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How To Learn Sign Language

Why language is humanity’s greatest invention | David Peterson

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? (Laughter) 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? 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? (Laughter) What’s the US government
on a budget or something? (Laughter) 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. 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. And if I’m remembering, I’ll probably remember there was something
I forgot to mail, which I did. This was a preplanned joke,
but I really did forget to mail something. And so that means
I’m going to have to do it Monday, because that’s when
I’m going to get back home. And of course, when I think of Monday, I’ll think of “Manic Monday”
by the Bangles. It’s a good song. And when I say the word “saw,”
I think of this phrase: “‘I see!’ said the blind man
as he picked up his hammer and saw.” I always do. Anytime I hear the word “saw” or say it,
I always think of that, because my grandfather
always used to say it, so it makes me think of my grandfather. And we’re back to “Manic Monday”
again, for some reason. And with Kyn, when I’m saying
something like, “Yesterday I saw Kyn,” I’ll think of the circumstances
under which I saw him. And this happened to be that day.
Here he is with my cat. And of course, if I’m thinking of Kyn, I’ll think he’s going to
Long Beach State right now, and I’ll remember that
my good friend John and my mother both graduated from Long Beach State, my cousin Katie is going to
Long Beach State right now. And it’s “Manic Monday” again. But this is just a fraction
of what’s going on in your head at any given time while you are speaking. And all we have to represent
the entire mess that is going on in our head, is this. I mean, that’s all we got. (Laughter) Is it any wonder
that our system is so poor? So imagine, if I can give you an analogy, imagine if you wanted to know
what is it like to eat a cake, if instead of just eating the cake, you instead had to ingest
the ingredients of a cake, one by one, along with instructions about how these ingredients
can be combined to form a cake. You had to eat the instructions, too. (Laughter) If that was how we had to experience cake, we would never eat cake. And yet, language is
the only way — the only way — that we can figure out
what is going on here, in our minds. This is our interiority, the thing that makes us human, the thing that makes us different
from other animals, is all inside here somewhere, and all we have to do to represent it
is our own languages. A language is our best way of showing
what’s going on in our head. Imagine if I wanted to ask
a big question, like: “What is the nature of human
thought and emotion?” What you’d want to do is you’d want to examine
as many different languages as possible. One isn’t just going to do it. To give you an example, here’s a picture I took of little Roman, that I took with a 12-megapixel camera. Now, here’s that same picture
with a lot fewer pixels. Obviously, neither
of these pictures is a real cat. But one gives you a lot better sense
of what a cat is than the other. Language is not merely a tool. It is our legacy, it’s our way of conveying
what it means to be human. And of course, by “our” legacy,
I mean all humans everywhere. And losing even one language
makes that picture a lot less clear. So as a job for the past 10 years and also as recreation, just for fun, I create languages. These are called “conlangs,” short for “constructed languages.” Now, presenting these facts back to back, that we’re losing languages on our planet and that I create brand-new languages, you might think that there’s
some nonsuperficial connection between these two. In fact, a lot of people have drawn a line
between those dots. This is a guy who got
all bent out of shape that there was a conlang
in James Cameron’s “Avatar.” He says, “But in the three years
it took James Cameron to get Avatar to the screen,
a language died.” Probably a lot more than that, actually. “Na’vi, alas, won’t fill the hole
where it used to be …” A truly profound and poignant statement — if you don’t think about it at all. (Laughter) But when I was here at Cal, I completed two majors. One of them was linguistics,
but the other one was English. And of course, the English major,
the study of English, is not actually the study
of the English language, as we know, it’s the study of literature. Literature is just a wonderful thing, because basically, literature,
more broadly, is kind of like art; it falls under the rubric of art. And what we do with literature, authors create new,
entire beings and histories. And it’s interesting to us to see what kind of depth and emotion
and just unique spirit authors can invest
into these fictional beings. So much so, that, I mean —
take a look at this. There’s an entire series of books that are written
about fictional characters. Like, the entire book is just about one
