This was the second Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava and the biggest ever. If you don’t know about the Polyglot Gathering, you must be new to the site. I’ve attended (and reviewed) all five (the first three were in Berlin). In short: it’s a five-day event of talks, socialising and evening events run by enthusiastic volunteers for anybody who’s into learning one language or many. This time (as usual) there were many first-timers to meet and it was great catching up with the many “regulars”, too.
Like last year, I did daily vlogs from the event. The emphasis in those was on giving a flavour of the atmosphere. I flagged up some of the talks I attended but the main focus was the goings on beyond the lecture rooms and talking to as many people as I could.
The day after the conference, I turned to the substance in a short vlog. I pulled out three themes that came out for me: language as sound; tips and methods and language as culture. Here, after more time to reflect, I cover the same ground, but in more depth (scroll to the bottom of the article for the video). I attended twenty-two but I counted 106 talks/workshops on the programme in all. What follows, then, is my personal path but with a focus on conveying some at least of each speakers’ message, rather than my views on it.
Language as sound
Tran Quang Hung entitled his talk “The three-part strategy for improving listening skills”. First, you have to learn how to split up the stream of sound. It’s more about meaningful chunks than individual words. Second, you need to be able to “parse” (understand the sentence structure). Third, even if you understand all the words and the grammar, you still have to be able to interpret the implied meaning at the level of “pragmatics” (the cultural context).
Kevin Fei Sun’s talk was “(Re)Learning a heritage language: How Hindi (and other languages) helped improve my Sanghainese”. He moved aged 10 back to his parents’ native Shanghai with only a limited, mainly passive “heritage” knowledge from his parents. Although Shanghainese is the main spoken langauge i the city, he avoided using it in the playground, though. The other kids made fun of him because couldn’t distinguish some of the unfamiliar sounds and it was easier to stick in the official school language Mandarin (also the main written language).
It was only as an adult that he had the confidence to learn Shanghainese properly. This was in part due to the improved phonetic awareness that came from learning Hindi, which has some of the same sounds.
I first met my fellow Basque-learner Maria Spantidi at the Polyglot Conference in Thessaloniki. This year’s Gathering was her confident speaker debut. She asked whether “Shy perfectionists can learn too”. I’m relieved to report that the answer’s yes,if we’ll only lower our standards a little.
She counselled against getting caught in the search for the perfect accent (the “accent trap”). It’s enough now if they can tell she’s foreign, but not where she’s from….She wants “sound native with a pinch of Maria”.
The Moscow-based linguist Grigory Kazakov also stressed the centrality of sound – listening skills – in his talk “How it all works: insights into the nature of language learning”. We should work with the natural order of language acquisition. Audio first, then reading and writing.
Podcasts are great for the sort of extensive audio exposure you’ll need, as the host of “The Fluent Show”, Kerstin Cable, explained in “Hands off, headphones on. Don’t miss out on language podcasts”.
Even podcasts aimed at native speakers often use quite natural, informal language. They can be “incredibly good company”. With shows available on everything under the sun, you can feel that you’re part of a community which shares your interests, no matter how geeky.
Download a podcast on your phone and you’ll be able to practise your listening skills anywhere and feel like you’re getting involved in a community. You can also listen again and again and, if you’re in the mood, use a transcript to analyse the language. Make your own if necessary.
Methods and tips
Judith Meyer began “Fast track language learning” with the home truth that, however you slice and dice it, it takes between 600 and 2000 hours to get a good working knowledge of a language.
You can, however, register a real achievement if you want to spend 40 to 60 hours (for example half and hour a day for three months). Your aim may be to get a flavour of a language. Meyer did this once with Japanese because of an interest in anime. Another time, she had to give a speech in Indonesian, but didn’t speak the language.
The key is to choose materials and spend your time relentlessly working on your (limited) goal. Focus down. If you’re really into a certain foreign TV series, for example, watch it relentlessly and pull out the vocab and make flashcards (there are programs to help with this). If your goal is to speak, schedule half an hour on Skype with a teacher every day. focus on “chunks” of vocab that you really need.
Meyer also stressed that we need to manage our limited energy. So, “use your laziness”. Have activities lined up for when you have lower mental energy, whether it’s listening to songs or following what’s trending on Twitter in that language/country.
Responding to feedback after last year’s event, this year the organisers managed to get more speakers to offer talks in languages other than English. One I attended was Gabriel Gelman’s on “5 Methoden um in einem Viertel der Zeit eine Fremdsprache fließend zu sprechen” (5 ways to speak a foreign language fluently in a quarter of the time).
