19 Ted Talks That Will Transform Your Language Learning and Life

ted-shotAre you tired of watching TV, and in need of a form of entertainment that is more substantial, more intelligent, and actually makes your life better?

Ted.com is one of the most life-changing information resources that exists, and a lot of smart people are using it to revolutionize their English. It has subtitle options for English, and nearly every other major language, so you can share it with your friends and family.

In fact, I'm always sharing Ted.com videos with the Real Life English International Community, and recently I felt inspired to replace my daily TV habit with Ted Talks. Now I can see why the TV is often called "the idiot box," and why Ted's slogan is "ideas worth spreading."

So, here are 19 incredible Ted Talk videos that are definitely worth spreading. They will change the way you think about language learning, English, and life in general. Be sure to bookmark this article so you can come back and watch them one by one. Have fun learning!

*NOTES: We've embedded the youtube video and included the Ted.com direct link below each video (we weren't able to embed the Ted videos directly onto the page). Follow the link labeled "Ted.com Link" to access subtitles in English and most major languages. The descriptions and biographies were taken from the Ted.com site. 

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The World's English Mania (Jay Walker)

Jay Walker explains why two billion people around the world are trying to learn English. He shares photos and spine-tingling audio of Chinese students rehearsing English -- "the world's second language" -- by the thousands.

Jay Walker is fascinated by intellectual property in all its forms. His firm, Walker Digital, created Priceline and many other businesses that reframe old problems with new IT. In his private life, he's a bibliophile and collector on an epic scale.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles)The World’s English Mania (Jay Walker) -4:34

Schools Kill Creativity (Ken Robinson)

Sir Ken Robinson makes an entertaining and profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we're educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles)Schools Kill Creativity (Ken Robinson) -19:29

How Language Transformed Humanity (Mark Pagel)

Biologist Mark Pagel shares an intriguing theory about why humans evolved our complex system of language. He suggests that language is a piece of "social technology" that allowed early human tribes to access a powerful new tool: cooperation.

Using biological evolution as a template, Mark Pagel wonders how languages evolve.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles) How Language Transformed Humanity (Mark Pagel) -20:04

The Linguistic Genius of Babies (Patricia Kuhl)

Patricia Kuhl shares astonishing findings about how babies learn one language over another -- by listening to the humans around them and "taking statistics" on the sounds they need to know. Clever lab experiments (and brain scans) show how 6-month-old babies use sophisticated reasoning to understand their world.

Patricia Kuhl studies how we learn language as babies, looking at the ways our brains form around language acquisition.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles) The Linguistic Genius of Babies (Patricia Kuhl) -10:18

What Our Language Habits Reveal (Steven Pinker)

In an exclusive preview of his book The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker looks at language and how it expresses what goes on in our minds -- and how the words we choose communicate much more than we realize.

Linguist Steven Pinker questions the very nature of our thoughts -- the way we use words, how we learn, and how we relate to others. In his best-selling books, he has brought sophisticated language analysis to bear on topics of wide general interest.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles) What Our Language Habits Reveal (Steven Pinker)

Fluent in 3 Months (Benny Lewis)

Growing up, Benny Lewis struggled with the English language and had to receive speech therapy.At age 21, and armed with a degree in electronic engineering, Benny moved to Spain and managed to spend six months in an “expat bubble” without ever learning to speak any Spanish.

Everything changed one day when Benny an important decision to really try, and to ignore all of the empty excuses. It changed his life. Within just a few months he was confidently getting by in Spanish and eventually reached an excellent level of mastery in the language. Since then, he has continued his travels (eight years so far, with no home base) and learned more than a dozen languages, currently speaking eight of them at high fluency. You can learn more about Benny at his world-famous blog, www.fluentin3months.com. We also wrote an article about him!

Dreams From Endangered Cultures (Wade Davis)

With stunning photos and stories, National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis celebrates the extraordinary diversity of the world's indigenous cultures, which are disappearing from the planet at an alarming rate.

A National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, he has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.”

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles) Dreams From Endangered Cultures (Wade Davis) -22:05

Smash Fear, Learning Anything (Tim Ferris)

From the EG conference: Productivity guru Tim Ferriss' fun, encouraging anecdotes show how one simple question -- "What's the worst that could happen?" -- is all you need to learn to do anything.

Tim Ferriss is author of bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek, a self-improvement program of four steps: defining aspirations, managing time, creating automatic income and escaping the trappings of the 9-to-5 life.

Ted.com Link:  Smash Fear, Learn Anything (Tim Ferris) -16:21

The Birth of a Word (Deb Roy)

MIT researcher Deb Roy wanted to understand how his infant son learned language -- so he wired up his house with videocameras to catch every moment (with exceptions) of his son's life, then parsed 90,000 hours of home video to watch "gaaaa" slowly turn into "water." Astonishing, data-rich research with deep implications for how we learn.

Deb Roy studies how children learn language, and designs machines that learn to communicate in human-like ways. On sabbatical from MIT Media Lab, he's working with the AI company Bluefin Labs.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles) The Birth of a Word (Deb Roy) -19:52

Don't Insist on English! (Patricia Ryan)

In her talk, longtime English teacher Patricia Ryan asks a provocative question: Is the world's focus on English preventing the spread of great ideas in other languages? (For instance: what if Einstein had to pass the TOEFL?) It's a passionate defense of translating and sharing ideas.

Patricia Ryan has spent the past three-plus decades teaching English in Arabic countries -- where she has seen vast cultural (and linguistic) change.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles) Don’t Insist on English! (Patricia Ryan) -10:35

Txting is Killing Language. JK!!! (John McWhorter)

Does texting mean the death of good writing skills? John McWhorter posits that there’s much more to texting -- linguistically, culturally -- than it seems, and it’s all good news.

Linguist John McWhorter thinks about language in relation to race, politics and our shared cultural history.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles):  Txting is killing language. JK!!! (John McWhorter) -13:48

The Joy of Lexicography (Erin McKean)

Is the beloved paper dictionary doomed to extinction? In this infectiously exuberant talk, leading lexicographer Erin McKean looks at the many ways today's print dictionary is poised for transformation.

As the CEO and co-founder of new online dictionary Wordnik, Erin McKean is reshaping not just dictionaries, but how we interact with language itself.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles) The Joy of Lexicography (Erin McKean) -15:54

Massive-Scale Online Collaboration (Luis von Ahn)

After re-purposing CAPTCHA so each human-typed response helps digitize books, Luis von Ahn wondered how else to use small contributions by many on the Internet for greater good. In this talk, he shares how his ambitious new project, Duolingo, will help millions learn a new language while translating the Web quickly and accurately -- all for free.

Luis von Ahn builds systems that combine humans and computers to solve large-scale problems that neither can solve alone.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles) Massive-Scale Online Collaboration (Luis von Ahn) -16:04

Greatly improve your English with Duolingo

A Rosetta Stone For the Indus Script (Rajesh Rao) 

Rajesh Rao is fascinated by "the mother of all crossword puzzles": How to decipher the 4000 year old Indus script. At TED 2011 he tells how he is enlisting modern computational techniques to read the Indus language, the key piece to understanding this ancient civilization.

Rajesh Rao seeks to understand the human brain through computational modeling, on two fronts: developing computer models of our minds, and using tech to decipher the 4,000-year-old script of the Indus valley civilization.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles) A Rosetta Stone For the Indus Script (Rajesh Rao) -17:01

Could Language Affect Your Ability to Save Money? (K. Chen)

What can economists learn from linguists? Behavioral economist Keith Chen introduces a fascinating pattern from his research: that languages without a concept for the future -- "It rain tomorrow," instead of "It will rain tomorrow" -- correlate strongly with high savings rates.

Keith Chen's new research suggests that the language you speak may impact the way you think about your future.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles) Could Language Affect Your Ability to Save Money? (Keith Chen) -12:13

Metaphorically Speaking (James Geary)

Aphorism enthusiast and author James Geary waxes on a fascinating fixture of human language: the metaphor. Friend of scribes from Aristotle to Elvis, metaphor can subtly influence the decisions we make, Geary says.

Lost jobs, wayward lovers, wars and famine -- come to think of it, just about any of life's curveballs -- there's an aphorism for it, and James Geary's got it.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles) Metaphorically Speaking (James Geary) -9:30

The Gentle Genius of Bonobos (Susan Savage)

Savage-Rumbaugh's work with bonobo apes, which can understand spoken language and learn tasks by watching, forces the audience to rethink how much of what a species can do is determined by biology -- and how much by cultural exposure.

Susan Savage-Rumbaugh has made startling breakthroughs in her lifelong work with chimpanzees and bonobos, showing the animals to be adept in picking up language and other "intelligent" behaviors.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles) The Gentle Genius of Bonobos (Susan Savage-Rumbaugh) -17:28

Listening to Global Voices (Ethan Zuckerman)

Sure, the web connects the globe, but most of us end up hearing mainly from people just like ourselves. Blogger and technologist Ethan Zuckerman wants to help share the stories of the whole wide world. He talks about clever strategies to open up your Twitter world and read the news in languages you don't even know.

Ethan Zuckerman studies how the world -- the whole world -- uses new media to share information and moods across cultures, languages and platforms.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles) Listening to Global Voices (Ethan Zuckerman) -19:45

The Ancestor of Language (Murray Gell-Mann)

After speaking at TED2007 on elegance in physics, the amazing Murray Gell-Mann gives a quick overview of another passionate interest: finding the common ancestry of our modern languages.

Murray Gell-Mann brings visibility to a crucial aspect of our existence that we can't actually see. He won the Nobel Prize in physics for introducing quarks, one of the two fundamental ingredients for all matter in the universe.

Ted.com Link (with Subtitles) The Ancestor of Language (Murray Gell-Mann) -2:19

Call to Action

So that's a comprehensive list of the best Ted Talks for language learners. We are always talking about these in the Real Life English International Community, and we would love to see you there. And we also use these to teach in our Free RLE Mini-Course we offer to our loyal readers.

Think about how you can use Ted.com, and similar resources, to learn English in the most fun, practical, and convenient way. Remember, we learn best when we have fun! We're here to help you do just that. Take care!

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  • I loved it.I´m an English teacher and I will certainly benefit from all these talks on my lessons.I´m sure my students will appreciate watching these fabulous videos.

    • Justin says:

      Valeria, I’m glad it was useful to you and your students! Thanks a lot for the nice comment.

  • Paulo Silva says:

    Excellent list of videos!

  • Justin says:

    Thanks Ethan!

  • Justin says:

    What are you looking for, and where are you from?

  • Arif Fin says:

    GREAT VIDEOS! I use these videos in my teaching English.

  • Simply inspiring!

  • Justin says:

    Thanks for checking out our blog, and for your nice comment. Check out this article on funny youtube videos if you want to laugh: http://reallifebh.com/funny-youtube-videos

  • benjamin says:

    i would like to listen to every talk. please sent every new talk. thanks

  • Thanks for the post Ethan Zinho…I will watch them…I love TED