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After the Polyglot Gathering

Dear Polyglot Gathering Organizers and Participants,

I have a problem, and it’s all your fault.

You see, before I decided to join the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin this year, I thought I finally had my life all figured out. I had immersed myself in making music, and it felt so right that I was sure I had found my “one true calling”. Finally, I thought, I could stop this confusing lifestyle of endless wandering and indecisiveness, and dedicate myself to one thing like normal people do. But oh no, you had to come along and tempt me by scheduling your gathering of language geeks right when I happened to have my spring vacation. How could I not go? I even had some frequent flyer miles saved up.

And since I was going to Berlin, of course I had to learn some German. It had been quite a while since I’d seriously studied a language and I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d be into it, but after going through a few online lessons I was surprised to find myself hooked. Soon I had bought textbooks and was spending all my spare time studying German, my musical instruments forgotten and gathering dust in their lonely corner of my apartment.

A couple months later, I was there in Berlin. The Gathering was a great experience. I met several people whose names and faces I’d been seeing online for years, and I was surprised and flattered that several people recognized me as well. (I honestly thought my name had long fallen into obscurity in the language learning sphere.) I have to admit it was a bit tiring sometimes, with people attempting to converse with me in just about every language I’ve ever studied, but it was very motivating and inspiring. It was also incredibly freeing to be surrounded by people who actually think learning languages for fun is “normal”. In normal circumstances, it’s very rare to be able to discuss my unusual hobby without getting blank looks or furrowed eyebrows in return! And the speakers were just… wow. I was blown away by the vast knowledge some of these people had about so many different languages.

I didn’t have time to actually see much of Berlin while I was there, but the little I did see was enough to remind me of one thing: I can still get a great thrill out of exploring new places. And I mean not just being a tourist, but really exploring– you know, in my own directionally challenged way. Like having to find another place to stay at the last minute and booking a hotel room online only to discover said hotel is actually located in the boonies somewhere outside Berlin, which you don’t realize until you’ve ridden on a train for two hours and used your elementary German to attempt to piece together a stilted but surprisingly functional conversation with an elderly woman at a tiny provincial train station. (Yes, that actually happened to me.) On one hand I’m kind of embarrassed to be so directionally challenged as to bring about incidents like this, but on the other hand, human connections like the one I had with that elderly woman are what I love the most about language learning and traveling. I never could have communicated with that woman if I hadn’t learned some German and gotten stranded at a random train station in Germany, and somehow that thought is thrilling to me.

Not long after returning from Berlin (where I wished I could have stayed longer), I had a thought that had never occurred to me before. It was about the first time I came to Japan when I was 19, my first time outside the United States. For years I had looked fondly back on the memories of those first two months I spent in Japan, and the deep feeling of contentment and vitality I felt during that time, as a sign that Japan was my true home, the place I was really meant to be. But what if it wasn’t? What if I felt that way not because I was in Japan per se, but simply because I was in a new place experiencing new things? What if my home is not a place at all, but a lifestyle? What if I will always have a need for change and am not meant to settle down anywhere?

Looking back on my life, there seem to be a lot of signs pointing to this. I’ve always been very restless, always eager to get away and explore new places. I have been content living in Japan for up to two years at a time, but after a while it seems I start to feel restless even here. And if I think back on the times when I’ve felt most alive, on my most vivid memories, they are the times I was actually out experiencing new places: Setting off fireworks on a summer’s day in rural Japan, eating pancakes and drinking tea in Russia, dodging a persistent candy seller on the streets of Beijing, letting myself get soaked in a warm Taiwanese downpour, being served wine and cheese by a friendly French couple, driving a snowmobile through the Norwegian countryside… and on and on. I have a particularly vivid memory from that Norwegian snowmobile ride, during which I thought, “I never want to stop doing things like this, ever.”

And yet, just over a year ago now, I moved back to Japan thinking I would “settle down”. Thinking I was tired of wandering, and I wanted to focus on making music, and it would be nice to be able to keep more things than can fit in a suitcase. But maybe all I really needed was a break. Maybe I really can’t settle down anywhere, not even in Japan.

