago.

Erin McKean studies words and creates dictionaries. She is one of those people who decides what words mean and how they should be used. Surprisingly, she wants you to come up with new words.

Often language learners think that words are like scientific facts—they do not change. But words are just an agreement between the people who use the language. If many people agree that a word means something in a language, then that becomes a part of the vocabulary.

Language learners often feel like outsiders who have to obey the rules of the language or they are committing an embarrassing crime. Obviously, rules are important. But McKean makes us realize that language requires active participation and making up new words should be seen as a fun way to expand a language rather than making it “wrong.”

6. “Metaphorically Speaking”by James Geary

A metaphor is when we give an object the name of something else in order to make a comparison. For instance, Shakespeare called the world a “stage” and compared the people in the world to actors.

As you can see, a metaphor is not only a way to compare things but also to change how we see them. If Shakespeare said that all the world was a jail, our idea about the world would definitely be more negative than the metaphor of the stage.

James Geary talks about this ability of metaphors to change thinking. He uses simple examples and even psychology to show how we can use them in our daily conversations. Language learners will definitely learn how to use words to make an impact on the listeners and improve their speaking skills.

7. “How to Write Descriptively”by Nalo Hopkinson


People love stories because they like living in different realities. Think about a book you love to read and chances are it makes you feel like you are living in the world it describes.

This TED Talk is about the strategies you can use in your writing to attract readers to your work. It gives examples from real books and practical tips which you can use to make the reader feel what the characters feel.

Keeping these tips in mind can help learners use their words in a more purposeful way. This video also helps us understand why we like certain pieces of writing and what makes them special. We do not realize these things while we read a book since we do not focus on the exact ways which the words have been used.

For more writing tips, we have this invaluable guide for beginners.

8. “How to Get Better at the Things You Care About”by Eduardo Briceño

Eduardo Briceño talks about two zones in his talk—the zone of learning and the zone of performance. According to him, we often confuse the two and get no results even after working very hard. The important point here is not how much we work but simply how we work.

The zone of performance is where we do our best. We have mastered most of the skills, so we should not expect a lot of mistakes. The zone of learning is when we work on areas that need improvement. We focus on improving things we are not good at.

So if you are a lawyer, your zone of performance is when you are doing a specific part of your job that you are already really good at (preparing the case). However, perhaps there are components of your job that you still find difficult. Spending some time working on those components would mean you are in the learning zone.

Briceño explains how we should practice differently while we learn and how we should not confuse hard work with learning. Many times we focus too much on performance and that ironically decreases our performance over time since we ignore those things which makes us improve.

9. “4 Reasons to Learn a New Language”by John McWhorter

Do you feel that you have to push yourself harder in practice sessions? Do you feel your motivation levels are falling as you continue learning German?

If you need more motivation and more reasons to continue learning any language, this talk is for you. It is aimed at native English speakers, but the same advice can apply to anyone.

John McWhorter excitedly tells us about the benefits of learning a foreign language. Not only will it help you fight a disease like dementia, it will also help you participate in the world better by learning about different cultures.

10. “Why You Should Define Your Fears Instead of Your Goals”by Tim Ferriss

How many times have you heard the advice that setting goals is the key to success? Most people hear that at least a hundred times in their life.

Tim Ferriss has a very unusual view on success. In this talk, he points out that the things which we fear the most are often the actions we need to take in order to succeed.

He explains a simple but uncomfortable strategy used by him, which he calls as “fear-setting.” Rather than ignoring the things which make us afraid, he asks us to confront them and simply do the things that need to be done. This strategy not only improves a skill but also the person as a whole.

11. “What’s a Snollygoster? A Short Lesson in Political Speak”by Mark Forsyth


Mark Forsyth’s talk is a wonderful guide to understanding how politicians use language and how you can understand them. According to him, they mainly use language to shape how we see reality.

Almost all of us are familiar with the lies of our politicians, but Forsyth says that it is much more complex than that. He talks about lots of words and their origins like “president” and how they were used to change the way people looked at politicians.

12. “The First 20 Hours — How to Learn Anything”by Josh Kaufman


Have you ever thought about learning something, but simply dropped the idea because you thought that you did not have time? Or did you start learning something by reading about it and realized that even after weeks you still can not do anything?

Josh Kaufman went through similar experiences, but luckily he found a solution. Through his research, he discovered that you can learn to do anything in 20 hours if you simply start by practicing it. He wanted to learn a musical instrument and he simply started playing the instrument, while learning about it at the same time.

His advice is a gem for beginners who are just starting out.

13. “5 Techniques to Speak Any Language”by Sid Efromovich


Efromovich is what is called as a “hyperpolyglot,” which means that he can speak a lot of languages. By the time he became an adult, he could speak four languages and then in the next three years he was able to learn three extra ones.

Based on his experience, he talks about five methods he has picked up to learn any language in the world. The first one is, surprisingly, making mistakes, which he thinks is a very important part of pushing you beyond your native tongue and start speaking the new language.

He has many insightful tips about pronunciation, action and reading that he explains through examples from many languages, including Spanish, Portuguese and of course English.

14. “Making Sense of Spelling”by Gina Cooke


English spelling is confusing to almost every learner. Many people are not able to understand why similar sounding words are spelled so differently and why different sounding words are spelled similarly.

This TED Talk tries to explain some of the rules of English spelling. Using the metaphor of an onion, Gina Cooke tries to explain how it works. Like the many layers of the vegetable, spelling too is the result of many things such as history, meaning and structure of the word.

15. “How to Gain Control of Your Free Time”by Laura Vanderkam


How many times have we thought that we can do a task in one hour while in reality it took us five?

This mistake is made by almost everyone in their daily lives. Laura Vanderkam studies the people who do not make such mistakes and make full use of their time.

According to her our minds almost always think that we have too many tasks in a week while dramatically underestimating (judging something to be smaller or lower than it really is) the time we need to complete them. Her solution is not to “save” time as many of us do, but to organize our lives in such a way that time “saves itself.”

This mindset will be extremely helpful for English learners, since many of them skip practicing certain skills like reading or speaking in a week. The feeling that there is simply not enough time to practice everything regularly is perhaps the top reason why many language learners fail or give up their training.

16. “Rapid Language Hacking” by Benny Lewis


Language is about communication. We forget this when we start learning it. We start studying it like mathematics, not knowing that it is really hard to learn a language that way.

The best way to learn German or any other language is through direct use and practice. We learn our first, native language by directly listening to it and communicating through it.

Benny Lewis shares his own journey and how he found out the best way to learn a new language fast. The best advice he gives in his talk is using the common words which are recognized throughout the world, like “Coca-Cola.” In this way, a learner can quickly memorize the word and also start using the language almost immediately.

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