Translator: Alina Siluyanova Reviewer: Denise RQ
How many languages do you speak?
It's not a rhetorical question.
I'd like everyone to take a moment and get a number in your head.
How many languages do you speak?
Some of you are like, "That's easy. I'm done. It's one, you're talking it."
Others of you need a little more time, you're counting your languages,
maybe deciding whether that language your ex-boyfriend or girlfriend taught you
where you learned only curse words, whether it counts or not.
Go ahead and count it. (Laughter)
Be nice to yourself.
When I asked myself this question, I came up with four,
arguably five if I've been drinking.
But then on closer...
...on closer examination, I realized that that number was closer to 83;
83 languages, at which point I just got tired and I stopped counting.
And it forced me to revisit that definition we have of "language."
We can scroll through this, but the first part says,
"The method of human communication, either spoken or written,
consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way."
At the bottom we see, "the phraseology and vocabulary of a certain profession."
We know that specialized field, like medicine, science.
But I'm most concerned with this secondary definition, number 2,
"The system of communication used by a particular community or country."
And I'm not interested in altering this definition.
I'm interested in applying it to everything we do,
because I believe we speak far more languages than we realize.
And for the rest of our time, I'm going to speak in one language
that is native to everyone here.
So if you came to see a TED Talk, I'm sorry to disappoint you,
TED is not here, it's me, and you're stuck with me.
And if you came to hear a talk, I'm sorry to disappoint you there too,
because we're going to have a conversation.
And as in any conversation,
it's not a real conversation unless there is an interaction.
At various points, I'm going to ask you to interact.
You can ask any woman on whether or not it's a real conversation:
if you're not interacting, it doesn't count.
And I agree with that definition.
So before we can get started, I need to do a test to make sure
we're clear on what this participation, this conversation looks like.
If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands.
Very good. We can proceed.
(Spanish) If you speak Spanish, please, stand up.
We're going to make a joke, an experiment, OK?
Please, look at the person on your right, at somebody who is sitting,
and start laughing.
Thank you so much.
(English) Go ahead and take a seat.
If you felt a little bit uncomfortable,
I can assure you there was no joke being made at your expense.
I simply asked the Spanish-speaking population to stand up,
look at the person to their right that was sitting, and to laugh.
And I know that wasn't nice, I'm sorry.
But in that one moment,
you got to experience a part of language we're often unaware of.
We know when somebody speaks our language, it automatically connects us, it binds us.
But we often forget that if you don't speak that language,
what it does to isolate, and what it does to exclude?
It's a very important thing to remember as we go on in this journey of languages.
(Farsi) For everybody who speaks Persian:
I'd like to explain the meaning of "t'aarof."
As you can see, the translation of this word is complicated.
(English) If you heard some chuckles,
that was the Farsi-speaking population laughing a little bit inside
because I'm going to attempt to explain the word "t'aarof" in our culture,
which has no equivalent in the English language.
The best way we can describe it is a combination of words,
things like an extreme humility, or an extreme grace, extreme politeness.
And really, the only way I can get you to understand how deep this goes
is to give you an example.
If two guys were to see each other in the street,
it'll be very common for one to walk up to the other one and say,
(Speaks in Farsi)
(English) That means, "I am indebted to you."
To which the second guy would respond back
(Speaks in Farsi)
(English) which means, "I tear my shirt open for you."
To which the first guy would respond back
(Speaks in Farsi)
(English) which means, "I am your servant."
The second guy would then respond back if it went that far
(Speaks in Farsi)
(English) which literally means, "I am the dirt beneath your feet."
This extreme humility has no parallel in the English lexicon.
And I share this example with you just for you to know
that merely speaking another language can introduce a new concept into our lives
that previously didn't exist.
And that's one example from one language.
If I would have flashed this series of coded words on the screen,
some of you right away can recognize and know exactly what it is,
others of you would have no clue.
