Thanks to the choice of venue for this year’s Polyglot Conference (an international gathering of over 400 language learning enthusiasts), I finally got chance to pay a second visit to New York City. Here are some personal impressions from my own distinct route through this great metropolis and an overview of what went on at the Conference.
A Basque welcome: “ongi etorri New Yorkera!”
After five days visiting old friends in Chicago, I arrived in New York at the beginning of the week which finished with the Conference. Regular readers will know that I’m learning Basque and, as I planned my trip, the San Fermín Guest House in Harlem caught my eye. It’s owners Bernado and Maite were from Donostia (San Sebastian). Although they are not Basque speakers, it was great to find a personal Basque greeting chalked on the small blackboard by the door of my room when I arrived. Ongi etorri (welcome)!
I’m a slow starter on holiday but saw quite a lot during the several days I had before the Conference to explore the city.
I walked on the High Line (a “linear park” on a one and a half mile stretch of disused, raised railway), which I was excited to try after reading about it in the British media.
I then visited the main museum of modern American art, the Whitney, in its new Renzo Piano-designed building (opened March 2015) right at the southern end of the High Line in the, erm, functionally named Meatpacking District of the City.
Wondering around, you’re reminded constantly of the Dutch beginnings of a city originally called “New Amsterdam”; not only through the names of districts like Harlem, but also in many street names on Manhattan Island, such as Gansevoort Street, where I called into Gansevoort Market for a slice of pizza and some freshly squeezed organic juice. It reminded me a lot of Borough Market or Brixton Village here in London.
I turned up at the Guggenheim Museum on a Thursday, the one day a week it’s closed. Instead, I went to the nearby Neue Galerie, which houses a collection of early twentieth century German and Austrian art (think Klimt). The temporary exhibition there, including paintings, graphics, posters, cartoons, photos and film was “Berlin Metropolis” about that city during the innovative, energetic and ultimately doomed “Weimar period” between 1918 and 1933.
The Neue Galerie has an authentic-feeling Viennese-style café and a bilingual signage policy (I know I should have been concentrating on the art, not the labels, but I couldn’t help picking up some new period German vocabulary. How about trying der Bubikopf for size (the, short “bobbed” hairstyle, sported by your radical “Neue Frau” of the period))?
I also visited the Museum of Modern Art where, besides the incredibly rich permanent exhibitions, there was a temporary showing of Picasso sculptures.
Besides these gallery visits, a second focus of my pre-Conference days was landmark architecture: Grand Central Station, two famous art deco towers: the Chrysler Building and the Daily News Building (seen in the Superman films), the Empire State Building, the Flatiron Building, Times Square, the impressive reading rooms of the New York Public Library.
A third focus (and sorry for the pun this time) was searching for a new lightweight “prosumer” camera.
The large B&H photo, video and audio store at 420 Ninth Avenue was quite an experience. Aimed at professionals as much as the high street shopper, it has a massive amount of stock on display.
The store operates an antiquated system of multiple queuing: you look at the goods at the various “island” counters or on racks, order at one desk, take your chit to another desk to pay and then go to a third desk to collect the goods, all selected and bagged up down in the basement. It reminded me a bit of shopping in the late Soviet Union, where they had a three queue system, except that the system there was driven by abacuses not computers (and there wasn’t very much to buy)!
There were a quite a few bearded and Jewish men on the staff, some wearing kipot (skullcaps). I was served by one elderly guy who, on hearing my foreign accent, asked me where I was from and started talking about his own Central European background. I noticed several ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews among the customers with their distinctive black, wide-brimmed hats and hairstyle.
All this resonated a few days later at the Conference, when I heard Yakov Blum‘s talk “A Tale of Two Yiddishlands”. Blum explained that they key role of Haredi Jews in the survival and now expansion of Yiddish, which they have made the language central to their identity (rooted in the rejection of the “Jewish Enlightenment”). Blum then explored their interaction with secular “Yiddishists” (language revival enthusiasts, including non-Jews).
The day before the Conference, I left Harlem and moved down to the Ace Hotel on West 29th Street. This small chain of “boutique” hotels started in Seattle and has spread, via New York, to Shoreditch, an achingly hip part of London a few blocks from my workplace.
While the New York version had lots of quirky, fun features, it all seemed a bit too clever for its own good. It’s a quirky idea to screw a pencil sharpening mill to the desk, but it would have been nice if the room had been well enough lit to read and write and quiet enough to sleep in (wheezing vent duct outside). I’m not sure how the the very masculine collection of bathroom toiletries would go down with women guests. The Smeg fridges looked cool with its retro-styling, but the door was so heavy I would never install one in my kitchen. Bring back the naff minibar!
