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  • A big part of why I work with endangered languages,

  • is because I am myself a descendant of a speech community

  • that even today is struggling to survive.

  • Look at the name over there,

  • you can probably guess which one it is.

  • But, for many of my friends,

  • language loss is much more immediate,

  • much more intense.

  • For them, it's loss of a chunk of their sovereignty.

  • A connection to their past.

  • A connection to their cultural wealth.

  • A grounding in their history.

  • In my work, I've seen time and time again,

  • just how wrenching it can be

  • for parent and child,

  • a grandparent and a grandchild,

  • to become disconnected in a way that goes

  • far beyond any kind of natural generation gap.

  • But even if you care,

  • even if you sympathize, you may think,

  • "Well, endangered languages just aren't worth saving."

  • Because you probably think they'll cost a fair bit to save.

  • Not just money, but also time, energy and attention.

  • And these are things that're all in short supply these days.

  • Especially so for a lot of these communities,

  • which are often faced with even more immediate,

  • even more material challenges. But what if it cost next to nothing?

  • Next to nothing to learn a new language?

  • What if we could radically reduce

  • linguistic entry costs?

  • Well then the arguments against sustaining linguistic diversity,

  • would not sound so reasonable.

  • Because all of us

  • could easily jump from language to language,

  • just to show respect to our host or our guest.

  • Or to enjoy the expressive capacities

  • that this particular language allows us.

  • Or simply because between you and me,

  • this language is the one I feel the most like home.

  • So the obvious question is,

  • how long does it take to learn a new language?

  • Not perfectly,

  • not you know, without a single error,

  • not even fluently, but just enough to get your foot in the door.

  • Enough to get started,

  • to get going, enough to join that speech community and be part of it.

  • Well, in my experience,

  • it's about a week or so.

  • And you know,

  • I was just as shocked as you to discover this.

  • In the summer of 2003, after just 10 days in Bulgaria

  • with my new in-laws,

  • I was able to talk well enough

  • to translate for my sister when she came.

  • And then the same thing happened again the next summer.

  • I went to the Czech Republic for my cousin's wedding,

  • showed up about a week early, and by the time the wedding rolled around,

  • I was just chatting away with all my new Czech relatives.

  • I wasn't fluent and I wasn't flawless but I was effective.

  • Now real fluency, in my experience,

  • does take a long time,

  • does take hanging out with the speech community.

  • But still, just one week and change

  • to get a foot in the door.

  • To be able to party with the Czechs.

  • To be able to hang out in Bulgarian cafes

  • and order French fries with aplomb.

  • That seemed like an idea worth sharing.

  • Now of course, I'm a trained field linguist,

  • so you probably think, "You're self selected.

  • You've got experience. You've got talent." Right?

  • But when I do it,

  • it doesn't feel at all like talent,

  • and not much like experience either.

  • All it feels like is a really clear sense of what to do.

  • How to handle vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar,

  • and more than anything else,

  • how to make it through any conversation.

  • And this is what I think we're missing

  • when we struggle with languages.

  • When we fall to learn languages.

  • We all get taught languages,

  • but we don't get taught how to learn languages.

  • And that's what I've been working on for quite some time right now.

  • On how to translate the experience,

  • the skill set of a trained field linguist into a form that anybody,

  • any of you can pick up quickly

  • and use to become active learners, confident learners,

  • who can step right out into the street, the scary street of real-life language use

  • with very little fear.

  • And if we can do this,

  • then it doesn't just change

  • how you and me learn languages,

  • but it also has the potential to radically reshape

  • how linguistic majorities and linguistic minorities

  • can live and work together in the same world.

  • Because now, separate linguistic traditions

  • are no longer communicative obstacles,

  • but actually resources.

  • Social, cultural, intellectual,

  • even emotional resources that we can all share and enjoy together.

  • So, how do we do it? How do we get that foot in the door?

  • At least that foot in the door.

  • First and foremost,

  • what we need to understand is our own psychology.

  • We need to understand that it's the social and the emotional aspects

  • of language learning that decide everything.

  • Because when we first start to learn a language,

  • it's humiliating. It's embarrassing. It's frustrating.

  • So this gets you guys all rushing at the door to go learn a language.

  • But this is because as adults, as teenagers,

  • we measure ourselves on how well we can present ourselves with our words.

  • And in a new language we lose that control,

  • and we run screaming away from that.

  • We dodge conversations.

  • We hide on a linguistic sideline.

  • We do anything to avoid a simple face-to-face conversation,

  • which is the one thing, the only thing that's going to make us better.

  • And as English speakers in today's world, the world is very accommodating of that.

  • It makes it very easy for us

  • to indulge in our instinct to just bailout

  • when we get linguistic stage fright.

  • So what do we do?

  • Well, the short answer is,

  • we learn to check our shame at the door.