fictional, fake human being. There’s an entire book
on George F. Babbitt from Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt,” and I guarantee you,
that book is longer than “Babbitt,” which is a short book. Does anybody even remember that one? It’s pretty good, I actually think
it’s better than “Main Street.” That’s my hot take. So we’ve never questioned the fact
that literature is interesting. But despite the fact, not even linguists are actually interested
in what created languages can tell us about the depth of the human spirit
just as an artistic endeavor. I’ll give you a nice little example here. There was an article written about me in the California alumni
magazine a while back. And when they wrote this article, they wanted to get somebody
from the opposing side, which, in hindsight,
seems like a weird thing to do. You’re just talking about a person, and you want to get somebody
from the opposing side of that person. (Laughter) Essentially, this is just
a puff piece, but whatever. So, they happened to get one of the most brilliant
linguists of our time, George Lakoff, who’s a linguist
here at Berkeley. And his work has basically forever changed
the fields of linguistics and cognitive science. And when asked about my work
and about language creation in general, he said, “But there’s a lot of things
to be done in the study of language. You should spend the time
on something real.” Yeah. “Something real.”
Does this remind you of anything? To use the very framework
that he himself invented, let me refer back
to this conceptual metaphor: language is a tool. And he appears to be laboring
under this conceptual metaphor; that is, language is useful
when it can be used for communication. Language is useless
when it can’t be used for communication. It might make you wonder:
What do we do with dead languages? But anyway. So, because of this idea, it might seem like
the very height of absurdity to have a Duolingo course
on the High Valyrian language that I created for HBO’s
“Game of Thrones.” You might wonder what, exactly,
are 740,000 people learning? (Laughter) Well, let’s take a look at it. What are they learning? What could they possibly be learning? Well, bearing in mind that
the other language for this — it’s for people that speak English — English speakers are learning quite a bit. Here’s a sentence that they will probably
never use for communication in their entire lives: “Vala ābre urnes.” “The man sees the woman.” The little middle line is the gloss, so it’s word for word,
that’s what it says. And they’re actually learning
some very fascinating things, especially if they’re English speakers. They’re learning that a verb can come
at the very end of a sentence. Doesn’t really do that in English
when you have two arguments. They’re learning that sometimes a language doesn’t have an equivalent
for the word “the” — it’s totally absent. That’s something language can do. They’re learning that a long vowel
can actually be longer in duration, as opposed to different in quality, which is what our long vowels do;
they’re actually the same length. They’re learning that
there are these little inflections. Hmm? Hmm? There are inflections called “cases”
on the end of nouns — (Laughter) that tell you who does what
to whom in a sentence. Even if you leave the order
of the words the same and switch the endings, it changes who does what to whom. What they’re learning is that languages
do things, the same things, differently. And that learning languages can be fun. What they’re learning is respect
for Language: capital “L” Language. And given the fact that 88 percent
of Americans only speak English at home, I don’t think that’s
necessarily a bad thing. You know why languages die on our planet? It’s not because government imposes
one language on a smaller group, or because an entire group
of speakers is wiped out. That certainly has happened in the past,
and it’s happening now, but it’s not the main reason. The main reason is that
a child is born to a family that speaks a language that
is not widely spoken in their community, and that child doesn’t learn it. Why? Because that language is not valued
in their community. Because the language isn’t useful. Because the child can’t go and get a job
if they speak that language. Because if language is just a tool, then learning their native language is about as useful
as learning High Valyrian, so why bother? Now … Maybe language study isn’t going to lead
to a lot more linguistic fluency. But maybe that’s not such a big deal. Maybe if more people
are studying more languages, it will lead to more linguistic tolerance and less linguistic imperialism. Maybe if we actually respect
language for what it is — literally, the greatest invention
in the history of humankind — then in the future, we can celebrate endangered languages
as living languages, as opposed to museum pieces. (High Valyrian) Kirimvose.
Thank you. (Applause)

100 Replies to “Why language is humanity’s greatest invention | David Peterson”

  • If you hate yourself, become someone else.