The Polyglot Conference itself took place on the second Saturday and Sunday of October in a theatre on West 23rd Street.
The organisers like the programme to have a real flavour of the location and last year, in Novy Sad, Serbia, there was a lot about the Balkan linguistic landscape as well as talks of general interest to the target audience of polyglots, would-be polyglots or simple enthusiastic language learners of one or two foreign languages.
This year too the programme was liberally seasoned with local spice. After all, local host Ellen Jovin’s blog is a celebration of the “Words and Worlds of New York“.
Linguistic diversity: the World in New York
The linguistic richness and diversity of New York’s ethno-linguistic landscape was on show right away as the Conference kicked off with a film, The Hyperglot (also shown at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin this year). As he moves through New York the protagonist (played by real-life polyglot Michael Levi Harris) gets through no small number of New York’s languages (most memorably Maltese) in little over fifteen minutes.
Richard Benton lives in Minnesota which is why, he jokingly explained, he knows Somali. His background is in Hebrew and Semitic studies and I know him from his blog which (alongside much else) reflects that engagement with Somalis, their language and culture.
The title of Benton’s talk “Learning Community Languages is a Social Responsibility” might have sounded a bit dutiful but was an inspiring, impassioned challenge to us not just to focus on the thrills we ourselves get out of learning languages but to think about how doing that can empower disempowered minority and migrant communities….a win-win situation where they are given dignity and you are enriched.
Daniel Kaufman of New York’s “Endangered Language Alliance” explained how, if you only start looking, speakers of endangered languages unexpectedly turn up among migrant communities. He had found a speaker of Ikota, a marginalised language in Gabon. Such speakers’ linguistic knowledge is a vital source as scholars race to document the languages.
Both Benton and Kaufman called on us to get stuck in: create your own materials if none are available; record native speakers; post youtube clips….
With talks running parallel in the two auditoriums, I inevitably missed some fascinating-sounding presentations due to clashes. Alexander Vera spoke on “Language Development and Cultural Identity in Third-Culture Kids” and Daniel Ferguson asked the question “African-American Vernacular English: Language, Dialect or Stigmatised English?”
I was also unable to attend the showing of the film Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi tells of how the Lakota community and linguists from outside of the community who are working together to save the Lakota language.
Sign language was another part of the diverse picture (it’s even one of the key plot-drivers in The Hyperglot) while Svetlana Kouznetsova spoke on “Quality Same-Language Captioning: Bringing Access to Both Deaf People and Foreigners”.
Thanks to a fund-raising effort in advance of the event, such captioning was in action at the Conference. I had never seen it in action before.
The language learning process
As you’d expect, there were a number of talks on learning languages.
The veteran American polyglot and radio host Barry Farber, author of the well-known book “How to learn any language“, was a star-turn, mesmerising the audience in a talk full of jokes and anecdotes stretching back to the 1950s.
His core message was “get in there and talk”. If you walk into a restaurant where your language is spoken and you can see eighteen free tables, still ask the maitre d’ (in your target) whether he has a free table. Oh, an learn vocabulary….and more vocabulary (Harry Lorayne’s memory techniques helped Farber get his language learning techniques “from the ox-cart to the jet”).
Vladimir Skultety told the story of his “Twenty Language Life”. He spoke five languages naturally by age thirteen, for a start: his native Slovak, Czech, Hungarian (pretty par for the course in his part of the world) and – thanks to the foresight of his parents – English and German. Later, once he’d learned Italian, Spanish was not too difficult, while Russian is relatively painless for native speakers of other Slavonic languages.
Skultety was frank about how hard he found his later engagement with Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese. He now interprets Chinese at a professional level, but he was frank about how difficult he’d found the language to master (and it sounded as if he’d been pretty close to giving up at various points along the way).
Talks I missed in this strand were Loraine Obler and Peggy Conner “Cognitive Underpinnings of Talented Language-Learning in Polyglots”, Taghreed Al-Sarah “The Anxious Language Learner: A Saudi Woman’s Story” and Michael Erard “A New Metaphor for Language Learning”.
Tim Doner‘s talk was an overview of Indo-European historical linguistics and he closed by stressing how historical linguistics can help us as learners by attuning us to patterns in structures and vocabulary across multiple languages.