The five? Describe your way round words you don’t know, develop “language islands” (an ability to talk about certain topics you’ll often need), take an intensive “bootcamp”, focus only on basic grammar (e.g. the first and second person verb forms, since most conversations are about “me” and “you”) and – if you’re really stuck – fall back on a word for word translation
In “Principles of accelerated langauge learning”, the second contribution from Grigory Kazakov, he had tips on how to use an initial six months to get functional in the language fast. Positive emotions, concentration (a little, often) and developing a regular “language habit” all help. He’s a fan of working with parallel texts at this stage, too.
Tim Keeley’s presentation “The Importance of Affect (Emotions) When Functioning in Foreign Languages and Cultures”, was, like Kazakov’s, underpinned by lots of academic research. Good “emotional resilience” makes it more likely we’ll be able to approach native-like fluency in a langauge. “Emotional resilience” is our ability to cope – and bounce back – in the face of irritation, frustration and failure. setbacks. Mindfulness and meditation can both help the brain to rewire. It’s important to develop “emotional sensitivity”, too. That’s all about accurately reading the emotions of others, listening genuinely and resounding with empathy.
Polyglot Gathering sessions usually last forty-five minutes. Something new this year was the “double slot”. This certainly opens up space to do something more (for example the sessions on basic Esperanto or Italian through songs), so long as the presenter can keep you engaged for a full ninety minutes.
I had no such worries about that before choosing the ninety-minute workshop on the Gold List Method co-led by language mentor (and Gathering organiser) Lydia Machova and none other than David James, one of the two creators of the Method.
The co-speakers were an effective double act, first presenting the method, and then giving us a chance to practise with Welsh or Indonesian. The only disappointment was that James’ co-creator (and striking double), Professor Viktor Huliganov, was nowhere in sight. He must have had his visa application declined 😉 .
In his talk, Rick Dearman presented numerous “Secret Missions when you visit a Target Language country”.
Among the more extrovert options were asking people to tell you a joke, volunteering to assist with some good cause for a day, shoot a video vox pop video with the locals, haggle in the market or ask people in the park to play leapfrog with you
Introverts, don’t worry! There were plenty of less “out there” ideas, too. It was all about creating your own opportunities to use the language in the field: you could go to a museum and listening to the audio guide in the local language or going into a large store and asking the assistant where random items of stock are to be found.
We then split into groups to come up with our own ideas under the headings such as “subterfuge”, “covert action”, reconnaissance”, “clandestine operations”.
The cultural dimension
Aleksandar Medjedovic in “Love in the mirror of languages” gave us an entertaining riff on different linguistic takes on “love” and related words.
English had been the “language of love” since Romeo and Juliette. French had the magic of “tu” and “vous” (with some long-married couples still preferring the latter). Brazilian Portuguese has a word for running your fingers through a beloved’s hair.
We were told why we should prefer Turkish love songs to those in (Medjedovic’s native) Serbian (I can’t remember why) and that Brazilian Portuguese has a word for running your fingers through a beloved’s hair. In Serbian, “ljubov” means both “to love” and “to kiss”.
The talk ranged on from clips from a cheesy Hindi love song through goings on in Bill Clinton’s Oval Office to high literature in Rumi’s classical Persian “Book of Love” (“the best book on love”). Or, as Bukowski said, “Find what you love and let it kill you”. (Erm, I think that’ll be languages….?).
Anastasia Lbova spoke in Russian on “Почему русские смеются” (Why are the Russians laughing?) and so brings us back to the “pragmatics” that are so crucial to advanced comprehension.
Like other languages, Russian has many “winged words”, that’s to say well-known phrases or set expressions which have entered the language from literature, songs and, more recently, films (including beloved children’s cartoons) and even adverts. For example “хорошо сидим” (literally – we’re siting well, i.e. aren’t we having a good time) – used ironically (from the film Осейний марафон)
However good your technical grasp of a language, if you don’t know the culture, you’re going to miss a lot. To put it the other way round: it’s a great “insider” feeling when you start to recognise the references.
Still the subject of depth of cultural understanding, “Japanese through onomatopeia” was a survey by Jennifer Geacone-Cruz of words based on the imitation of sounds found in nature.
