25 Things to Pick Up from these TED Talks on Language Learning

TEDx is one of the major sources of inspiration for many of us. I’m not an exception. I’ve been exploring TED talks on language learning to discover methods that helped people to learn several different languages. And today I decided to extract 25 learning tips from top-5 language TED talks that gave me a push towards learning – each in its own way.

One Simple Method to Learn Any Language | Scott Young & Vat Jaiswal

We all got quite used to the thought that learning a language takes times, especially when the question is about achieving fluency. And yet, two MIT students, Scott Young and Vat Jaiswal, learned to speak four different languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, and Korean over just one year.

In this TED talk on language learning, they share the method that helped them to reach working proficiency in so little time. And the method is as simple as 2+2=4: when you’re trying to learn a foreign language, just stop speaking English. It seems really obvious at first but the reality is that the brain is always in search of shortcuts.

This is how you suddenly find yourself speaking English on a meeting of Polyglot Club (where you came to practice your French – personally tested). And this is how you can live in a foreign country for years and still don’t speak a single word (again, personally tested).

The brain’s capacity for slacking is incredible. But nothing can be more harmful to your ultimate goal of learning Spanish than simply passing to English every time you have to explain yourself. However, if you’re committed to “No English” rule, you’ll force yourself to use your target language every time the opportunity reveals itself. And this is the way languages are learned.

And the cool thing is that you don’t even have to sell all your stuff on eBay and leave to another country to have an opportunity to use this rule. Because all you need is to find just one person (no matter native or another learner) who would agree to speak that language to you, commit to “No English” rule with this particular person and survive the first two weeks. Just make sure you both understand the rules of this game!

Three things to remember from this language learning TED talk


1. Reaching fluency takes as little as three months
2. Being “too old”, having “no language talent” and believing that “you need an immersion” are lame excuses
3. Start using your target language from the very first day
4. Don’t sabotage your own learning with the use of English!


How to learn any language in six months | Chris Lonsdale

I know what you’re thinking.

Six months compared to three months seems like a downfall. But, hey, first of all, even according to the FSI study on how much time is needed to learn a language, Mandarin takes the longest. Second, unlike all other TED talks on language learning I stuffed in this post, this one is done by a professional linguist and psychologist who actually knows how and why the things work.

Back in 1981, Chris Lonsdale went to China and decided to learn Mandarin in two years. Instead, he managed to learn it in 6 months. And just a reminder: back in 1981, everybody thought that it’s merely impossible to learn a language, especially something like Mandarin, in less than ten years. Even now, you won’t find too many people who can ascribe themselves such an accomplishment.

Nevertheless, Chris Lonsdale swears that anyone can do the same: learn any foreign language in six months. Moreover, you don’t need to be particularly talented, have a “linguistic” type of intelligence or go through an intensive immersion program. All you need comes up to 7 actions built upon five major principles. So what are they?

5 principles of successful language acquisition:

  1. Relevant content: focus on words that are relevant to you
  2. Language is a tool: use it to communicate from the day one
  3. Comprehensible input: you acquire language unconsciously if you understand it
  4. Physiological training: train your face muscle to pronounce the sound of a new language
  5. Affective filter: you don’t learn if you’re frustrated or nervous

Chris’s book The Third Ear offers a deeper discussion of all mentioned language learning strategies. And there’s one more thing, the most important one, that repeats and will repeat throughout all TED talks on language learning: it’s fine to make mistakes.

Seven actions you want to apply to your own learning:


5. Listen to a lot – that’s the first step to better understanding of speech
5. Use all the cues (gestures, facial expression and so on) to get the meaning even if you don’t understand the words.
7. Use patterns you already know;
8. Start mixing words even if you know it’s wrong;
9. Find a language parent that would help you to learn in a safe environment.
10. Copy the face of native speakers so that your own hurts.
11. Connect new vocabulary to mental images. Do not just cram words, try to engrave them in your mind with a strong mental image


Breaking the language barrier | Tim Doner

This one is actually one of my favorite TED talks on language learning.

Tim Doner is amusing and insanely inspiring with his passion for foreign languages and cultures. I mean… you know this guy. You might have even been one of his 4 million viewers on YouTube where he speaks over 20 languages at a time.

