20 Terrific TED Talks for Language Lovers

Considering its necessary place in human discussion expression, nobody would ever be surprised to hear that many find linguistics an amazingly fascinating topic. It permeates almost every other subject on the planet, most especially writing and communications, and anyone hoping to explore languages in depths would do well to discover these overlaps. Fortunately, the always enjoyable TED offers up more than a few lectures and presentations piquing the interest of language lovers everywhere. The following collection offers up a diverse sample of some of the seriously cool videos they host.

  1. Bonnie Bassler on how bacteria “talk”: Linguistic aficionados know that humans aren’t the only ones capable of complex, structured communication. Even unicellular organisms rely on a sophisticated system of chemical shifts to “chat” with one another. One doesn’t need a background in the sciences to appreciate the lessons Bonnie Bassler teaches about talking. Bonnie has taught at Princeton University since 1994.
  2. Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies: Language development in babies begins almost immediately after shooting out of the womb. Patricia Kuhl’s research explored the linguistic development of children all over the world, discovering some absolutely amazing things about the human brain in the process. Turns out babies are far more adroit at detecting and processing differences in languages than adults. Patricia currently teaches at the University of Washington.
  3. Erik Hersman on reporting crisis via texting: Communication and linguistics inextricably intertwine, and those interested in learning how languages spread, evolve over time simply must study the technologies that make it possible. Citizens and officials in African nations, such as Kenya and the Dominican Republic, utilize text messaging and social media to quickly and efficiently disseminate information about violent situations. Similar situations have also cropped up in Iran, Egypt and Libya as well, and the Stop Street Harassment movement uses such strategies for ending verbal and physical sexual assault.
  4. Erin McKean redefines the dictionary: Expert lexicographer and resident of California, Erin McKean presents the fascinating history of a daily reference most people take for granted — the dictionary. Like most print media, however, the resource as it traditionally existed is threatened by the encroach of digital publications. But the lecturer, however, remains optimistic about the absolutely incredible things technology can do for the dictionary’s future.
  5. Seth Godin on the tribes we lead: This lecture explores human tribal dynamics as they relate to communication and technology — perfect for language fanatics who enjoy that particular corner of the field. Without linguistics and rhetoric, it’s impossible to band together and initiate social, political and economic change. Wildly popular entrepreneur and blogger Seth Godin discusses how rapidly developing social media and other internet-based phenomena bring humanity back to its ancient tribal roots. Seth and his family currently live in New York.
  6. Steven Pinker on language and thought: Linguistics lovers with a special affinity for rhetoric will absolutely love lectures from Harvard Professor Steven Pinker. He juxtaposes language academies with the very natural, very common evolution of jargon, vernacular and colloquialisms for a broad look at how humans communicate. In addition, the talk also peers into the curious details of structure and word choice, and how even the smallest twinge possibly changes all meaning.
  7. Alan Siegel: Let’s simplify legal jargon!: Highly specialized, technical languages, also known as jargon, is an incredibly isolating (and inevitable) component of every major linguistic structure. When used in the mainstream, such as on tax forms and other legal documents, it understandably proves more than a little migraine-inducing in those unfamiliar with the terminology. Alan Siegel argues that such actions are really rather silly and posits a suggestion streamlining the system for broader understanding and lessened intimidation.
  8. Jay Walker on the world’s English mania: English is the second most widely-spoken language in the world, and for the time being its popularity only increases. Jay Walker finds this absolutely fascinating, putting forth a lot of time and money towards researching why so many seek to learn the relatively new (in a historical sense, of course) tongue. Listen to some of his stories, watch videos and check out some interesting photos illustrating English’s international role.
  9. Laura Trice suggests we all say thank you: “Thank you,” as a sentiment, exists in some form or another in most languages. Laura Trice spends three and a half minutes discussing how it stands amongst the most important phrases of all time, and why it needs far more love than it gets. Such a simple phrase conveys a hefty amount of meaning — using it helps build up instead of break down.
  10. Ethan Zuckerman: Listening to global voices: When most people hit the internet, they tend to gravitate towards the “tribes” consisting of like-minded individuals. In doing this, however, many different cultures and perspectives go entirely overlooked. Ethan Zuckerman realized this phenomena when a Brazilian turn of phrase stumped him entirely, and he reached out to the active Twitter community for answers and exchanges.
