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Inspiration, Linguistics, Resources

8 TED Talks That Will Inspire You To Learn A New Language

Who doesn’t love a good TED Talk? At the very least they tell you something you didn’t know before. At the very best they inspire you to become a smarter, wiser person. If you are a language fanatic (like most of us here at the Foreign Language Collective), you will especially love all of these interesting talks about language.

Did you know the language you speak can actually affect how much you save? Or that there is a hidden musicality within sign language?

Watch one of these TED Talks for some guaranteed language learning inspiration.

1. Four Reasons To Learn A New Languager

“English is fast becoming the world’s universal language, and instant translation technology is improving every year. So why bother learning a foreign language? Linguist and Columbia professor John McWhorter shares four alluring benefits of learning an unfamiliar tongue.”

2. Learn To Read Chinese .. with ease

For foreigners, learning to speak Chinese is a hard task. But learning to read the beautiful, often complex characters of the Chinese written language may be less difficult. ShaoLan walks through a simple lesson in recognizing the ideas behind the characters and their meaning — building from a few simple forms to more complex concepts. Call it Chineasy.

3. My Year of Reading A Book From Every Country In the World

Ann Morgan considered herself well read — until she discovered the “massive blindspot” on her bookshelf. Amid a multitude of English and American authors, there were very few books from beyond the English-speaking world. So she set an ambitious goal: to read one book from every country in the world over the course of a year. Now she’s urging other Anglophiles to read translated works so that publishers will work harder to bring foreign literary gems back to their shores. Explore interactive maps of her reading journey here:

4. The Enchanting Music of Sign Language

Artist and TED Fellow Christine Sun Kim was born deaf, and she was taught to believe that sound wasn’t a part of her life, that it was a hearing person’s thing. Through her art, she discovered similarities between American Sign Language and music, and she realized that sound doesn’t have to be known solely through the ears — it can be felt, seen and experienced as an idea. In this endearing talk, she invites us to open our eyes and ears and participate in the rich treasure of visual language.

5. Don’t Insist on English

Patricia Ryan is a longtime English teacher who asks a provocative question: Is the world’s focus on English preventing the spread of great ideas in other languages? In other words: What if Einstein had to pass the TOEFL? It’s a passionate defense of translating and sharing ideas.

6. Could your language affect your ability to save money?

What can economists learn from linguists? Behavioral economist Keith Chen introduces a fascinating pattern from his research: that languages without a concept for the future — “It rain tomorrow,” instead of “It will rain tomorrow” — correlate strongly with high savings rates.

7. Don’t kill your language

More and more, English is a global language; speaking it is perceived as a sign of being modern. But — what do we lose when we leave behind our mother tongues? Suzanne Talhouk makes an impassioned case to love your own language, and to cherish what it can express that no other language can. In Arabic with subtitles.

8. Should we simplify spelling?

How much energy and brain power do we devote to learning how to spell? Language evolves over time, and with it the way we spell — is it worth it to spend so much time memorizing rules that are filled with endless exceptions? Literary scholar Karina Galperin suggests that it may be time for an update in the way we think about and record language. (In Spanish with English subtitles)

Linguistics, Tips

Science Confirms: Alcohol Improves Your Speaking Skills In A Foreign Language

If there was a type of potion that would magically improve your foreign language skills, would you take it?

Turns out the answer had been right in front of us the whole time. Anyone who has ever learned a foreign language and then had a conversation in that language while under the influence of alcohol has probably thought “Damn, why was I so much better than I normally am?”

You weren’t the only one thinking that, and the hypothesis reached the academic community. Researchers from the University of Liverpool, Kings’s College in London and the University of Maastricht joined fores to prove what we had all long been suspecting – that alcohol actually does improve your speaking skills in a foreign language.

At the University of Maastricht they did a study with 50 native German students who were studying there and had recently begun learning the local language – Dutch.

All these students had recently passed a language exam to attest to their level of Dutch. Then the group was separated into two. One group got alcoholic beverages while the other were served a non-alcoholic variant.

