This year the Polyglot Gathering took place in Bratislava for the third (and final time). If you saw the daily vlogs I made from the event (or my reviews and vids from previous years), you’ll need no introduction to this language lovers’ conference-cum-celebration. In the vlogs there are many brief shots from inside different talks but my main concern was to convey the atmosphere, to show the full range of activities and to give a voice to some of the participants. What about the substance of those of the 100+ presentations (in four tracks) that that I was able to attend? Below: my 2019 Polyglot Gathering takeaways review. From where I was sitting, three themes emerged. Plus some other interesting talks on method and motivation and what we could call some “wildcard” standouts. “Takeaways” vlog at the bottom of the post.
How to make the most of language exchanges
As always, many Gathering speakers focussed on language learning methods and this year there were two talks on language exchanges. Rick Dearman is a speaker who pulls something new and interesting out of the hat each year. His advice was based on the experience of doing over five hundred language exchanges in a mattar of months: once you’re through the getting to know you stage, you’ll run out of things to say, so make an effort to schedule topic you want to talk about. Prepare a little bit to get more out of it. Don’t be afraid to move on if you don’t click but look forward to the friendships that can develop if an exchange continues.
Rick hasn’t enjoyed language exchange apps. He felt they tended to slide towards dating. Sometimes, he said, it’s better to work with video turned off and use sites where people don’t have to show photo.
Tobias Dickmeis actually works for one of the apps: Tandem. This, he said, was carefully moderated to ensure appropriate behaviour. He suggested starting an exchange at an upper beginner level (A2 level). By that stage, you’ll be able to cope with fuller phrases and will be able to talk about the past (both really helpful when the aim is to converse!).
The brain, neuroscience and language learning
Talking of the brain, perspectives from neuroscience were a second theme for me this year.
Tim Keeley‘s talk “Multiple languages in one brain – examining the executive function” It was a detail-packed talk drawing on a wide range of the literature on types of memory (short term memory, working memory, long term memory) to remind us of a wide range of solid advice such as the desirability of “deep processing” to learn vocab (try and put the information in your own words, discuss it with somebody else, create mental imagery around something you want to learn…), the benefit of learning vocab in the context of a few words (a “chunk”) or a whole phrase. He also looked at how anxiety can effect the brain’s performance and confidence can boost it. Learners of multiple languages can prevent interference from different languages (for example by strongly identifying with a culture, imagining a particular native speaker is speaking “through you” and refining your pronunciation (so reducing the potential interference from words that sound similar in two languages).
Marta Nowakowska is a veterinary science doctoral student and a first-time Gathering speaker. She explained some of the neuroscience of speech by focussing on what happens to speech when things go wrong with different parts of the brain (“aphasia”). If Broca’s area is damaged, patients may speak “telegraphically” with individual (relevant) words but not in full phrases. If Wernicke’s areas is damaged, patients may produce fluent speech which, unbeknown to them) makes no sense. Research techniques for exploring language functions in the brain include “wada tests” (chemicals are injected which temporarily shut down parts of the brain), “dichotic listening” (different signals fed to both ears) and ultrasound scanners (“Doppler sonography”).
Indigenous and minority languages: how can we help?
Brian Loo has previously presented on individual endangered languages. This time he took a step back with an overview “Preserving indigenous languages: maintaining cultural diversity in an increasingly uniform world”. He pointed out the scary rate of loss of languages. The picture is not entirely hopeless. Some South American states recognise indigenous languages in their constitution and such recognition and wider legal status which can really help boost the pride and sense of worth of minoritised linguistic groups. Outsiders taking the step of learning the language can have a similar effect.
In “Hey, polyglots! Endangered languages need your help!” Dave Prine focussed in on the language revitalisation work done by linguists. You want to help? Well: “There are more languages out there than documentary linguists and so we need as many linguists as we can get”. Even if you don’t want to go the whole hog and train (like Dave) as a professional linguist, there are opportunities for those with “a good ear, great teaching skills, an understanding of linguistic patterns, or a simple desire to learn minority languages”.
