Poet Ali: The Most Important Language You Will Ever Learn at TEDxOrangeCoast (Transcript)

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Poet Ali – Hip hop artist, public speaker

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 kind of counting your languages, maybe deciding whether that language that an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend taught you where you learned the curse words, whether it counts or not. Go ahead and count it. 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 that 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.” And 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. And 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, or this conversation looks like. If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands. Very good. We can proceed.

[Spanish Language]

Go ahead and take a seat.

Now 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 someone speaks our language, it automatically connects us and 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? And it’s a very important thing to remember as we go on with this journey of languages.

[Farsi language]

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.

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