Attention was also given to materials via a panel discussion with four well-known language publishers: Routledge, Teach Yourself, Assimil and Hippocrene books.
Their representatives were frank about the competition from apps, youtube, bloggers, a shift to experience based learning, “edutainment” and “augmented reality” and told us about how they were adapting, for example by blending print and on-line offerings. Routledge is putting all its Colloquials book series audio material on line for free and Hippocrene are developing interactive web material.
In some ways, though, print remains resilient. We learnt that the first Colloquial title: “Chinese” (1982) is still in print and remains one of their best-sellers.
Languages and careers
Benny Lewis gave a talk on “Professional Language Learner: How to Earn from Your Passion” which was entertaining and packed with useful tips for those wanting to find a job using languages or to start their own language related business.
For jobs, “being multilingual isn’t enough”. What other skills do you offer? Specialist translators are in short supply: if you already have a specialisation (engineering, law, medicine….) and speak languages “you’re a commodity”.
As an engineering graduate, Lewis got work as a technical translator via Proz.com and for several years, this was his main source of income.
Language teaching remains an opportune field.
You can also find ways to use languages while providing another service, either as an employee or through your own business. In Italy, Lewis did a stint as a youth hostel receptionist.
Social skills are essential to finding jobs. Keep your ears open. People who are lucky are actually very observant. In business: partner up, whether through affiliates or hiring people without your skills.
There was a panel discussion on “Polyglots at work” with Laurence Bouvard, Stefanie Trice Gill and Richard Simcott.
Bouvard is a linguistics and computer science graduate who then trained as an actress. She talked about what she has ended up doing: providing voiceovers in many languages for cartoons, video games and audiobooks. When voicing foreign characters in English, a convincing (and entertaining accent) depends on her ability to unpack the rhythms and phonetics of the characters supposed native language.
Gill began with a joke which would only work with an audience like this one: “I’m just a normal polyglot, not a hyperpolyglot. I speak five languages to an advanced level”.
She has helped hospitals to provide better multilingual services, to the benefit of immigrant communities in places such as New York’s borough of Queens (“the most linguistically diverse place in the USA”).
Like Benton, she challenged us to get involved in immigrant advocacy, to mutual benefit. She also had a down-to-earth piece of careers advice (echoed by Benny Lewis): not everyone is going to be able to pursue a career based purely on language but a great way forward is to combining languages with another field – in her case, social justice.
Simcott’s career has involved deliberate decisions on his part to get himself into positions where he can use his languages.
From work as in au pair in German reading aloud to children and fielding technical support questions in multiple languages in a call centre and via the British diplomatic service, he spoke of his pride in his current multilingual role in social media management (preventing online bullying and abuse, forestalling other problems for companies and those using their on-line forums) and in on-line community management (writing for brands, engaging and answering customer questions and on-line crisis management).
A chance to meet and mingle….and to shoot video.
A get-together like this one is not just about the talks, but a wonderful opportunity to catch up with friends and acquaintances and to make some new ones.
People organised various get-togethers through a participants’ Facebook Group.
A group of us met two days before the Conference at a German beer hall in Brooklyn. The following day there was a picnic in Central Park (missed that one). On the second day of the Conference, I joined fellow Add 1 Challengers for a picnic in Madison Square.
There were several events the day after the Conference: Ellen Jovin organised a book exchange and there was a “language safari” around the borough of Queens. I was sad no longer to be around for these, but I’d deliberately front-loaded my time in the US, to be back in London and over my jet-lag in time for Language Show Live (report coming soon).
The final piece of business at this year’s Conference was Richard Simcott’s announcement of the venue for next year’s event: Thessaloniki in Greece, 29-30 October 2016.
Later on that Sunday evening, many of us gathered until late twenty storeys up at a rooftop bar with spectacular views of the Empire State Building. Even then, it was not too late to meet some new people….and for me to practise some Russian, German and Portuguese.
I was busy between sessions talking to as many attendees as I could, with that new camera of mine set to video mode. It was an inspiration afterwards to replay clips of so many bright-eyed people sharing their love for language learning.
Among them was Thomas Leigh from Connecticut, who does a mean line in Celtic languages (always a big plus in my book). For me, he nailed the real appeal of the whole event and I hope he doesn’t mind that I’ve borrowed his some of his words in the title of this post: “all the talks and presentations are wonderful,” he said, “but really the big thing for me is having this chance once a year to be with my people.”.
Look out for Thomas and many other interviewees in three short films which I’ll have ready and up on howtogetluent.com and our YouTube channel soon.