  11. Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story: Every person on the planet has a story, as Chimamanda Adichie reminds audiences, and when their narratives and traditions blend together they form a culture usually united by a common language. Unfortunately, single tales drifting away to different regions lead to misconceptions between cultures and the formation of stereotypes. Adichie, for example, grew up speaking English and listening to Mariah Carey in Nigeria; her American roommate thought she’d prefer tribal languages and music instead.
  12. Murray Gell-Mann on the ancestor of language: Though a physicist by trade, Murray Gell-Mann finds linguistics an absolutely fascinating subject. But languages, along with organisms and environments, undeniably evolve over time. As animals and plants began from a single cell sprouting from the right combination of chemicals, so too did language come about after the first gesture or sound were executed.
  13. Susan Savage-Rumbaugh on apes: Speaking of evolution, the more intelligent bonobos out there are capable of understanding human languages and even writing in their own! Researchers working with these amazing apes note their uncanny ability to reflect many cultural memes not preset in their biological codes. Linguistics buffs fascinated by cognitive science and psychology (most especially the ongoing nature vs. nurture debates) should consider this lecture required viewing.
  14. James Geary, metaphorically speaking: Figurative speech permeates most languages to some extent, though it takes on many guises depending on location and era. Using examples from Aristotle, Elvis and Shakespeare, speaker James Geary delves deeply into how such words and phrases shape the cultures spawning them. Synesthesia and cognition also factor into the equation — phenomena certainly of interest to the scientifically minded.
  15. Wade Davis on endangered cultures: This photographer’s sweet gig with National Geographic exposed him to an incredibly diverse selection of civilizations worldwide. While such exchanges do have their merits and present some interesting communication challenges, it does chip away at heterogeneity and traditional lifestyles. Language, unsurprisingly, marks one of the first steps of stamping out indigenous peoples.
  16. Tim Ferriss: Smash fear, learn anything: Languages psyche humanity up while simultaneously tearing it down. It shapes every aspect of everyone’s life in ways both subtle and akin to The Juggernaut. Tim Ferriss argues that understanding and applying the phrase, “What’s the worst that could happen?” can change pretty much anyone’s outlook.
  17. Lakshmi Pratury on letter-writing: When speaking of the epistolary arts, most tend to refer to it as “lost” and lament its comparatively impersonal virtual replacement. As writing forms one of language and communications’ cornerstones, it’s imperative that fans of both study it to some degree. Here, Lakshmi Pratury reads some of the letters she received from her late father in order to illustrate how such words and personalization can touch a person’s spirit for as long as she or he lives.
  18. Elizabeth Lesser: Take “the Other” to lunch: As pretty much everyone knows, language harms just as much as it heals, and it plays an essential role in mediating debates and misunderstandings. One of the most civil and interesting strategies for facilitating dialogue revolves around a simple lunch between disagreeing parties. Elizabeth Lesser finds the rhetoric found in today’s political climate “dangerous,” and shares the story of her lunch with a Tea Party activist. Though they did not always line up with one another’s views, a series of questions helped nurture far broader understanding in both parties.
  19. Elif Shafak: The politics of fiction: This lecture reflects many of the language and communication themes found in other videos listed here — namely, how words and stories give rise to individual and collective human experiences. Writer Elif Shafak discusses how fiction and nonfiction tales alike possess a certain geometry once audiences begin to carefully pick them apart. Circles especially, and watching her illuminating talk also brings to the forefront balances and binaries between different worlds. The true narrative of “a conservative grocer and a crying transvestite” sharing a smoke after the 1999 Istanbul earthquake is particularly poignant.
  20. Mena Trott on blogs: Love it or hate it, the advent of a “blogosphere” undeniably changed human communication and linguistics forever. Because she stood at the forefront of the sea change, Mena Trott has plenty of interesting, insightful things to say on the subject. From her perspective, blogs hold the potential to create a more equitable, connected world. Provided the involved rhetoric doesn’t look like YouTube comments sections, anyways.