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Polyglot Gathering speakers reveal their insights from the event

How many languages do you have to speak to be a polyglot? Be careful with asking that, as you may cause a heated discussion! Number of languages used to be the only element of the definition of polyglottism, but there is a different angle that needs to be remembered.

Polyglots are people who simply can’t live without learning new languages, or engaging with the ones they know. To me it begs the question about the source of this passion, and where these individuals get their motivation from.

Like every group of passionate individuals polyglots too congregate online. In the recent years however, the community grew so strong that it transcended the online borders and started meeting in real life. Polyglot Gatherings are occasions to learn from each other during expert lectures, get inspired, and meet fellow language learners whom you might only have known from the internet.

The latest such gathering took place in Berlin, and it left me super-inspired to learn! It also made me curious about the lessons that the speakers brought back. Is there anything that surprised or amazed them? Could the event motivate them to learn even more languages? Read on, and find out that even those who made language learning into a profession sometimes need a motivational boost!

I asked the speakers to list one surprising fact they learned during the Gathering, and to reveal what the event has inspired them to do.

1. Luxembourgish was only recently considered it’s own language

Peter Carroll

Peter Carroll, Founder of RhinoSpike

One surprising fact I learned was that Luxembourgish was only recently considered it’s own language, and that most native speakers don’t learn to write in it, instead they write in German. The Gathering this year has really inspired me to more effort into RhinoSpike. It’s always been a side project, and while that won’t change, it deserves more of my attention than it has received lately. I want it to be one of the best resources available for language learners!

2. My Hungarian and Russian are better than I expected

Peter Carroll

Kris Broholm, Actual Fluency

My one surprising fact is that I’m not entirely useless in either Hungarian or Russian, even though I regularly beat myself up for the lack of effort I have put into these languages. I was able to take part in basic conversations in both languages and while I could definitely be further advanced at this point, the thought of having reached some kind of fundamental level a year or two after learning my first word in the language remains the most exciting and amazing part of language learning for me.

The gathering usually motivates me to simply study more, because it highlights where I’m currently at in my language skills.

I see the effect of the effort I’ve put in so far, and I immediately understand that if I want to achieve a higher level next year the work has to start now. Of course, the Gathering is merely a metaphor or excuse for what is truly important, namely to be able to speak to people and enjoy that language to the fullest. Being able to speak different languages with fellow learners once a year in a hostel in Berlin is just a casual and humorous mental way to stay on track.

As an aside, I’ve also become interested in learning how to speak Swedish and Norwegian. As a Dane I already more or less understand the languages, but I can’t say a word in them. After many Scandinavian conversations at the gathering I’ve decided to do a Scandinavian project, maybe going to Sweden/Norway for a few weeks in the future to see just: How hard can it be?

3. You can draw a human face with any expressons with two dots

Olly Richards

Olly Richards, I Will Teach You a Language

I learnt that you can draw a human face with any expression under the sun with two dots, and two lines (curved or straight). I guess you had to be in Malachi’s* talk to understand this! Each time I go to the gathering, I spend time with lots of time socialising with new people (something I don’t do so much in London). This time, I spoke a lot of certain languages I haven’t spoken for some time, especially French. This inspired me to think about what extra things I can do in London to meet more people and get more language practice in every week.

*Malachi Rempen is the creator of the Itchy Feet Comic

4. Language learning is a personal journey

Ivan Batishchev

Ivan Batishchev,
The surprising fact that I learned, or, I guess, inferred from speaking to the polyglots and language learners is the degree to which language learning is an individual and personalised journey. The polyglots don’t see languages and language-learning as a commoditised good. Instead, each learner’s personal journey and experience is as important as the ability to say “I speak x language”. Coupled with this attitude, is the insistence on continuous improvement.

Although the question of “what is fluency” comes up in the Polyglot Community often, language isn’t seen as something one has, and therefore can buy. Language is seen as a journey, and experience, and a continuous path to learning more about the world and self.