And I can probably make a pretty clear cut right around the age of 35 and younger
and 35 and older, unless you really hit 35.
But some of you who are maybe in that bracket that understand this,
you know exactly what this is.
And others might be staring at the screen, like, "Wth?" - "What the heck?"
And, of course, for those of us that know, this is textspeak or SMS language;
it's a series of mobile phone text encoded words
that seek to use the least number of letters
to convey the most amount of meaning,
which sounds very similar to our definition of language.
And to show that applies even further,
what if I were to tell you this is, in fact, a modern day love letter?
Follow with me as I go through these letters.
"For the time being, I love you lots
because you positively bring out all the best in me, and I laugh out loud.
In other words, let me know what's up.
You're a cutie, in my opinion.
And as far as I know, to see you, if you're not seeing someone,
would make me happy.
For your information, I'll be right there forever.
In any case, keep in touch. No response necessary.
All my best wishes.
Don't know, don't care if anyone sees this, so don't go there.
See you later, bye for now. Hugs and kisses. You only live once.
If you've just laughed right now, you just spoke another universal language,
and that's laughter.
It's an amazing thing.
We don't need to translate it, and we're born speaking it.
That's why things like music and comedy
[Stop, stop! I'm gonna pee]
are so prevalent in every single culture.
You see, everything we do is a portal to another language,
and the more languages we speak, the more we can learn.
It's a very common thing we all do:
we take any new concept, and we compare it to the existing axis of reality within us,
by which we learn that new concept.
So the more languages that we have at our disposal,
the easier it becomes to learn these other languages.
And despite all these languages that we've covered so far,
I still believe we haven't covered what I believe to be the most profound
and important language of all, which is the language of experience.
This is why you can get back from a trip, or you can have an amazing experience
and you come and see someone you know, your best friend,
and you sit down, and you go into detail about all these things, this experience
and they just give you this blank look, "I guess you had to be there."
And that's why you can go up to a stranger,
and before you're even two words in, they start finishing your sentences
if they've had this experience, if they speak that language.
Because that language, that experience is the most binding one we have.
You don't need to tell them what languages you're speaking, they know.
Just like I am not going to tell you what language I'm going to be speaking.
I'm going to ask for the short amount of time we have left
that if I'm speaking your language - I am going to speak a few languages –
if I'm speaking your language, your experience,
I'm going to ask, for the sake and the spirit of what we're doing,
that you just merely stand and you stay standing.
Do you speak this language?
I don't know about you, but I remember
in school, at the end of the year, we'd have these graduation parties.
And the whole student body would vote on where to have the party.
For me, I would hope that the party wasn't at the water park,
because then I'd have to be in a bathing suit,
and I didn't think anybody wanted to see me in a bathing suit.
Or maybe this: I don't know if you've ever been in a dressing room,
and you wanted to punch a hole through the door of that dressing room,
because the way things would fit on you didn't look the way as on that mannequin.
Or I remember our family gatherings, going to get seconds, or wanting to,
and that was a whole exercise in cost-benefit analysis for me,
because I knew I was hungry, but in family everyone is in your business,
so I knew that walk of and these looks of, "I don't know, do you really need that?"
And did my cheeks because they were rounded, big,
have a "Pinch Me" sign on them that no one told me about?
And for those of you who stand, or begin to stand or are standing,
you know, of course, I am speaking the language of growing up as a fat kid.
Any body image issue is a dialect of that language.
I'm going to ask you that you stay standing
and see about another language.
Do you speak this language?
When we heard the diagnosis, I thought,
"Anything but that. Please not that. I hate that word."
And then you ask a series of questions, "Are you sure?
Is it removable? Has it spread?
How long, doctor, how long?"
And the pattern of those answers determines someone's life.
And I remember when he had an appetite, we would all rush to the table to eat,
because, as you know, this thing takes away your appetite,
and that wasn't very often that you felt hungry,
so we'd all rush because we always ate together, that's what we did.
