TED Talk: How Free Language Education is Saving Lives | Jack Morgan | TEDxPittsburgh

TED Talks: How Free Language Education is Saving Lives by Jack Morgan

Jack Morgan's TED Talk at TEDxPittsburgh 2019

Watch Jack Morgan’s TED Talk

Usage trends from the world’s leading free mobile app for language education (Duolingo) revealed an unlikely insight that needed to be investigated. Traveling the world to meet users revealed to designer Jack Morgan and his team that that in many cases, learning a language wasn’t a hobby, it was an opportunity for a better life.
 
Jack Morgan designs solutions to the worlds biggest problems. He is known for leading design at Google’s education division, producing an Oscar qualifying documentary about Syrian refugees, building an AI platform that helps thousands of disadvantaged students get a college education, and giving popular TED Talks.
 
He owns a brand design agency serving Fortune 500 clients in San Francisco, New York, London and Tokyo. His work has been recognized by the United Nations and supported by The Prince’s Trust Royal Charity.
 

Full Transcript of Jack Morgan’s TED Talk:

Recently, I discovered something new about language – and it completely changed the way I think about how we all communicate. But first, I would like to ask everyone here a question: How many of you have tried to learn a new language before? How many of you have succeeded?
 
Well, whether you’ve succeeded in learning a new language or you’re still trying, you are not alone. There are approximately 1.2 billion people learning a new language around the world. The vast majority of them are learning just one language in particular; a language spoken by everyone in this room. That’s right – at least 800 million people are learning how to speak English – and many of them are doing this to get out of poverty. The reason for this is simple; in most countries you can earn between 25 – 100% more just by knowing English.
 
But what about the other 400 million people? Why are they learning a new language? I ask these questions because I am part of a team that is trying to make language education free for everyone in the world; it’s called Duolingo, and we have more than 300 million people using this app to teach themselves a new language 100% free. That means that we have one of the largest datasets of language learners in existence – and we’ve studied millions of people spanning every single country on the planet.
Jack Morgan TED Talk at TEDxPittsburgh 2019
Jack Morgan TED Talk at TEDxPittsburgh 2019 Duolingo
Our researchers created this map and it shows us the most popular languages to learn in each country around the world – it tells us a lot of interesting things, for example we can see just how popular it is to learn English. Most of the world is learning English. This is something we expected of-course, but then we noticed something unexpected… something strange. And if I zoom-in here, perhaps you’ll be able to see it too. Our data told us that the most popular language to learn in Sweden… is Swedish. Sounds like a mistake, doesn’t it? It can’t be that hard to learn, can it? So why was this, why was the most popular language to learn in Sweden Swedish?
 
Refugees. Sweden saw more than a 10x increase in the number of refugees seeking asylum in the country between 2015 – 2016, and as they arrived they all began looking for a way to learn Swedish for free. But where did these refugees come from? Many of them came from Syria. As a matter of fact, there are now more registered Syrian refugees than the entire population of the city of Los Angeles – there are more than 6 million Syrian refugees and counting. Now this is shocking of-course, but it’s really not the first time we’ve heard something like this.
 
Over the years, we’ve received thousands of letters and emails from people who are in this exact situation. Here’s one of them:
 

“Learning German was a necessity for me to advance in my career and broaden my options beyond Syria. Living in a country torn by hideous war and daily terrible news was unbearable, but learning a new language gave me hope.”

 
We’ve received many letters like this one over the years, and after we discovered what was going on over in Sweden – we decided that simply replying to these letters and publishing our language research was not enough. So we decided to go further.

Jack Morgan TED Talk at TEDxPittsburgh 2019 Duolingo
Jack Morgan TED Talk at TEDxPittsburgh 2019 Duolingo
Much further, actually! About 6,000 miles further to be exact. We traveled from here in Pittsburgh in the United States to the source of all of this in the Middle East – with the hopes of finding and meeting some of the people that had been writing to us all these years. Our journey begins here in Gaziantep, just over the border with Syria.
 
The first person to let us into his home – and into his life – is a man named Alaa. He actually protested against the Syrian government when things started to turn bad in his country, and he was arrested during one of his protests and dragged off to jail… but as he explained to us, this was no ordinary jail. He said that he was placed in a small cell with fifty other men – so small and so crowded that they all had to sit balled-up, with their knees to their chests, unable to stand and unable to speak – for one whole year. He said that he did not get to see the sky for one year. After he was released he fled to Turkey which is where his story takes more of a positive turn, thankfully. The first thing he did was teach himself how to speak Turkish using a smartphone and free resources. Fast-forward just a couple of years and he has become a schoolteacher himself – teaching Arabic from Turkish and computer programming to the kids in Turkey, helping to make their lives better. And he’s doing much better himself, as you can see.
 
Next up is a remarkable lady named Noor – originally from Iraq, she fled after a carbomb exploded outside her house, shattering the windows to the house and sending bullets flying in all directions. She told us a story of fleeing with her family in her car while their house turned into a literal warzone. She also fled to Turkey and she also taught herself how to speak Turkish using a smartphone and free resources – she now speaks more than 5 languages fluently and has become a successful Software Engineer (which of course requires English). Her name actually has a meaning – it simply means The Light, which I think is quite appropriate for her.
Jack Morgan TED Talk at TEDxPittsburgh 2019 Duolingo
Jack Morgan TED Talk at TEDxPittsburgh 2019
I have just one more story for you today and it comes from the final stop on our journey. We were granted last minute permission to enter this place – this is Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan, and it is one of the largest refugee camps in the world. Azraq Refugee Camp has a population of 37,000 refugees. And out of 37,000 refugees, 60% of them are children. As I’m sure you can imagine this was a very difficult place to gain access to and even once our team was inside the camp, they were very hesitant about how much they wanted to show us – they didn’t understand why we had come to see them. And after a little while, we found out why they were so concerned about us being there.
 
It turns out that Azraq Refugee Camp was actually using Duolingo to teach their refugees English! This is excellent – so why would they be worried about us being there of all people? They thought we had come to sue them for Copyright Infringement, because they were putting our logo on the certificates they gave to the refugees – they thought we were lawyers for the company! They were very relieved when we explained that this was not why we came to see them, and that they could keep doing that. They introduced us to this young man – this is Mahmoud. Mahmoud is 15 years old, and he has been at Azraq Refugee Camp since he was a small child. You see when his family fled Syria they had to move between more than 30 different towns before they arrived at this refugee camp; they fled on 30 separate occasions before they could find somewhere safe.
We were introduced to Mahmoud because he is completely obsessed with his education – he’s obsessed with learning English. We asked him what he would say if he could send a message to everyone in the United States to tell us about himself. This is what he said:
 

“I want them to know about me that I never gave up with the war circumstances that we are in. I love to learn – so that life would continue.”

 
That’s how he thinks about language. We met many countless people on our journey and they all had one surprising thing in common – they were not learning a new language to earn 25% more, or to get a better job. They were learning a new language to survive. To triumph over impossible circumstances. For them, learning a new language is a chance at a new life. It’s a chance to find home again.
 
So – if you’ve tried to learn a new language but you haven’t quite gotten there yet, don’t give up. It might just save your life.
 
Thank you.

TEDxPittsburgh Interview with Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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