In this TED talk, Tim doesn’t say much about how he managed to learn all these languages. He doesn’t give any “magic formula” to language learning that would work for anyone. For him, success is rather a good blend of different strategies from the “mind palace” technique for word memorisation to a random but quite frequent speaking practice with natives he met on the street of New York.

But what is more important, Tim shares his motivation and the joy of knowing a foreign language. He assures that language and culture are inextricably interwoven: one doesn’t exist without another. You can easily translate words one by one with Google Translate or a dictionary, but you can never translate the meaning. And it’s the meaning what is the most important.

Three more things to capture from this language learning TEDx:


12. Use the method of Loci to memorize words more precisely
13. Memorize unrelated words in groups of similar phonetic patterns
14. Explore the culture of a language you learn


5 techniques to speak any language | Sid Efromovich

What you’ll find from the next TED talk is that Tim Doner is actually not alone in his excitement about language learning.

Because for Sif Efromovich, a guy who speak seven languages, their acquisition is like a game. He is sure that it can be fun and it must be fun, and that any other approach to language learning is counterproductive. But you know this feeling: sweaty palms, crazy heartbeat, the blood pulsing in your temples… you’re not in love – you just need to ask for the washroom in the airport of Strasbourg.

Like the God is going hit you with lightning, should you misconjugate a verb.

Hey, it’s fine, he is not going to. Just relax. Making mistakes is fine, or as an old proverb goes, if you didn’t make one, maybe you didn’t try.

Nevertheless, Sid shares his ways for lowering the rate of these mistakes from the very beginning. For example, you can stop trying to use a foreign alphabet as a transcription. Because the problem of many language learners is that they try to read foreign language words as if they were written in their own language! That’s the surest way to mispronounce everything you see and inherit a heavy accent.

A few other things you want to save from these TED talks on language learning:


15. Relax
16. Allow yourself make mistakes
17. Scrap the foreign alphabet
18. Find someone who would correct you
19. Role-play! Talk to yourself in your target language
20. Find a language buddy with whom your target language is the best language in common


Rapid Language hacking | Benny Lewis

If you’ve made your research before jumping to the first language learning class, you probably heard about Benny Lewis. This guy is a living inspiration for everyone who, for some reason, came to the conclusion of being incapable of learning languages. Because this is exactly what Benny thought about himself. Before he learned over 20 languages, of course.

Benny Lewis, the author of Fluent in 3 Months, gave two TED talks on language learning where he shared his story: an engineering graduate with a poor memory, no language talent and a C in high school German moves to Spain and lives there for almost a year in [failing] attempts to learn Spanish. At some point, he understands that traditional methods: all these expensive courses, grammar and stuff simply do not work. So he switches his approach and just begins to speak Spanish. In a few weeks, he realises that he actually speak this language fluently. Success!

His strategy? Any clue? How about “embrace speaking with as many mistakes as possible“? If you came to this point, you’ve read this already five times and it’s probably got annoying. But, hey, if you were afraid of making speech errors as a child, you would never arrive at speaking your mother tongue. And there’s a lot of evidence that the same thing is likely to happen with your second language.

5 strategies to acquire from this TED talk on language learning

21. Speak with as many mistakes as possible
22. Use international words (and brand names!) you already know
23. Make use of cognates and borrowed words
24. Use visualization and association technique to create strong memories for new foreign words
25. Remember that you’re not frustrating native speakers when trying to talk to them in your broken Spanish, French or Russian


A lot may seem unrealistic in the story of Benny Lewis or Scott Young or Tim Doner. But notice that this “unrealistic” part repeats itself throughout all TED talks on language learning: people just go out there and start speaking. And this is how every one of them has learned all these different languages.

There’s nothing phenomenal in any of these polyglots except for that they have overcome this fear, embraced their mistakes, scrapped the grammar and just began using the language.

So try the same thing and be one of them.

Author Details
Polyglot, Author and Founder of Linguapath
Hey! I am Alina Kuimova, and my long-lasting obsession with learning languages led to creation of this site. Apart from being a grammar enthousiast, I enjoy reading smart books in any language available, finding easier ways for the brain to learn things and buffing productivity stats by 180%.

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