When you put three hundred language enthusiasts from all over the world in a box and shake it up for four days you’re bound to get some good ideas about how to learn a foreign language. That’s what happened at the second Polyglot Gathering (Berlin, May 2015). In this post I want to give you a taste of the event and pass on some top polyglots’ language learning tips. Let’s dive in!
The “box” was the same as last year: a hostel a few blocks north-west of Berlin’s main station, in a quiet part of the city, the lilac bushes and cherry trees in full bloom. As lead organiser Judith Meyer noted in her opening address, the numbers of participants had grown: 231 from 35 countries in 2014 and 344 from 52 countries in 2015.
The format was familiar from last year. Then there were 55 scheduled talks and workshops. This time, again over a four-day period, there were 78. They were grouped as “about language”, “about learning” and “life as a polyglot”. Other activities included slots for five-minute “lightening” talks (anyone could sign up at short notice to speak), a tea room, a room for socialising in different languages (the “Aligatorejo”) a cultural evening and an international food evening (both consisting entirely of contributions from participants).
I attended as many talks and workshops as I could and left buzzing and full of inspiration.
Five themes emerged for me.
1) Goal setting and consistent action
Benny “Fluent in three months” Lewis (minus the trademark hat and goggles) spoke about how he built up his hugely popular language learning site. He set out with the deliberate goal of reaching a large audience. With that clear, he applied his engineer’s mindset: trying things out and building on what seemed to work. Lewis said that too many language learners just set out with vague aims such as “to learn Spanish”. They would do much better with a more focussed target such as “to read a book in Spanish in six months’ time”.
Clear and sufficiently precise goals are important but how do you take consistent action towards them? In his talk on “Habits Mastery”, Polish language coach Michal Grzeskowiak reminded us that a habit is automatic and, as such, it reduces the drain on our limited daily supply of willpower. That’s why Mark Zuckerberg reputedly wears the same type of t-shirt every day and Barack Obama always wears a blue suit. To embed a new habit, said Grzeskowiak, you need a trigger. So, leave your headphones by the door as a cue to put on an audio book in your language every time you go out. Give yourself little rewards until a new habit sticks and the activity itself becomes the reward. Take the long view: imagine the daily practice of good habits as drops of water filling a bucket.
Add1Challenge founder Brian Kwong stressed the importance of a supportive environment and the need to make a public commitment to “utilise the power of your word” reach your goals. It was ok to start small, you could then build up over time.
Keeping going is the most important on the road to fluency. Don’t be afraid to modify your habits – even moderating your commitment. I’ve reduced my study time in my third Add1Challenge from one hour a day, five days a week, to thirty minutes. I did not want to risk overwhelm during a busy time and the demotivation of of breaking my regular Basque study and conversation practice habits altogether.
2) The body….and the mind
The Gathering opened with an entertaining short film The Hyperglot written by – and starring – the young American (now London-based) actor (and accomplished language learner) Michael Levi Harris.
Harris’s talk, “The Craft of the Hyperglot: an Actor’s Approach to Language Learning”, stressed the importance of physical voice. The joy, for Levi Harris, was speaking. He would rather learn to pronounce a language well than be a whizz at vocab or grammar. As a language learner, see yourself as a stage actor, not a film actor, he said. Project your voice. Over-articulate at first. You have to “over do it a bunch of times” until you’ve overcome your ego, the fear of giving offence, the sub-conscious resistance to making strange sounds. “Make the connections with the sounds”, practise until you “own the language”. Then your audience will believe you. You will “get on stage and just do it”.
The translator and interpreter Vladimir Skultety was saying something similar in his talk on “Sounding Native”. Accent plays a central role and a good way of practising is to “send your jaw to the gym”: develop the habit of reading out loud in your target language for thirty minutes.
Getting physical with sound is one way of getting out of your own way, but nobody was denying the wonderful interplay of mind and body when you’re successfully learning languages.
Michal Grzeskowiak saw mind-set as all important in building up habits. We should envision obstacles and how to deal with them, not just our desired success. Such “double thinking” is more effective than “positive thinking” because obstacles always come up. Life gets in the way!
