Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

English, piano and tinkering – a new curiculum?

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Jay Walker, the founder of Priceline and the owner of a legendary library, takes the stage to talk about English mania. He tells us that the desire for people to learn English is now approaching mania state much as Beatlemania, sports manias or religious manias have swept through populations. Manias can be good, alarming or deadly, he tells us, but believes that English mania is an exciting and positive development.

He shows us a massive hall in China where people are learning English by shouting it at one another. They’re part of the two billion people around the world trying to learn English. In China, students are learning English by law in the 3rd grade. In most places, people are learning English because they see it as a ticket to opportunity.

Is this mania good or bad? He thinks it’s very good – English won’t eliminate other languages, he suspects, but will become the world’s second language. “English lets you become part of the global conversation about global problems” – it’s a universal language like mathematics or science. It’s a language of problemsolving.


Thomas Dolby, TED’s musicial director, reminds us that, like the speakers, the musicians who perform at TED aren’t paid – they perform for the opportunity to participate in this community and to attend the conference. I generally don’t blog the musical events at TED, though they’re often my favorite aspects of the conference.

Last night, Herbie Hancock took the stage with bassist Marcus Miller, and drummer Harvey Mason. Herbie opened up with a long improvisation around “Speak Like a Child”, which seemed a bit lost of the crowd. He came back with Watermelon Man and two other jams from his electro-fusion, mid-1980s era, closing with a funk track played on a Roland keytar. As far as I’m concerned, Hancock is the only man in the world who gets to use a keytar without irony. Great set, and I wish it could have gone on hours longer.

This morning, Jamie Cullum reminds us just how broad a genre jazz is – any genre that can include Hancock’s wide-ranging improvisation with Cullum’s creative lounge piano can include almost anything. Cullum plays jazz standards, mixing in snippets of Kanye West, tapping out rhythyms on the piano. Not my thing, but he’s a crowd pleaser and a hell of a charismatic performer.


Gever Tully had a TED talks hit with a talk called “Five dangerous things you should let your children do.” The thinking behind that talk has led him to start something called “Tinkering School“.

It’s a six day camp for kids to buid things, using real-world tools and potentially dangerous materials. The goal is to ensure that kids “leave with a better sense of how to make things, and with a sense that you can figure things out by fooling around.” The kids learn “that all project go awry – that’s a step towards either sweet success or gleeful calamity.” We see a video of a wooden rollercoaster made by eight year-olds. It looks like an amazing thing, a place I’d like to hang out for a week, never mind send my (non-existent) kids.

3 Responses to “English, piano and tinkering – a new curiculum?”

  1. Brian Barker says:

    Hi Ethan.

    Concerning the comments regarding English.

    I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

    An interesting video can be seen at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

  2. Mark Johnson says:

    I was in the middle of writing when I re-read the post by BrianBarker above . All I can say is that I agree with him 100%. So I guess that makes two people witht he same opinion.

  3. Ethan says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Brian – I think Jay is massively oversimplifying matters. Much of my work is on trying to figure out how to enable translation on a massive scale, because it means people can participate in global conversations without resorting to languages they’re less comfortable in. See my essay, “The Polyglot Internet” – http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/the-polyglot-internet/

    This was a post summarizing a TED talk. My rule during these talks is to try to avoid commenting on what a speaker says and simply transcribing. Occasionally, I slip up and comment, but in this case, I kept mum as I’d written elsewhere.

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