Method and motivation in language learning
Katie Harris‘s talk was rooted in the research and packed with practical tips on how to learn by watching films and TV. Choose materials that you feel excited about and will draw you in, she said. I learned the difference between captions (in the language of the production) and subtitles (in a different language). If you want text on screen, switch to captions as soon as practical but don’t be afraid to use subtitles in the earliest stages.
A great advantage of recordings for listening practice is that you can pause and rewind. Listen as many times as you can to squeeze out as much info. You can start to decipher how the words are “smushed together” in connected speech. Try to get transcripts of your audio and video that you can then use to check your comprehension.
“Accents speak louder than words” quipped Ruben Adery at the end of his talk on how to improve your accent. He’s an English teacher and YouTuber who himself enjoys imitating accents. He suggested that we should lock on to typical errors in English made by, say a Spanish or Portuguese speaker, and transfer them back into our Spanish or Portuguese.
Judith Meyer was one of the founding organisers of the Polyglot Gathering back in its Berlin days and is still a regular speaker. She’s just published a series of books on how to learn foreign alphabets though what she calls “script hacking”. She used the Greek alphabet to the approach: add one letter at a time; over learn (don’t stop when you think you’e got it). Make full use of cognates (words familiar from a language you know, including international words like café or restaurant.
The title of Mariana Lisovska‘s talk was guaranteed to appeal to many of the inveterate language learners in our midst: How to motivate yourself to learn more languages. New to me. Be clear on why you are learning; log your progress; be aware of the ups and downs you’ll face. I was reassured that there was some overlap with my own talk, in which I too stressed the importance of habit and also of “keeping it relevant” (to your long- and short-term goals and to your level).
Our “self talk” is a key part of our attitude to language learning – self talk – inner script – Lina Vasquez took an NLP perspective and urged us to keep a watchful eye on our “inner script” and to “reframe our self talk”. “I need…. I must….”. Instead tell yourself “I get to do it….I’m good enough. I’m improving.” See challenges not problems ahead. “Words are the driving force behind everything that we do”. If we’re not kind to ourselves we’ll be less inclined to be kind to others, she said.
Anja Spilker is a Mexico-based German teacher whose method is to combine workouts with language learning. In “How physical activity increases your language learning success” she explained the thinking. Get moving! Increase the supply of oxygen to the brain! Everybody got moving a bit in the session, especially Dave and Marta, who gamely demoed some of Anja’s “moves” while chanting German nouns and their gender. In short: “burn and learn”!
Jokers in the pack
And finally, two highly entertaining talks (an no less information-packed for that).
Aleksander Medjedovic spoke last year on “Love in the mirror of languages”. This year he moved to, erm, frustration: “Don’t be offended: Insults, curses, swears…the ‘adult content’ that nobody knows but everybody learns in a foreign language” words in different languages. A Serb, who grew up in Germany and lives in Turkey, he had a lot of first-hand experience to draw on but he ranged more widely. He explored the reasons for insults (power plays, overreaction) and ranged across common themes. It’s not just, erm, intimate relations or religion (there are a lot around priests and nuns in Italy). Be careful in Turkey before you insult anybody’s football team and, in South America, the poor old donkey always gets it.
Finally, Stefano Suigo brought down a packed house with his talk on Italian hand gestures: “Dizionarietto dei gesti dell’italiano”. Maybe words are overrated, I caught myself thinking.
If I get over that thought by next year, where will I be for the 2020 Gathering? The high point of the closing ceremony was, as always, the announcement of next year’s venue. After three years in Berlin and three year’s in Bratislava, we all already knew that there would be a new location next year. Nobody expected the small Polish village of Teresin, 30 km from Warsaw.
The new venue is a hotel with conference facilities and there’s enough accommodation for everybody there or very nearby. Maybe it’ll be a return to live-in style of the first three Gatherings at the A&O Hotel in Berlin….except that the A&O Hotel had a maximum conference capacity of around 300 people. 600+ in Bratislava this year is the record to beat. I’ll be there….meeting, mingling, chatting, vlogging and – I hope – speaking once again. The dates are 26th to 30th May 2020. Maybe you’ll be able to make it too?