TED's 31 days of Ideas - Day 11 & 12: Before Avatar & The many ways of speaking English

There's no adventure without curiosity

By Alex Moura

When I was a kid in Brazil, I wanted to be an adventurer, even though adults told me that adventuring isn't really a profession. I loved learning how things are connected. I was a happy and curious boy. At 13 years old, I started programming personal computers, typing lines of code from British magazines, because computers were (and still are) the perfect instrument to express my creativity. At the end of high school, I took a vocational test that suggested I would excel in two professions: astronomy or design. I choose to take the adventurous path as a designer and programmer.

As the years passed and I grew up, I sadly discovered that curiosity and adventure were two things that aren't part of life for most adults. This was something I couldn't accept for myself. Curiosity is suppressed by years spent inside outdated school systems and meritocratic workplaces. Creativity needs curiosity, but creative people are dangerous because we dream and re-imagine the future.

James Cameron became the person he imagined when he was a kid. In his talk, "Before Avatar … a curious boy," he tells how he learned that curiosity is one's most powerful possession, that imagination is a force that can manifest a reality, and that respect from people around you is the most important thing in the world. Parents shouldn't be so worried about their kids failing, because failing and trying again is part of learning and growing. Failing teaches us to not fear risk.

Fearlessness is a quality we'll all need in 2017 and beyond. The way we face problems depends on how prepared we are to be fearless. Don't put limitations on yourself; others will do it for you. Taking risks will make you better, and failure must be an option in art and exploration. There's no adventure without curiosity.


The many ways of speaking English

By John McWhorter

My favorite TED Talk (other than, of course, a certain two!) would be Jamila Lyiscott’s "3 ways to speak English."

To be an educated black person whose default speech is not the kind that most would describe as "sounding black" is to be irritated, now and then, by being told that one is "articulate." I am aware that many whites are a little irritated that I would be irritated about this. "But you really are articulate," they often say, wondering why someone like me can't just take a compliment.

And I get it -- but a part of you always wonders: If you were the exact same person, except white, would your articulateness be considered worthy of notice? There is a sense, very subtle, that being articulate is something to remark upon, a novelty, when a person is black. Few mention that Mark Zuckerberg or Lena Dunham are "well-spoken," after all, though both are.

Lyiscott's spoken-word piece conveys a dynamic conception of black articulateness that goes beyond petty complaints such as mine and dwells in a point more important for the general public: that one can be "articulate" in any variety of English and that there are no grounds for deeming nonstandard Englishes as mistaken. Black English has rules, Jamaican patois has rules, standard English has rules -- and, as Lyiscott explains, any sense that only standard English has the right rules is wiped out by the fact that standard American English sounds kind of off to people from Great Britain. Our sense of what "good" speech is comes from purely arbitrary standards. We have to follow those standards in certain situations, and that's just too bad, but there are no grounds for hearing casual speech as mistaken in the meantime.

When I wrote a book on Black English, I first wanted to call it A Larger English. I meant that black Americans, speaking both standard and Black English, have a larger repertoire than the typical American English speaker. The publisher nixed that title, and they were probably right, but the point remains -- part of why Americans are so hard on nonstandard speech is that so many of us have such a narrow range of it. Worldwide, people's casual speech is vastly different from standard speech, to the point that they essentially are bilingual -- Swiss German vs. High German, Egyptian Arabic vs. Modern Standard Arabic, Jamaican patois vs. Jamaican standard English. Here in the US, the closest most of us get to this worldwide commonplace is how most black people talk. But we are trained to hear it as deficiency -- as people never quite achieving, well, articulateness.

Nobody in Switzerland or Egypt hears language around them in that way, and Jamila Lyiscott's lesson is valuable in helping Americans get with the rest of the world in understanding that the more ways anyone can talk -- be it languages, dialects or everything in between -- the better.