  • We learn to embrace this loss of control,

  • enjoy the fact that we've been

  • --more or less involuntarily--

  • given a second childhood in a new language.

  • Right?

  • So, if we can do this,

  • then we have learned to shift our job,

  • reframe our job.

  • To not from trying to seek out perfection,

  • not making any mistakes,

  • but instead, just learning to cope well.

  • And the best place to learn linguistic coping skills

  • is through simply learning how to improvise.

  • Learning how to use description, metaphor, analogy.

  • To work around the words that we don't know.

  • So for example, if I don't know how to say tiger in your language,

  • I will say, "It's a thing, it's like a cat but big and orange,

  • and the one behind you looks a little bit hungry."

  • (Laughter)

  • It's these clunky but effective descriptions

  • that actually get us through any conversation.

  • And when we learn to congratulate ourselves on them,

  • when we realize that,

  • "Wow, this person actually understood what I said,"

  • then we feel good about ourselves.

  • We find they understood what I said

  • and now, even better,

  • they're telling me how to say it right.

  • That's a language lesson that we will never ever forget.

  • Never.

  • So, there's actually a second lesson inside this,

  • which is that, language is not all on you.

  • When you and I speak together, we make meaning together.

  • So learning to cope well

  • in an another language, is as much, if not more,

  • about learning to lean on the other person's

  • full and complete knowledge of the language

  • and even more on their willingness to help you

  • make this conversation happen.

  • So again, if we learn to reframe our task,

  • reframe our job,

  • as being effective, not perfect,

  • then every conversation stops being this potential minefield

  • of embarrassing mistakes and errors.

  • Instead, it's an exciting place for us to come back to every time.

  • Because you get to be your own MacGyver.

  • You get to rummage around in your linguistic pockets

  • and pull out a toothbrush, a button and a paperclip,

  • and couple that all together

  • and somehow pull off the communicative job.

  • Right?

  • When you feel that thrill of being a linguistic hero

  • time and time again,

  • you come back to conversations, you seek them out, you want to be there.

  • And when you approach the task like that, well pretty soon,

  • you find yourself fairly close to fluent.

  • So that's how we cope with linguistic stage fright.

  • With linguistic performance anxiety.

  • Which is 90% of what holds us back.

  • The only thing left is of course the language.

  • All the pronunciation. All the grammar.

  • All the vocabulary.

  • It's really intimidating, but mostly because

  • we're all trying to juggle it all at once.

  • We've got no way to organize it. No way to prioritize it.

  • There is a way.

  • What we need is a simple, practical understanding

  • of the design features of language.

  • So let me give you just a brief taste of that.

  • Take pronunciation.

  • Anybody can learn to pronounce any sound in any language of the world.

  • Anyone of you. All of you.

  • If you don't believe me, it's probably because

  • you've heard the following phrase, "Listen and repeat after me."

  • That doesn't work. It doesn't work.

  • What does work, is learning the clear and simple set of instructions

  • for how to move your mouth to make that weird sound.

  • After that, all you need is a little bit of exercise

  • to work your mouth for that oral choreography.

  • And very soon you find that your muscles limber up.

  • And what have seemed unfamiliar,

  • unpronounceable, unreachable even,

  • becomes almost as familiar as every other sound

  • you have been saying your whole life.

  • So you don't need any special talent.

  • You don't need any special ear for language.

  • You just don't.

  • But even more importantly,

  • is rhythm and melody.

  • When you go after the distinct cadence of language.

  • When you try to internalize that,

  • that particular languages uses,

  • and use that as the foundation of your own pronunciation,

  • well then, it turns out that your own words come out fluently.

  • They flow in that cadence.

  • The cadence is the current that carries all your words.

  • Even better, when you've internalized it

  • and you're waiting for it, you're expecting it,

  • then suddenly, something almost miraculous happens.

  • Which is that, native speaker speech

  • suddenly doesn’t seem so fast.

  • Because it's that rhythm and that melody that actually tells you

  • where the words begin and end.

  • So that's pronunciation, but what about grammar?

  • Grammar is terrifying. Right?

  • It's only because we teach grammar

  • as a million little disconnected arbitrary single rules,

  • when in fact grammars are tiny little ecosystems.

  • Every little part fits into every little part.

  • And if we look at those ecosystems from the top,

  • we can see a very helpful simplicity,

  • which is that, all of those rules

  • fall down on one side or the other of what we do when we talk.

  • Which is, we mention general concepts.

  • Things like cat and dog.

  • Events like bite and chase. Right?

  • And then we tie them into

  • the specifics of this conversation.

  • My cat, your dog,

  • that bit me, in yesterday's past tense.

  • It turns out all grammatical rules actually fall somewhere along the line

  • between the general conceptual and the conversation specific.

  • And once you play round with this idea for a while,