I was truly inspired by listening and talking to Malachi Rempen and Chris Huff, both of whom are doing webcomics about language learning. Chris in particular gave a talk about the concept of minimalism as applied to language learning. It is easy to see learning a language, or starting a creative project as a large and intimidating task. Seeing how the polyglot community takes on challenges — bit by bit, but with consistent determination. This kind of attitude makes real progress in a tough task actually achievable.

The Gathering has inspired me to take on more languages, and more learning challenges, but it has also inspired me to try my hand at new creative projects, like video content creation.

5. I will start using more body language

Alex Rawlings

Alex Rawlings, Rawlangs

I realised while watching Michael Levi Harris’s talk on acting that taking on new personalities and new identities had always been a huge draw for me when it came to learning languages. I’m going to start thinking a lot more about ways in which I speak and use body language when speaking foreign languages.

What is the best language to learn?

6. Next time I’m going to sing!

Dr. Jan Henrik Holst

Dr. Jan Henrik Holst, linguist from the University of Hamburg

One surprising fact that I learned was that among the hyperpolyglots (with e.g. fifteen languages or beyond), I might be the one from Germany and with a German citizenship that holds the record. We will still have to check this more thoroughly, however. There may be other German hyperpolyglots which simply have not taken up contact with the scene.

On the cultural evening, I had nothing to present. I’m now having a look at the Zulu song Ibhola Lethu that I like very much. Maybe I’m going to practice it and sing it next time.

7. Next year I will have a conversation in Russian

Jana Fadness

Jana Fadness, Adventures of the Directionally Challenged

This isn’t so much a surprising fact, but I was really impressed by Lydia Machova’s talk on how to teach a language, or rather help people learn a language. I have some experience as an ESL teacher, so this topic was very relevant to me, and I thought I would like to try implementing some of Lydia’s ideas if I get a chance to teach again.

Last year’s Gathering inspired me to learn German, which I was quite proud to have gotten up to conversational fluency this year. It was very encouraging to be able to have conversations with fellow participants in German, and by next year I hope to be able to do the same in Russian!

Russian is tough but I’ll try my best.

8. It’s possible to learn several language at the same time

Simon Ager

Simon Ager, Omniglot

One of the speakers talked about teaching several languages at the same time – up to 10 – and explained how she does this. I didn’t know that anybody did this, as most teachers recommend that you learn only one or two languages at the same time.

At Polyglot Gatherings I often learn about and hear languages that I think would be interesting to learn. This year, as last year, the language that most appealed to me was Finnish – I really like the way it sounds. I still haven’t got round to learning it though. I also think that I should try to improve my knowledge of the languages I don’t know so well. However, I also started to think about focus and how I’ve managed in the past to focus on one or two languages at a time, and I think I might try that over the next year or so.

How to self-learn a language: The complete guide

9.Sharing ideas is important

Fiel Sahir

Fiel Sahir, Between 3 Worlds

One surprising fact from the gathering: (Not really) My beliefs of the connections between Music and language learning were only strengthened and confirmed from being around everyone. One thing that really stuck with me was Alex Rawling’s talk on the “Need” principle.

The gathering has inspired me to keep developing my ideas and share them. Whether it be podcasts, guest posts, or speaking.

10. No surprises!

Vladimir Skultety

Vladimir Skultety,

It was not surprising at all that the Gathering was a great event! It motivated me to work more on my youtube channel and blog.

11.People in Luxembourg learn in four languages!

Lindsay Dow

Lindsay Dow,

It’s tough to pick just one! But I would have to go with the fact that everyone in Luxembourg has an education in four languages across the years. Incredible! I knew it was a multilingual country but that’s remarkable.

The Gathering has actually inspired me to learn multiple languages simultaneously – partly inspired by Elisa’s talk about learning and teaching multiple languages in one course and partly by all of the amazing stuff about Indonesian, which is just one of many Asian languages I’d like to get a basic grasp in.

Connecting with a group of people with similar interests can be a huge motivator. Have you heard of Online Language Learners Guild? If you haven’t joined it yet, check it out and learn how to become a polyglot yourself!

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