    – Work on raising your income.
    – Let go of self-destructive mindsets.
    – Diet and exercise until you look and feel great.

    In a couple years, you won’t recognize the person you once were…

    And that’ll be a good thing.

  • The introspection of a multilateral divergence of our thought processes into common spoken or written language that is relatively constructed to suit or ease our day to day individual interaction(s).

    Learning new languages would consequently boost our linguistic interests exponentially. Nice one!

  • Bullshit. We all have the potential for telepathy and through the suppression of the pineal gland it's not possible. Language is distracting us from our true potential

  • Language is the key to everything on the world I'm Brazilian but I learned English, that opened closed doors for me!

  • I only speak English. I have never been able to learn another language. Please note how I say that. I have tried. I have tried Spanish, German, French and LATIN! I am able to learn words, I am not able to learn grammar. I understand and am able to write English grammar, but I honestly can't say I know how even English grammar works. I find advanced mathematics to be like grammar, it just doesn't make sense to me. I understand now, in my 60s, that I have a language learning disability that effects how I can and can't learn languages and math. I can't even spell, praise the Lord for spell check. I find languages really interesting. I love history – I minored in history in college, I could've had a double major if I could've learned another language! I took a History of the English Language class in the English department (my English major friend's least favorite class) and I loved it, I even passed it without the curve because she didn't grade on the curve.

  • No, any other animal of the same kind can understand the other. So we humans are the dumbest of all in language.

  • Am I the only one that wanted to pull all my hair out and roll around on shards of glass until I lost consciousness listening to this guy talk ?

  • You have an idea that you're trying to explain, but are so full of anger that it makes you're not able to connect the dots.
    The death of a language means the disappearance of a culture and an identity.
    You're a linguist … let your thoughts create your words not the other way around.
    Language is not just a communication tool … Language is an expression one … a creation one … a relief one.
    Language is a part of our evolution and the fact that we don't feel the need to learn more than one is because we lost the interest for any immaterial things …
    We don't care about our heritage
    We don't care about our identity
    We don't care about the world around us
    We care about our welfare and what we can get from things, that's why a single language can be enough and a full of errors translating software is enough …
    Language is like food, handicraft, personality … all mean identity
    We lost our need to belong and want nothing but feel good and lead easier lives
    That simply means doing less to get more, which is never enough
    Language is a part of our evolution and we're reaching such a sterile one, why languages are dying … our tongs are as sterile as our minds.

  • After a day of interacting with Trump supporters I still think the shower was the greatest invention. Language needs improvement. Religion is humanities worst invention.

  • I spent a while thinking about the inventions of Star Trek and which one was the most likely that led to the utopian Paradise of the series, I narrowed it down to two options either the invention of the replicator or the invention of the universal translator.

  • This guy is omega butthurt that he’s not THE go-to guy on language. I hate the idea that “just if you have spoken a language doesn’t mean you know anything about language.” Experts help tease out information from language that others may not think about. It’s a different viewpoint. That’s all. As a city planner you’re an egotist if you think “nobody but me understands city planning.” Have you ever lived in a city? Then you understand how to plan one, i.e. there should be a traffic light here because it’s dicey without one during most hours. Whether or not you’re a city planner does not mean that you are the only one who can use deductive reasoning to come to informed decisions on bettering a city. Same goes for anything.

  • Language is something which helps to communicate with anyone & where u belong to. I am indan but I love Spanish so am really trying best to learn this language 🙂

  • There are roughly 6,500 spoken languages in the world today. However, about 2,000 of those languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers.


  • It's unconceivable to me that some people don't speak more than one language. Languages open worlds to you, open new cultures and new experiences to you. I learned four laguages and each one of them changed my view of world completely. I wish I could speak all the laguages in the world..

