Why Language is Humanity’s Greatest Invention: David Peterson (Transcript)

Here is the full text of David Peterson’s talk titled “Why Language is Humanity’s Greatest Invention” at TED conference. In this talk, language creator and author, David J. Peterson shares the importance of learning languages in today’s society and redefines language as more than just a tool.

David Peterson – Author, The Art of Language Invention

Spoons. Cardboard boxes. Toddler-size electric trains. Holiday ornaments. Bounce houses. Blankets. Baskets. Carpets. Tray tables. Smartphones. Pianos. Robes. Photographs.

What do all of these things have in common, aside from the fact they’re photos that I took in the last three months, and therefore, own the copyright to?

They’re all inventions that were created with the benefit of language. None of these things would have existed without language.

Imagine creating any one of those things or, like, building an entire building like this, without being able to use language or without benefiting from any knowledge that was got by the use of language.

Basically, language is the most important thing in the entire world. All of our civilization rests upon it. And those who devote their lives to studying it — both how language emerged, how human languages differ, how they differ from animal communication systems — are linguists.

Formal linguistics is a relatively young field, more or less. And it’s uncovered a lot of really important stuff. Like, for example, that human communication systems differ crucially from animal communication systems, that all languages are equally expressive, even if they do it in different ways.

And yet, despite this, there are a lot of people who just love to pop off about language like they have an equal understanding of it as a linguist, because, of course, they speak a language.

And if you speak a language, that means you have just as much right to talk about its function as anybody else. Imagine if you were talking to a surgeon, and you say, “Listen, buddy. I’ve had a heart for, like, 40 years now. I think I know a thing or two about aortic valve replacements. I think my opinion is just as valid as yours.”

And yet, that’s exactly what happens. This is Neil deGrasse Tyson, saying that in the film “Arrival,” he would have brought a cryptographer — somebody who can unscramble a message in a language they already know — rather than a linguist, to communicate with the aliens, because what would a linguist — why would that be useful in talking to somebody speaking a language we don’t even know?

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Though, of course, the “Arrival” film is not off the hook. I mean, come on — listen, film. Hey, buddy: there are aliens that come down to our planet in gigantic ships, and they want to do nothing except for communicate with us, and you hire one linguist?

What’s the US government on a budget or something? A lot of these things can be chalked up to misunderstandings, both about what language is and about the formal study of language, about linguistics.

And I think there’s something that underlies a lot of these misunderstandings that can be summed up by this delightful article in “Forbes,” about why high school students shouldn’t learn foreign languages.

I’m going to pull out some quotes from this, and I want you to see if you can figure out what underlies some of these opinions and ideas.

“Americans rarely read the classics, even in translation.”

So in other words, why bother learning a foreign language when they’re not even going to read the classic in the original anyway? What’s the point?

“Studying foreign languages in school is a waste of time, compared to other things that you could be doing in school.”

“Europe has a lot of language groups clustered in a relatively small space.”

So for Americans, ah, what’s the point of learning another language? You’re not really going to get a lot of bang for your buck out of that.

This is my favorite, “A student in Birmingham would have to travel about a thousand miles to get to the Mexican border, and even then, there would be enough people who speak English to get around.”

In other words, if you can kind of wave your arms around, and you can get to where you’re going, then there’s really no point in learning another language anyway.

What underlies a lot of these attitudes is the conceptual metaphor: language is a tool. And there’s something that rings very true about this metaphor.

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Language is kind of a tool in that, if you know the local language, you can do more than if you didn’t. But the implication is that language is only a tool, and this is absolutely false.

If language was a tool, it would honestly be a pretty poor tool. And we would have abandoned it long ago for something that was a lot better.

Think about just any sentence. Here’s a sentence that I’m sure I’ve said in my life: “Yesterday I saw Kyn.” I have a friend named Kyn.

And when I say this sentence, “Yesterday I saw Kyn,” do you think it’s really the case that everything in my mind is now implanted in your mind via this sentence?

Hardly, because there’s a lot of other stuff going on. Like, when I say “yesterday,” I might think what the weather was like yesterday because I was there.

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