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Imagine a website that offers thousands of short talks on any topic that you can think of. The speakers are experts in their fields and know how to make their talks interesting.
Now imagine that the site offers great support features, such as subtitles in various languages and ways to slow down or speed up the video.
Doesn’t this sound like a great tool for someone learning English?
If so, there’s good news. This is exactly what you will find on the TED website.
Although “TED” is short for “technology, entertainment, design”, in fact TED now offers much more than these three things.
TED has over 3800 talks to choose from, mostly between three and eighteen minutes in length, with more talks being added every week. The speakers come from all over the world.
And the best thing is, it’s free.
[caption: Ted.com is a free website with over 3800 talks.]
Where can I watch TED talks?
It’s easy to find TED talks. The website is ted.com. You can view the site on your desktop or phone, as well as on apps for most major smartphones.
How about watching TED talks on your TV? Apps are available for most smart TVs. You can also use a chromecast or similar device to “cast” TED talks to your TV.
If you are a fan of YouTube, you’ll find that TED has a channel there.
TED Talks are a fantastic resource for learning English
TED speakers are trained in the art of giving effective presentations.
This means that they speak more slowly than in a conversation, pause often and emphasise important words.
What does this mean for English learners? It means that you get a little extra help when you are trying to understand the speaker.
An effective speaker uses expressive language, such as idioms, to get their point across. They also use emphatic language to make their points stronger. (An example of emphatic language is saying “massive” instead of “very big”.)
This means that TED talks can introduce you to a wide range of vocabulary that you can use to be more expressive yourself.
If you need to give a presentation yourself, watching and analysing TED speakers is a great way to boost your skills.
Techniques to learn even more from TED talks
The basic way to use TED talks is to treat them like a simple listening exercise. You listen and, hopefully, you will learn something.
But this is a passive way of learning.
To be an effective, independent learner, you need to be an ACTIVE listener. This means that you need to engage with the listening materials - analyse it, repeat it, work with it and use it yourself.
Here are my top tips to do just that:
1. Watch the video more than once
An active listener knows to listen more than once. Many TED videos are three to five minutes long. This is a perfect length for watching more than once.
The first time you watch a TED video, watch it for your own enjoyment. The second time you watch it, watch it to learn something about English.
The first time you watch it, focus on the main ideas. The second time you watch it, focus on the details.
The first time you watch it, practise note-taking by writing down the main ideas. The second time you watch it, write down useful phrases and expressions.
Should you watch it more than twice? Yes, why not? As long as you are learning something, watch it as many times as you wish.
2. Absorb new vocabulary
Active learners know to write down new words that they hear. But this is only the first step in active listening.
New vocabulary does not always mean new words. For example, you know the word GO and the word FROM. But have you heard them used like this before…?
“I went from desk-dwelling computer nerd to the kind of guy who bikes to work.”
Do you use this phrase yourself? Could you use it in a sentence? These are the kinds of questions to ask yourself if you want to be an active learner.
After all, in a classroom, you have the teacher to ask you questions. But, as an independent learner, you have to ask those questions yourself.
By the way, the quote is from a TED talk by Matt Cutts, entitled Try something new for 30 days.
An active listener knows to apply this technique to grammar, too. How does the speaker use modal verbs? Why did he use the past continuous tense in that sentence?
The important thing is to keep asking questions. These questions will help you to analyse what you hear.
Interacting with the language like this is a powerful way to learn.
3. Use the transcript feature
Some speakers use more advanced language than others. Some speak more quickly. Should you use the transcript feature to help you understand?
Yes, absolutely. For example, you could listen once without the transcript and a second time with the transcript. It’s not “cheating”!
Using the transcript can help you to focus on the speaker’s language.
It can be hard to write down new words, such as “desk-dwelling” the first time you hear them (to dwell means to live or spend a lot of time somewhere). The transcript can help you do this.
Remember, an active learner makes full use of any tools that are available.
4. Practise reading aloud
Read the transcript aloud with the speaker to practise your pronunciation and vocal skills.
See if you can hear which words the speaker emphasises and repeats. Can you read comfortably at the same speed?
Shadowing is a technique where you repeat the audio just after hearing it, like an echo. Read our complete guide to shadowing and learn how you can apply it to audio such as TED talks.
5. Rewrite the talk
Would you like to practise writing as well as listening?
I suggest rewriting a TED talk after listening to it. Don’t worry about writing exactly what you heard. Instead write your own version in a summary.
Afterwards, check the transcript to see that you understood all the main points. Generally, each paragraph in the transcript covers one main point.
Analyse TED talks to learn presentation skills
If you have a big presentation coming up, one of the best ways to prepare is by watching TED talks!
As an active learner, you can watch, analyse and learn.
For example, what body language does the speaker use? What words does the speaker use to capture the audience’s attention?
Pay special attention to transitional phrases, where the speaker introduces a new point. These are key to giving a good presentation (or writing a good essay).
Give your own TED talk
To really take your active learning to the next level, give your own TED talk.
You could do this by performing a TED-style talk by yourself. Record yourself, watch your performance and see where you could improve.
Or you could use some of the techniques you learn from TED to give a talk to a real audience at work or at college.
You might find a branch of Toastmasters located near you. It’s a club for people who want to practise presenting and they have branches all over the world.
10 great examples of TED talks for English learners
As an English teacher, I often use TED talks in my classes and I have a list of great talks for you to start with.
These talks cover many interesting topics, including skills for learning English:
Matt Cutts, a Google engineer, talks about how he challenged himself to make his life more interesting.
Can you be happier if you have fewer things?
Relax and take this simple test… to see how human you are.
Mark Bezos went into a burning house and saved… a pair of shoes?
Ashley Williams shares three tips on how to better manage your time.
A refugee shares his experiences.
Discover language learning tips from polyglots (people who speak many languages).
Learn four interesting ways that language learning can benefit you.
It seems an easy question, but the answer is more complex than you may think.
10 Where did English come from? (for more advanced learners)
English is not an ancient language, but its roots go back 6000 years.
Podcasts: Another way to enjoy talks and learn
You may not think of TED talks as “podcasts”. However, the TED website has won various podcasting awards!
So, if you find that watching TED talks is an enjoyable and effective way to learn English, why not try other podcasts, too?
In fact audio-only podcasts do have one major advantage over video presentations. Since they are audio-only, you can apply your full attention to what is being said.
Some learners find this easier without the video to distract them.
Or, if you are like me, you might enjoy listening to podcasts in your car. If you are stuck in traffic, why not learn something?
To explore further ways that podcasts can help you learn English, read our full guide on learning English with podcasts.
Happy active listening!
Whether you choose TED videos or podcasts, don’t forget that active listening is the key to listening as an independent learner.
Choose listening topics that you enjoy and have fun with them.
Happy active listening!