  • I always believe That God greatest gift for us is our free will ,the ability to think ,and the ability to speak.Thats why human is the highest form of animals created by God.Even though we human has the ability to speak the ability to communicate we should use a universal language to be understood by more people.If a person knows how to Speak The universal language English he is allright but if he speaks more languages like Spanish,French,Arabic,Mandarin,Japanese, those languages spoken in the continent of Africa then whoever speaks more languages beside ENGLISH that person could travel the world and that person could communicate to a diverse group of people which is to his advantage .Sad to say that I only know English and Pilipino.I only know 4 dialects in my native country.I understood the words in Spanish but cant speak the language.In conclusion it is better for a person to speak more languages besides English to be understood better by more people.

  • A lecture on what is so obvious that it is pointless to have this padantic word waster discuss it. Actually he needs to learn how to learn how to speak concisely and clearly rather than the verbal garbage he is spoutung.

  • As a languages student, i've learned a lot of things.

    My native language is Portuguese, but i'm fluent in English, speak some Spanish and starting with Japanese. I also had Latim classes in college, but i didn't like it.

    The amount of awareness you get about communication and even about the way you think is just fantastic!

  • I know well the importance of language for i'm a linguistics major, but I still have to say that it's almost useless to analyze the so-called syntax or TG grammar. Why don't we spare more time studying something of great value? such as engineering or marketing

  • "You haven't heard Shakespeare until you've heard it in the original Klingon" (Star Trek: the Undiscovered Country")–LOL!

  • There is a crucial point missing: we have traded language against perception. The more we speak, the more restricted we get in terms of observation, perception. We see the downsides beside the advantages today, societywise..There is something deeply superficial about language.

  • I think taking French 101, Spanish 101, etc in school is useless as a introductory course. We should require a course in foreign language and teach the students how each language works, its mechanics which teaches a lot about how they think. Then, students could take a foreign language of their choice from there. I think David Peterson is saying the same thing but I didn't listen to the whole video before writing this 🤣

  • Dolphins can transmit images through sound. I wouldn’t consider language an invention but an emerging property of consciousness, which is not unique to humans.

  • The question in the title assumes facts not in evidence. You cannot say why language is humanity's greatest invention without first proving that humans did, in fact, create language. We did not.

  • Actually language is the problem. I spent 30 days in a monastery where no one spoke. For the first two days it was quite hard but on day 3 I realize that speaking was completely unnecessary. We can communicate on a level Beyond verbal the benefits of not speaking for 30 days. Was absolutely phenomenal. Upon my return to normal society I reduced my verbal communication by 50%. And still maintain a very normal life.

  • Can someone explain why, in USA, diphthongs are called long vowel? When I first came to the US I thought that the elementary school teacher was dum … simply wasn't educated enouhg. But HERE this guy is still and again calling all the diphthongs "long vowels." What is going on? Diphthong means TWO SOUNDS if I am not mistaken.

  • i actually don't know whether it's delightful or not when one language reaches overpowering popularity .i learn Korean by myself,for there is no access in school.

  • Interesting…but saying "language" when hearing a bad word is like saying "transportation" when getting hit by a car.

  • He brings up points that remind me of why I love reading Tolkien so much. Everytime Tolkien writes something there's a chance that he will go into a rabbit hole so to speak and explain exactly what he means about simply one line or one word with a few pages. It's truly fascinating.

  • Language was a gift from Allah , the almighty taught us how to speak . How we pick up language easily , why other animals can’t speak or do complex things , it looks like they are stuck in evolution , Evolution has nothing to do when it comes to la language

  • 14:13 That is definitely a very wrong use of the word 'literally'…. especially for someone who makes new languages…. 😅 Just sayin'

  • Each language represents a unique way of experiencing the surrounding world. Therefore, to truly understand each other, we must learn each other's language.

  • We cannot confirm for a fact if "humans" taught themselves language or not, therefore we cannot presume that humans invented it.

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