Like “buzz” in English, some Japanese examples describe sounds: “goro-goro” is the purr of a Japanese cat. There are also many which convey states of being or movement (“noro-noro” is a “snail’s pace”). Others provide an indirect way of expressing feelings (in a culture which is very reserved about doing this explicitly). “Awa awa” is “to be confused” or “lose your bearings”, while “moya, moya” is akin to “wringing your hands” with worry.
In “An introduction to the Persion language through singing”, Renate Hefemann performed a well-known Iranian rock classic (Kourosh Yanghmaei’s “Gole Yakh”) on her acoustic guitar.
We were provided with the lyrics (plus Iranian sweets). We pulled the lyrics apart together, leaning things about the poetic power of Persian and, more prosaically, some basic nuts and bolts of how it works. It’s Indo-European, so distantly related to English.
Brian Loo Soon Hua’s provided an introduction to a rare language’s structure and sound in “Introduction to Warlpiri, an indigenous langauge from Australia’s Northern Territory”.
He also explained that there’s a tradition that the names of family members who have died are taboo, as are those of certain living relatives (your mother-in-law/son-in-law). The taboo extends to words that sound like those names. For example, if Mary has died, you may not be able to say “I’m getting married”. As a result, people would borrow the word for “to marry” from neighbouring tribes. This is not too difficult as multilingualism was traditionally widespread.
In the discussion afterwards, Loo was optimistic about the it’s prospects for survival. Young people in the towns still want to speak the language, even if they use something more like a “creole” of Warlpiri and English.
I asked the “survival” question to Kevin Fei Sun. On the one hand, Shanghainese does not have the prestige of being the language of educations. On the other, Shanghainese people traditionally look down on the rest of China. This superiority complex gives a certain prestige to the language. Awareness may be on the increase, too: Shanghainese is heard increasingly in some (albeit limited) public contexts (such as pre-recorded announcements on buses).
Two other talks looked at the fate of officially marginalised languages.
Irena Dahl and Timothy McKeon presented Wikitongues, a network of more than 400 people in 70 countries, dedicated to promoting linguistic diversity.
An important part of the project is uploading native-speaker personal story videos to the Wikitongues YouTube channel. It’s about creating a “cyber public sphere”, for endangered languages in particular.
Contacts made on-line have led to physical meetups. McKeon noted how the internet is playing a role integrating the scattered Irish-speaking community (there are now more speakers outside the Gealtachtaí than within).
Dahl played clips showing how the Sami in northern Scandinavia are taking to social media too, for example Slincraze’s rap.
With the help of Dave Prine and other academics from Tulane University, the present generation of the Tunica-Beloxi tribe of Louisiana are “Waking the sleeping language of Tunica”.
The language is an “isolate” (related to no other), which doesn’t make reconstruction process any easier! It is taking place only the basis only of written samples (the last native speaker died over sixty years ago and there are no usable recordings).
The revival is small-scale and includes some online resources. Summer camps have been held for learners. The plan is to expand them when work on a dictionary is complete.
As an aside on endangered forms of communication: is twitter on the way out? In the Berlin Gatherings, we were all encouraged to tweet and there was a twitter feed on a big screen in the foyer. This time, I head no official mention of the medium and I was one of only a handful of people using #PolyglotGathering and even fewer #PolygotGathering2018.
Those then, were the talks I attended. None of them misfired. The standard of presentation – and the content – was just what I’d hoped for. Outside the lecture halls there was the usual range of events: Cesco Reale and friends led “Polyglot Games” on Wednesday, before and after the official opening ceremony. Then came, on Thursday, came the “International Culinary Evening” and “Polyglot Karaoke”. There was a multilingual concert from Jonny-M on Friday and the “International Culture Evening” on Saturday.
Like last year, there was also a number of trips within and beyond Bratislava. There were held during, before and after the Gathering, though I didn’t take part in one this time (unlike last year).
Also like last year, there was an official welcome from Slovak and city politicians and university figures and we were also all given (much-appreciated) free transport on the city’s buses.
As usual, you’ll eventually be able to check out the talks I’ve mentioned, and most of the others, on the Gathering’s YouTube channel (they tend to take many months to appear – all the work is done by volunteers).
It’s not certain whether next year’s Gathering will be in Bratislava for a third time. In the closing ceremony, Poland then the Czech Republic were mentioned as potential alternative locations. Wherever it is, I hope to be there. Here’s my Gathering round-up in vlog form. If you were there, share how it was for you in the comments below.
For more on the Gathering: