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Reflections on the 2016 Polyglot Gathering

At the beginning of this month, I traveled to Berlin, Germany to participate in the 2016 Polyglot Gathering. It was the third year of the Gathering, and my second year being a part of it.

image1For those of you who don’t know, the Polyglot Gathering (along with its more formal predecessor, the Polyglot Conference) is the physical manifestation of an online community of people around the world who have learned or are interested in learning multiple languages. The people in this community are a diverse group, but the main thing most of us seem to have in common is that we have found ways to learn languages on our own outside of school. Most of us also seem to learn languages not for the sake of career prospects or any other conventional practical reason, but more simply because we find intrinsic value in the learning itself. And many of us are downright addicted to language learning. From the point of view of the majority of people, all of these things make us seem pretty strange. We know this, and we know most people can’t understand us and our unusual hobby. But thanks to the Internet, we have found each other.

I have been a part of the online polyglot movement for a long time, ever since I decided to teach myself Japanese and found the “How to Learn Any Language” forum. I was mostly a passive lurker devouring the treasure trove of language learning tips imparted by older and wiser forum members, though I did occasionally reach out and share a thought or ask a question. A few years later I started blogging, wrote a few posts about language learning, and even posted YouTube videos of myself attempting to speak various languages (though I have since taken down those videos due to embarrassment, I must admit).

I never imagined that one day I would actually meet many of the fellow language addicts I’d interacted with online in person, but a few years ago some of the more prominent members of the community decided to organize a formal in-person event, and thus the Polyglot Conference was born. Polyglots apparently loved this event so much that they started another, longer event called the Polyglot Gathering, and starting this year there is to be yet another event called the North American Polyglot Symposium. We aren’t just a quirky niche of the Internet anymore, but an actual physical movement. And it feels really cool to be a part of it.

I can’t say much about the more formal Polyglot Conference since I’ve never been able to attend it yet, but I can certainly share some thoughts about the Polyglot Gathering. This four-day event has been held in Berlin, Germany towards the beginning of May for three years in a row, and although there has been talk about possibly having it in a different location, it seems likely it will remain in Berlin in coming years as well. The venue is a hostel in which the organizers rent out a couple floors of rooms, so most of the participants sleep and eat their meals at the venue, creating a rather intense communal atmosphere. Throughout each day there are lectures on a variety of language related topics given by volunteers from the community. Since anyone can sign up to give a lecture, the lectures can honestly be a bit hit and miss in terms of quality, but both years I found several of the lectures extremely informative and engaging. The downtime between lectures is mostly spent socializing with other participants. You can bet people will try to talk to you in every language you’ve ever studied, so it can be a bit difficult switching between languages, but it’s good practice and a lot of fun!

Although it’s hard to sum up all the things I love about it, personally I would say I’ve gotten two major benefits from attending this event:

  • Validation that it’s not so weird to love learning languages, and there are people who get it. (At least 350 of them.) Growing up in a small town in the United States where virtually everyone around me was monolingual and seemed content to stay that way, I always felt like a bit of a weirdo being so into languages, and was even a little embarrassed to tell people that I often spent my spare time reading ahead in my high school French textbook. But the fact is that even though we are a minority of the population as a whole, we are at least a significant minority. And once a year we can get together at a hostel in Berlin and make ourselves feel better by preaching to our own choir about why learning languages is actually pretty great. Although I really enjoy listening to the lectures and have gotten some great ideas from them, for me attending this event has been more about meeting like-minded people than anything else. I think a lot of other participants feel the same way.
  • Motivation to keep learning more languages! The first year I attended the Gathering, I barely knew any German. I had started learning some about three months before and thus knew enough “survival German” to somehow stumble my way out if I happened to get lost in a random Berlin suburb (which I did, go figure!), but certainly not enough to have a normal conversation, much less follow the few lectures given in German at the Gathering. And I found myself feeling almost ashamed to find that not only did the majority of attendees seem to know German, but that many of them also had a significantly larger number of languages written on their name tags. And I know I’m not alone in this– it seems to be a common phenomenon at these events for attendees to suddenly feel embarrassed that some people know more languages than they do. By the end of the event, they’re going around looking sheepish and mumbling, “Oh, I’m not really a polyglot– I only speak five languages!” But for me, at least, this embarrassment became a strong motivation to learn German in time for the following year. Back home in Tokyo, I bought a textbook, found a tutor, and began studying almost every day. And by this year’s Gathering I could indeed speak German– not perfectly of course, but enough to be able to follow German lectures and be comfortable conversing in the language. The great thing is that this achievement adds yet another layer of motivation, because I have once again proven to myself that I can learn a language. I’m having a little more difficulty with Russian, which I’m working on at the moment, but I still know I can do it!

It’s really exciting to see this movement, which has existed only over the Internet for so long, showing itself more and more in the so-called “real world”. We polyglots are still not understood by the majority of people, who still don’t believe anyone can just teach themselves a language– much less multiple languages. And even if you could teach yourself a language, the skeptics ask, why bother when you can just speak English? But those of us who have learned another language know how rewarding it is to be able to converse with someone in their native tongue. We have seen how their faces light up and their countenances change when they realize we are able to connect with this intrinsic part of them, and with us they can express their full selves. Even if you speak the language quite poorly, it can be enough to make that connection happen, and there’s something very powerful about it. We polyglots intrinsically know there is value in it, which is why I think we may sometimes have difficulty articulating to skeptics why exactly they should learn another language– to us it seems obvious on an instinctual level that foregoes the need for explanation. But by interacting and having dialogue with each other at events like the Polyglot Gathering, I think we are beginning to find ways to articulate that “why”. I think the world could really benefit from that, and that’s what’s most exciting of all.

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  • Philip Newton

    I think it’s pretty awesome that you managed to get your German up to a level you felt comfortable with conversing with other people in the space of a year!

    I like to chuckle at the various language communities all of whom are convinced that their language is the most difficult language on Earth, but I’m glad I learned German the easy way… I think especially adjective inflections seem a tough thing to master if you have to learn it later on in life. (Though fortunately one will nearly always be understood even if you get the ending wrong.)

    And your last paragraph made me think of arranging private accommodation for an upcoming trip to Slovakia – though the accommodation was posted on a world-wide site, when I made my inquiries in Slovak, one of the hosts said they were glad I had contacted them in their own language, so I don’t know whether that would even have worked in English.

    • I don’t mean to imply I’ve totally mastered it, but honestly German grammar seems downright simple compared to Russian grammar! I’ve actually studied Russian for a much longer time than German, but still don’t feel comfortable conversing in Russian. ^^; It’s all relative.

      That’s a great example of the benefits you can get from knowing another language! I hope you have a nice trip to Slovakia. 🙂

      • Philip Newton

        Thank you!

  • Romy

    A really nice read! I particularly love the line ‘to us it seems obvious on an instinctual level that foregoes the need for explanation’, this is so true!!
    Also, you shouldn’t be embarrassed at all about your previous youtube videos, it was lovely hearing you speak other languages at various levels, and to see you on your journey for each!

    • Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the article! I’m glad you liked my videos as well, and a few people have written to me asking me to put them back up again, but to be honest I’ve never felt comfortable on video and I’m just not sure if it’s a medium for me. I’m really more of a writer… Maybe someday I will try making videos again, but I would have to think about how to do it in a way I can live with leaving up for posterity. ^^;

      Thanks for the German resource suggestion as well! I’ll check it out. 🙂

      • Romy

        ah ok, well in that case, please dont feel under pressure haha, you’re writing is also enjoyable lol!
        No problems! I have loads of German resources (novels, TV etc), so don’t hesitate to ask if u need any! 🙂

  • SEA monster

    Hi there,

    can we hear some updates on your current adventures (we’ve been owed), please? Not that the accounts of the Berlin gathering would be boring, but still – Tbilisi, Georgia sounds much more interesting.

    I’ve been trying to think of some counter-group to your polyglot brotherhood to keep the world in balance. Esperanto geeks might fit the bill, methinks, since they are after the opposite idea. I would like to see a paintball fight between you two. You could organize it the next time you meet and post some footage online. That would be a hilarious attention grabber 🙂

    Stay safe!


    • Philip Newton

      Quite a number of polyglots know Esperanto, so the two groups are not as distinct as you seem to make them 🙂

    • Yes don’t worry, I intend to write about Georgia next. 🙂 The Polyglot Gathering just came before that, and it was part of my adventures too!

      And Philip is absolutely right– a lot of polyglots are Esperantists, and vice-versa. I guess I can see why you might think Esperantists could have something against polyglottism, but the truth is quite the opposite! Then again, Esperantists did end up getting pitted against non-Esperantists for one of the games we played at the Gathering, but that was all in good sport. 😛