Now, I’m not saying I’m going to give up music, or that I’m going to dedicate myself to learning languages again, or that I’m going to become a nomad living out of a suitcase again. I’m not saying I’m not going to do any of those things either, because the only thing I can be sure of when it comes to my life is that I’m not sure of anything.

Considering I’ve always been like this, you’d think by now I’d have learned to embrace that fact that I’m not sure, and I thrive on change and even uncertainty, and that’s okay. But it seems like every year or two (or even more often) I go into this big personal crisis in which I realize I’m not happy with my life as it is and it needs to change somehow, but I don’t know how, and it feels like a Big Huge Decision. No one is pressuring me to make the Big Huge Decision but myself, yet somehow I manage to put myself under an immense amount of pressure. I guess I take myself too seriously.

Of course, I can’t really blame any of this on the Polyglot Gathering (honestly, I kind of just wanted to write something sensational to get your attention). I probably would have started feeling this way sooner or later anyway, because this is just who I am.

So really, I want to thank the organizers and participants of the Polyglot Gathering for inspiring me, reminding me of one of the things I love in life, and helping me to realize that I do still love it. And that is kind of confusing, but that’s okay. I’m working on embracing the uncertainty.

At times like this, when I think and think and can’t seem to reach any sort of conclusion, I find it’s best to stop thinking and just start doing something, anything. So I think I’ll go back to studying German now. 🙂

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Lorrie Fadness

    My nomad child. I love you the way you are.

  • Philip Newton

    > “It was also incredibly freeing to be surrounded by
    people who actually think learning languages for fun is “normal”. In
    normal circumstances, it’s very rare to be able to discuss my unusual
    hobby without getting blank looks or furrowed eyebrows in return!”

    Yes, I think this is one of the great things about such a Gathering (and one that you can’t replicate by watching the talks on video later, for example).

    it really is a special feeling to know that people share your passion for languages, that you don’t have to stop yourself short at explaining the various cases of Hungarian or the way in which Navajo nouns get built up.

    > “So I think I’ll go back to studying German now. ”

    Let me know if you would like any help with German, or if you have any questions 🙂

    And good luck on your continuing life journey, whether or not there’s a Big Decision in your near future.

    I got to know you only briefly but you seem like a lovely person and I wish you much happiness.

    • Thank you Philip! You seem like a lovely person too, and it was a pleasure to meet you. 🙂

  • Loved reading your blogpost, Jana! Your comment: “And since I was going to Berlin, of course I had to learn some German,” definitely clicked with me. Travel and contact with native speakers have been language learning motivators for me too. I’ve not yet been to a Polyglot Gathering, but I’m hoping to go to the Polyglot Conference in New York in the fall. Looking forward to see what language learning inspiration will hit me there. Being a language geek has always been normal for me, I’ve never had a choice, but it’s always very exciting to be with people who think the same. Have fun with German and I envy you your nomadic life and experiences in Japan. All the best!

    • Thank you! Yes, being around people who “got” the whole language nerd thing was definitely one of the best parts of it for me! I won’t be able to attend the conference in New York unfortunately, but I’m sure it will be great!

  • Estevão Damacena

    Heei Jana! I am Estevão and right now I am doing a challenge thing that is to learn two languages at the same time: French and Spanish. I was watching some videos of you on youtube. your voice is so cute and sweet.I am kinda hooked in it! haha
    I jumped here on your blog to try to be aware in what’s going with you and of course let you inspire me through of your experiences in language acquisition!

    when you said that human connections inspire you at most I felt myself contemplated because I think by the same way. My passion in this life is to meet new people and the best tool to achieve that is through of langauges! That’s why I am always down to hold long conversations with people and learn from them!

    Keep yourself going in this journey, Jana

    • Hello, thanks for your comment! Yes I am definitely driven to learn about people, but also more broadly to understand their cultures, which I find really fascinating. The best of luck to you with French and Spanish!