The power of imagination was stressed by Antonio Libertino, an Italian teacher and author of several books on language learning. In his talk, “Language learning and guided imagery”, he mentioned research in neuromuscular programming and “perceptual learning” which suggests that to “prime the mind” thinking about something over an over again can be as good as doing it. It’s obvious that thinking about getting fluent can’t replace the practical learning process, but we should take time to imagine ourselves as successful speakers NOW.
Imagination helps in the vocabulary learning process too. In the discussion following Libertino’s talk, Claudio Santori, creator of the language learning app BliuBliu, stressed we should imagine the whole picture. Not just “the train is late”, for example, but the frustration we feel as we wait on the station platform. The sounds. The smells.
3) Language, identity and the self
The Helsinki based Roumanian-Canadain language coach Irina Pravet put a nice new twist on the old adage that when we learn a new language we gain a new personality: “we are who we are, no matter what language we speak, but different languages are windows offering a different view into our true selves”, she said.
Tim Keeley is an American and professor of cross-cultural management at Kyushu Sangyo University in Japan (where he teaches mainly in Japanese and Chinese). His research suggests that self identity is more important than age or ability in learning success. The more intensely you identify with the new culture, the easier learning will become and the better you’ll retain a language over many years.
You have to construct a new identity in your new language, said Keeley. This does not mean creating “false” identities. The professor saw it more as building strong walls in multiple rooms in your inner “house”. A strong core identity allows you to take on a new linguistic and cultural identity safely. Related is self-confidence. People who are not afraid to say what they want, who don’t correct their own mistakes at the cost of their fluency, are more likely to succeed.
Vladimir Skultety also mentioned the importance of identification to sounding native: you need a dialect. Imitate a specific native speaker who is similar to you terms of generation, gender and level of education.
Identity should also be a guide to which habits to develop, said Michal Grzeskowiak. If you exercise “in order to get slim”, you’ll be tempted to give up once you’ve achieved the goal. Instead, develop the habit because you want to become “the sort of person who never misses trainings….” or “…who lives my target language every day”.
4) Overcoming English
How to avoid what Adriano Murelli called the “monotony of English” was a theme for several speakers.
Conor Clyne, the “Language Tsar” ( self crowned 😉 ) spoke on “How to overcome locals replying in English”. It was a polished performance; a great balance between researched points and personal anecdotes.
When Clyne was learning Dutch, the best solution was to find a café where people were willing to speak the language. He ended up spending an hour there three or four times a week. Yet, while many incentives for others to want free English lessons from you, remember it’s not all about you either. If you want to build deeper relationships long-term, there may need to be linguistic give and take.
Clyne pointed out – and some in the audience shared their similar experiences – that the readiness of people in your host country switch to English partly depends on whether they’re used to coming across non-native speakers of the language. If few people want to learn it, they won’t know how to deal with you (and their ears really will be less attuned to deciphering your attempts). They may switch to English almost as an unconscious reflex or in a deliberate attempt to help. It’s not always an implied criticism of your abilities.
In his presentation, “Life as an English speaker learning languages”, English polyglot Richard Simcott explained the choice of language etiquette that he tries to apply. In England, he doesn’t switch into a foreigner’s language, even if he could (which, in Simcott’s case, is pretty likely!). Instead, he speaks English slowly for them. Abroad, in contrast, he does not feel obliged to speak English. It’s a very simple rule: speak the language of the country you’re in!
5) The nature of the beast or what is a Polyglot?
Richard Simcott also contrasted “polyglot” with “multilingual”. A multilingual person has “picked up” languages from the environment. So, in Luxembourg, as in India and many African countries, or in Macedonia, where he lives, many people are able to switch between multiple languages. It’s the social norm. Scratch the surface, though, and you find that they are not equally good in all of them. Fluency tends to be functional and often limited to certain domains in each language (one language in the market place, another with grandmother, another for dealing with officialdom and so on).
Simcott argued for a redefinition “polyglot” by focussing on a process: a polyglot as someone who deliberately, but for no apparent reason, learns multiple languages. So, you can be a “multilingual polyglot” or even a “mere” bilingual one.
I myself doubt whether you can (or should) completely divorce the term “polyglot” from the idea of speaking multiple languages, but Simcott’s line was welcome to the target audience. Last year I was nervous about attending the event because I “only” speak four foreign languages at an advanced level. I’ve spoken to several others who are find the label “polyglot” at best unhelpful, at least in branding events such as the Gathering.