And I was taught that if you fight something,
you're supposed to win if you have the right spirit.
And we had the right spirit, and I didn't understand why we're losing.
If you're standing, you know the language I'm speaking
is watching a loved one battle cancer.
And any terminal illness is a derivative or a dialect of that language.
I am going to ask you to stay standing.
Do you speak this language?
When the buildings fell,
I wasn't in shock because I didn't really believe it.
I heard the news, but all the words, they were like white noise.
I couldn't make sense of it. And it was more of disbelief or denial.
And then I remember seeing the first plane
and the absolutely incomprehensible visual of what I was seeing.
And then I saw the second one, and all I could do was shake my head no,
like it wasn't really happening.
And then I saw the ground,
and I saw a city with more guts, courage than any city I've ever known in the world
and they were in total fear and in total panic.
And then a little bit of time after, I heard the stories:
the stories of bravery, the stories of courage,
the final minutes, the phone calls.
And every year right around that time, I have this eerie sense of sadness
and this appreciation for those I love.
And for those of you standing, of course you know I'm speaking
the language of September 11, 2001.
Some of you stood within four words "When the buildings fell" –
that's all I said.
And the interesting thing about that language
is that's America's language.
And many cultures and communities have their own language,
and it's not what they're speaking.
We all speak that language, because it's a part of America's language.
And if you're still not standing,
you probably know what it's like to be left out.
You know what it's like that everyone is a part of something,
and you're not.
You know what it's like to be the outsider.
In fact, you know what it's like being the minority.
Now that we're all speaking the same language,
I'm going to ask you go ahead and stand,
because I believe this language, of being the minority,
is one of the most important languages you can ever learn.
At some point in our life, we'll all be in that position of compromise,
and at some point, we'll all be in that position of power.
And if you can tap into what you felt
when you were that minority, how you handled that power,
it will be an immense gift that you can give to the world.
Thank you for participating. Please, sit for a moment.
I want to speak one last language. You don't need to stand.
I just want to see if you recognize it.
Most of the girls in the world are complaining about it.
Most of the poems in the world have been written about it.
Most of the music on the radio is kicking about it,
ripping about it, or spitting about it.
Most of the verses in the game people are talking about it.
Most of the broken hearts I know are walking without it,
started to doubt it, or lost without it.
Most of the shadows in the dark have forgotten about it.
Everybody in the world will be tripping without it.
Every boy and every girl will be dead without it,
struggle without it, nothing without it.
Most of the fingers that are drunk are dialing about it.
Most of the people that are in it are smiling about it.
Most of the people that have felt it are crying about it,
or trying to get it back, or lying about it.
Most of the pages that are filled are filled about it.
The tears that are spilled are spilled about it.
The people that have felt it are real about it.
A life without it. You'd be lost without it.
When I am in it, and I feel it, I'd be shouting about it.
Everybody in the whole world knowing about it.
I'm hurt and broke down, I'd be flowing about it,
going about it wrong, because I didn't allow it.
You see, cannot a wound or a scar heal without it,
can't the way that you feel be concealed about it.
Everybody has their own ideal about it, dream about it, appeal about it.
What's the deal about it?
Are you bound about it to know that life is a trip and unreal without it?
Everything that you feel is surreal about it.
But I'm just a writer, so what can I reveal about it?
Why is it that the most spoken about language in the world
is the one we have the toughest time speaking?
No matter how many books, how many movies, how many seminars we go to,
we still can't get enough of it.
So I ask you, has that number that you had in your head at the beginning,
has that changed?
And I also ask you, next time you see someone to ask yourself,
"What languages do we share?"
And if don't see any, the second question is,
"What language could we share? Let's find out."
And if you still don't see any, this is the most important question,
"What languages can I learn?"
And no matter how irrelevant or inconsequential
learning that language may seem at that time,
I promise you it will work to your benefit at some time in the future.
My name is Poet Ali, and I believe that's an idea worth spreading.