Full transcript of Poet Ali’s TEDx Talk: The Most Important Language You Will Ever Learn at TEDxOrangeCoast Conference.
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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.
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.
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, [Farsi language] That means, “I am indebted to you.” To which the second guy would respond back [Speaks in Farsi] which means, “I tear my shirt open for you.” To which the first guy would respond back [Speaks in Farsi] which means, “I am your servant.” The second guy would then respond back if it went that far [Speaks in Farsi] which literally means, “I am the dirt beneath your feet.” Exhibit A.
This extreme humility has no parallel in the English lexicon. And I share that example with you just 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 it and know 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 or 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 that 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. And that’s why things like music and comedy — [Stop, stop! I’m going to pee] — are so prevalent in every single culture.
You see, everything we do is a portal to another language, and the more languages that 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 an 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, about 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 that experience, if they speak that language. Because that language, that experience is the most binding one that 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.