The students were then asked to have a two minute conversation in Dutch with a native speaker. The conversations were recorded and the Dutch conversational partners were asked to give a score to the abilities of the student without knowing whether they had consumed alcohol or not.

Interestingly the alcohol had no effect on how the students themselves rated the conversation, but scored significantly better in the ratings given by their Dutch conversation partners. Especially on their pronunciation the native speakers gave much higher scores to those who had consumed alcohol in comparison to those who didn’t.

For all of us who feel a bit of fear and hesitation when speaking in a foreign language this is great news! Getting that glass of wine or beer can give you a little bit of ‘Dutch courage*’ (pun intended)

It should be noted that the research was only done with small amounts of alcohol that will help you get over the fear of making mistakes which might make your speech more fluent, but large amounts of alcohol will probably not improve your speaking abilities in any language.


*Dutch courage also happened to be the name of the study. 

Language Learning Basics, Linguistics

The 4 Disciplines of Language Learning

We all want to learn new languages, but what does ‘learning‘ a language actually mean?

In order to successfully learn a new language it is important to understand that your overall language skills can be divided into four disciplines.

Language ability is often measured two parts – active and passive, and within those parts we can classify two other categories – written language and oral (spoken) language.

These categories give us the four disciplines of most languages – listening, reading, speaking and writing. 



Though this is how most languages work, not every language is the same.

Some languages only exist in one or two disciplines. For example, many dead languages such as Latin only exist in writing, while certain Native American or African languages might only exist as a spoken language.


Passive vs. Active

All four disciplines are interconnected, so when you are learning a new language it is important to strive for a balance between them. When you have reached a certain fluency when speaking a language your brain will automatically translate your linguistic knowledge to a different discipline.

Your passive abilities tend to come more easily than your active abilities. This is because (as the name probably gives away)  it simply takes less effort. Your brain is better at

However when you hear a word you know being used in a sentence together with the context your brain is much quicker in actually remembering the meaning of the word.

Even when you have never heard a word before the context can give away the meaning of the word.

People who speak languages that are related to each other (Spanish/Portuguese or Swedish/Norwegian) are often able to understand the other language passively, but might make more mistakes actively as they can easily confuse two similar sounding things.


Passive -> Active

Improving your passive skills will eventually lead to better active skills. To improve your active skills trying to learn grammatical rules is necessary, however if you spend enough time improving your passive skills you will end up getting a better feeling for the language.

Instead of having to think about which verb tense to use your passive skills might gift you with the abilities most native speakers of any language have – doing things right without knowing why. 


Active -> Passive

Passive language skills come in handy, but because your active abilities are often the most difficult to improve it is never a bad idea to focus on these. Reading a lot might help you in your writing but it won’t do the work for you.

In the end there is nothing that beats practise, so don’t be afraid to get out there and spend a little more time trying to improve your speaking and writing abilities.


How does this help you?

This information might not be new to you, but when learning a new language it is important to keep in mind which disciplines you are focussing on.

Knowing the four basic disciplines can help you make your language learning more efficient.

For example, watching movies and series in your target language is a well-known tool to improve your listening skills, but by also turning on subtitles in the language in question will not only support you in your listening abilities, but will also help you improve your reading skills.

Training both your listening and reading at the same time will make it easier for your brain to store this new information as it comes from not one but two sources.


Adapt to your goals

When learning a new language try and ask yourself what your goals are, and try to figure out what your weak points are.

If you want to learn a new language for the purpose of understanding what is being said around you, don’t focus all your efforts on trying to write.

Though in the end all disciplines are connected making sure your efforts are put into the right place.

How to improve

Here are some quick tools you can use to improve in each of the four disciplines.


  • Audiobooks
  • Movies spoken in target language
  • Listening to music


  • Books
  • Movies with subtitles
  • Reading newspapers


  • Chatting with native speakers
  • Finding pen pals


  • Speaking with native speakers
  • Reading out loud