TEDx Talk “Wake up your inner polyglot!”

 @ TEDxToulouse 2014


Video Transcript

[Introduction in several languages]
[Spanish] When somebody has [Italian] an interest in languages, it becomes [Portuguese] addictive. You start [German] with one language, then another, [Swedish] and you can’t stop, and even if happens that you [English] mix them up, [Serbian] it’s OK, it’s fun.
[Russian] Each language opens you [Romanian] a door into a universe, into a culture. [Turkish] If we want to get to know our world [Greek] we must learn new languages.

Today I speak 11 languages. However, things didn’t start well at all.

I had spent a year and half studying katakana, hiragana, kanji, polite expressions, and the only thing I still remember in Japanese, is [Japanese] “What’s there in the tree?”

This isn’t a daily used sentence. In fact, we’ve been prepared to take tests, not to speak. But I didn’t throw in the towel, and I continued. I kept on trying to learn languages. I didn’t give up.

But I have a question for you: what language would you like to learn?

What language would you like to learn and why this language in particular? Why do you want to learn another language?
I ask you why you want to learn another language because we learn a new language for two reasons.
The first one is the stick, and the second one is the carrot.

The stick is what we were all subjected to as children.
In order to learn a language, we had to be constrained because otherwise, we wouldn’t communicate with our family or our circles.

This is also true in border regions, like in Alsace, where people are bilingual or in areas where there is a lot of foreign trade, like Sweden, or countries where the language has been imposed, like in Corsica.

There are many areas where hard power was imposed, but when you don’t get the stick, you can get your carrot.

So the carrot is to find yourself a goal in order to learn.

That goal can be, “I’ll go abroad,” or “I’ll find myself a girlfriend.”
It can be a good way to practice a language.

My carrot is traveling.
It’s traveling because when I am in Kumkapı, a district of Istanbul where English is useless, – and because I speak a little Turkish – I can play backgammon with a fisherman.

So I find myself playing backgammon with a Turkish fisherman, and as I speak a few Turkish words, – I am not fluent in Turkish, but I speak it a little – he feels comfortable with me.

And he invites me to go fishing with him at the Golden Horn, and eat fish with him on his boat. So when I find myself alone with Ahmed on his boat, I know why I put so much effort into learning a foreign language.

You need a carrot, a carrot that makes you move forward. A carrot that keeps you going, that simply means treating yourself.

So since you treat yourself, you may as well learn a simple language, right?

But saying ‘a simple language’ does not really make any sense because for a Mandarin Chinese, it is much easier to learn Cantonese than Italian. But for us French, some languages are simpler than others.

Do you know why?

Actually, there are families of languages so those of you who know this, do you know which family French belongs to?
Latin, is the common answer. Technically, they’re called Roman languages but, in fact, they are just our brothers and sisters.
We also have cousins. Many of them.

We have a lot of distant cousins from Iceland to India and to Iran. Our brothers and sisters are in blue. That’s just our brothers and sisters, but we have a lot of cousins and some of them really like travelling. So we can speak the languages in our language family, everywhere on the planet.

We have cousins we have not seen for 7,500 years.

When you haven’t seen them for 7,500 years, you kind of forget about your family history, but sometimes you still remember the name of our aunt. Which brings us to the mother, “die Mutter” in German, “madar” in Farsi. Some things stay the same, such as “father”, “brother”, “sister”, but you forget about them, because in 7,500 years, you’re bound to forget things.

But let’s take a look at our brother and sister languages.

This is one of them. If some may know it, please keep quiet so that the others can play the game.
Do you understand what this dialogue is all about?

I’ll help you a little bit by doing just that.
This way, you can easily understand what is being said:

“What’s your name?”
“My name is Adrian. And you?”
“My name is Alina. How old are you?”

Here, you may all think “two” because it indeed sounds similar, but when I highlight it like that, perhaps you will think: 2 x 10 = 20 years, and suddenly Alina is 3 x 10 and 5, 35 years.

Some of you must have thought: “Yes, but that was easy, after all.”

But you always start with the easy stuff when learning a language.
And those who think that it was difficult, you see that with a bit of information in fact, you can understand. You can understand, but it is not enough. Sometimes you also have to speak.

But with education, nothing is impossible.

Here you have it in Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese, and Italian.
They look alike, don’t they?

Some things will help you speak. These are tools. Some may remember the 4th grade classes, if I talk about prefixes and suffixes… but we can just call them tools. This is a toolbox that helps you build words. With these tools, you can build our own words.

For example, here we have “education” in many languages.

In Portuguese: “educação”. If you had to say “training”?
Education, “educação”, training, “formação”.
Well done!

Similarly, in Spanish, “formación”,”formare” in Romanian, “formazione” in Italian.
There is also the word “impossible”, but first I’ll confirm for “training”.

You see those tools, once you master them, you know them, you can create many things. Even if it seems a little unbelievable, I’m sure you can do the same with this word. And even if in other languages it doesn’t look similar, it still seems it may be said like that.

Sometimes, you make up words.

When I arrived in Germany – I spent six months there – for five months, I said, [German] “Ich habe die Impression” because I wanted to say, “I have the impression”.

I tried. I tried and I was understood. So for me it was fine. But I paid attention and I noticed that no one ever said “impression”. So there had to be a problem. I asked and I understood they say, “Eindruck”.

At first sight, they have nothing in common, but in fact words are built exactly in the same way: “im-“, “ein-“, “pressure”, “druck”. So I was wrong, but they understood me.

But as I believe I’m not stupid, I said to myself, “I won’t repeat my mistake.”
When I arrived in Sweden, I said, “I’ll do the same. I’ll rebuild the word.”
I knew the prefix” im-” is “in-“, and that “pressure” is ” tryck”.
So I came up with the word “intryck”.

And I was right. It turned out I was. So don’t be afraid to make up words. You musn’t be afraid to make up words, because that’s how languages were created. We used these tools.

I presented you some, but there are hundreds to invent words. And you may be right only six times out of ten. But if you are understood eight out of ten times, even when you are wrong, you totally win. Because the goal is to communicate with others.

But that’s when you say: “He said he spoke 11 languages, but in fact he invented everything. This guy is a phony.”

Yes, you could say that. You’re thinking, “He does not speak these languages fluently.” True, I don’t speak them fluently, but I do speak them. I speak them as much as possible. Until I can’t speak anymore.

But if that’s what you think, I’m sure you’re French… you were tortured by Madame Michaud and her 4th grade dictations. She sent you to the corner with a dunce cap on, just because you had said: “If I would have.” That when your neighbor says: “The car of Michel,” you tell him, “No. Michael’s car.”

We are demanding with each others in our own language. So, when we learn another language we are similarly demanding. Worse, we impose such requirements on other people learning our language.

That’s why when a foreigner arrives in France, he’s told:
“In France, we speak French, sir.”
And we correct them when when they make mistake.

I wish you never get told upon arrival in Greece:
[Greek] “In Greece with speek Greek.”
Because then you’ll look utterly silly.

So you have to be tolerant towards someone who’s learning a foreign language because we don’t learn everything in one day.

Do not wait until you speak it perfectly in order to get started.

You have to start from day one. You don’t have to know a language perfectly. You’re not going to say: “I’m learning Russian because my goal is to read Dostoyevsky but right now I can’t speak it.”
No, you speak it from day one.

Besides, do you know how many words it takes to speak a language?


With one word, you can already start talking.
You can say “Thank you”, “Hello”, – the words you’ve learned – but you are already speaking.
What’s worse is you’re usually answered in the same language, and then you are a little lost.

But it doesn’t matter, you have started.
With ten words you can be polite.
“Hello.”, “How are you?”, “Thank you.”, “I’d like to…”

With 30 words, you can introduce yourself and ask others to introduce themselves. 100 words will suffice for a basic conversation.

With 100 words, you can explain where you come from, where you’re going, what your goals are, what you’re doing there.

But with 100 words, we manage to communicate.

[Speaking slowly on purpose] “You… don’t have… to look for… your words too much.”

Because if you do, people stop listening, like you did the whole time I was looking for words. Don’t do that to others. Spare them.

[Speaking with wrong grammar on purpose] You talk maybe well? You know if sentence good, no? But you say things. Say many things. Others you understand, important is.

You all understood me. I’m sorry. It goes to show that grammar is just elegance. I could have said the same thing using a better vocabulary, too. But if the message got through, I won.

Learning comes with practice. My technique is hitchhiking.

Why hitchhiking? Because you meet people. You meet people, and it’s kind of like speed dating. Every 30 km, you have to start again. You repeat the same conversation. You say where you come from, where you’re going, what you’re doing. You talk about your job, the other person’s job.

That’s how you consolidate your knowledge.
You must seize all opportunities to use these 100 words you know. Because if you seize them all, you’ll get to know 101, 102, 103 words.
You must speak every day.
Also, when you hitchhike, you really get a lot of people to talk to.

But a language is more than words.

Words are the basis, but you’ll have to imitate.

[English with a French accent] Because if I start to speak in English like that, maybe you have the impression that’s English, but for me, this is really French.

This is French with English words, but this is not English.
Because French, has its own melody: ta-ta-ta-ta-ta.
When I say something, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, I’m also singing.

But we don’t realize it because you’re overwhelmed by the meaning of what you and the other are saying. But when you speak a foreign language with such an accent, as I’ve just used in English, in fact you’re speaking with the melody of the French language.

When I arrived in Brazil, I only knew one word, so I started talking.
“Obrigado”, “thank you”. Basic courtesy when visiting a country.

But I spoke fluent Spanish, I had that advantage.
[Speaking with Brazilian accent] So, I spoke Portuguese like this. I thought Brazilian Portuguese sounded a bit like this, so I spoke Spanish like this.

If I had not done that, they would have understood me even less. But they understood me. And as I kept talking, I learnt.
Because what I used everyday got confirmed and so on.
But it goes further than words.

[Talking with hands] If I talk like this… well, it is Napolitan.
But if I do that when I talk to a Swede, they’ll ask me if I have a problem. There’s something wrong, even if I have the best accent in the world.

Because gestures have an accent too.

And it goes much further. I’m sure some of you are not from Toulouse but you already went into a bakery, and asked for a ‘pain au chocolat’. And you’ve been asked: “Would you like a bag for your ‘chocolatine’?”
They made it clear to you that you aren’t from around here.

Because sometimes, little things give the impression you speak well.
When you come here, and you say “chocolatine”, even if you have a Parisian accent, you’ll sound as if you are from here.

So you must become the people whose language you’re learning.

So it’s all well and good, but I won’t deny it takes effort to learn a language. And sometimes you are a bit lost, you don’t know, you feel you’re not making any progress, but you must persevere.

Even when you think you’re not making any progress anymore because this is when knowledge settles. But difficulty is elsewhere.

The only difficulty is to dare.

You must dare to speak from day one.
You must dare to make up words.
You must dare to make mistakes.
Forget about people who tell you: “When you do not know something, keep silent.”

In fact, in a nutshell, you must dare to believe you can learn a foreign language.

Once you dare, you’ll prove to the other that since you’re interested in their language, you’re interested their culture, you’re interested in them. And suddenly, they will open a door into that culture for you.
You will discover a people, a story.

The only question you need to ask yourselves now is:
How much effort you are willing to put in to deserve that smile.

Thank you.