Sylvain Lelarge is an accomplished French teacher who lives in the Netherlands and wears a trademark hessian beret. His talk “Cueiller les mots” (“Word picking”) was a hilarious romp through excruciating examples of “cleverness” on French shop and other public signage. The worst offenders turned out to be “les coiffeurs” (hairdressers) who are “rois des mauvais jeux de mots” with business names such as “Je retourne chez ma m’Hair”, “Adult’hair” and “RyanHair”.
Another gifted teacher is the Brazilian Jimmy Mello who – having changed into his trademark red shirt and skinny black tie – gave a demo Portuguese lesson using his own system, the “Mello method”, which involves the teacher guiding the student through the language by way of pre-planned questions and answers (six books of them in the Portuguese course).
Simon Ager of the on-line language encyclopedia Omniglot.com gave a fascinating talk on “The History of Writing”. It was meticulously researched and delivered with a wry sense of humour. I discovered that there are Hungarian runes and “As the ox turns” writing systems (where you snake from left to right then turn back and forth down the page, rather like a beast of burden ploughing a field).
Another standout for me was Lýdia Machová’s “The Pleasures and Pains of Working as a Conference Interpreter”, to which I will return in a separate post. Machová also ran a workshop “Consecutive and Simultaneous Interpreting Exercises for Beginners”. I still haven’t forgiven myself for mixing up the timing and missing it.
My own talk “A Polyglot’s Prism – Colours in Languages” was hugely stimulating to prepare and a pleasure to give. It was well attended and there was lively discussion afterwards….but will I ever recover from the embarrassment of getting the gender of the French, “la pomme”, incorrect on one of my slides? 😳
I really enjoyed seeing people whom I’d met at last year’s Gathering, at the Polyglot Conference in Serbia in October last year, or at the smaller, two-day “Polyglot Workshop” run by Meyer, Simcott and Alex Rawlings in Berlin in March. It was great, too, to meet up off-site for lunch with Brian Kwong and fellow participants of the Add1Challenge.
The social dynamic of the first Polyglot Gathering was bit like those heady first days and weeks at college: people hanging out in large groups open to all, every stranger approachable. This year, for Gathering returners, it was a bit like when you’re after the Christmas vacation; acquaintances are already formed, there people to catch up with (and absences to regret).
Yet language learners are by definition generally a pretty open and communicative bunch. This was no cliquey closed shop. Many people were attending for the first time and there was plenty of opportunity to meet new people. For me, staying at the venue helps on the social side. As does sharing meals in the canteen, basic though they are and noisy though it is. I made a point of eating there as much as possible and of sometimes going to sit with people I didn’t already know. I had some unexpected, rich conversations as a result.
At mealtimes, between sessions and at the evening events, I used my German, Welsh, Russian and French. Thanks to Andrea for the conversations in (basic) Hungarian with Andrea and to Maria for the chance to use a little Basque.
Where from here?
The next Polyglot Gathering is pencilled in for 5-8th May 2016 [Update: for my review of the Gathering 2016, head here]. There has already been some debate – encouraged by the organisers – about the location. I think Berlin and the venue would be hard to beat for overall value and communal experience and a three-in-a-row “hat trick” has a certain symmetry.
Events like these are very new and nobody can see whether they’re here to stay. Will we run out of speakers and topics? Will the organisers have the time and energy to do all the work (much of it voluntary) which putting on an event like this entails? To judge by similar events around other passions, the Gathering has the potential to become a permanent fixture in the language enthusiast’s calendar. If the format stays the same, some may lose interest. Others will love it because of its very familiarity and for the feeling of community.
I find myself comparing the Gathering to the National Eisteddfod (the annual week-long summer festival of Welsh culture). It has evolved over time in significant ways, but it basically feels the same every year. It’s a winning formula for those who like it. The main attraction may not even be the music, literature, drama and art, but the reaffirmation and energy that comes from experiencing a minority culture becoming majoritarian, normal. Even if only for a few short days.
At the Polyglot Gathering the attraction is the chance to luxuriate in the gratuitous use of languages you’re learning, whether one or twenty. With loads of interesting people. Just for the love of it. Just like everybody else.