Polyglot Gathering Report Day 1

polyglot gathering berlin 2014Yesterday saw day 1 of the first Polyglot Gathering in Berlin. #polyglotber

It was fantastic to meet so many people who are passionate about language learning, and I also had the opportunity to meet lots of people who I've previously only known online.

There was a big range of people, from those who speak a couple of languages, to those who know significantly more…!

It's fascinating how you can get to know someone from their online personality and then when you meet them in the flesh you feel like you already know them. Richard Simcott, Benny Lewis, David Mansaray… to name but a few!

I also met lots of readers of this blog, and I was really happy to finally put some names to faces and meet some of the people who have interacted with me on my blog posts and videos.

Lots of people asked me about my upcoming move to Cairo and mission to learn Arabic, which has given me renewed motivation!

The sessions

After an entertaining opening address to the conference from organiser Judith Meyer, I kicked off the whole event with my introduction to Cantonese, which saw 50-60 people crammed into a small room.

The talk was great fun, and I gave an overview of the history and geographical reach of the language, a comparison with Mandarin, and they gave everyone some practice of the 6 tones of Cantonese and a few lines in Cantonese that they could use with others in the conference.

After wrapping up the talk, I headed off to watch some of the other great speakers who featured during the rest of the day.

Here are some summaries of the main takeaways for me from their talks.

Jan Van Der Aajan van der aa


How Learning Chinese Can Be Fun

Whist his classmates in China were busy studying and preparing for tests, Jan headed out onto the street.

A Chinese girlfriend, haircut and a foot massage were his recipe for speaking with people in a natural way and getting lots of practice.

“Learning tones comes as a result of repeated exposure to words and phrases through speaking,” he says. Importantly, this is language in context and what we shouldn't be doing is learning words in isolation. This is why speaking from the start is so important.

The same goes for Chinese characters – by going out and meeting people you can later get in touch with them by text and email – this way you can learn only the words that you need, and in a natural way.

Ellen Jovin


Polyglottery at Work: Beyond Translation and Teaching

polyglot gathering berlin

“I'd rather drink a milkshake made of gunpowder and malaria than teach languages.”

This is what a student of Ellen's told here recently.

It's true – translation, teaching and interpreting are not for everyone.

So if you happen speak 10 languages – now what?

Do you try to make a living from language learning, or should you treat it as a hobby and try to get by in other ways?

Potential earning opportunities for polyglots.

Polyglots looking for gainful employment need:

  1. Language skills
  2. Social skills
  3. …and ideally one further field of speciality

Examples of places to find multilingual work are as follows:

However, there is a difference between job that you find and job that you make.

You shouldn't necessarily expect to find jobs that are tailor made for polyglots. Why should monolingual HR heads create posts that are tailor made to exploit the skills of multilingual people?

Instead, take up a new job and make it your own – prove your value to people and make yourself indispensable by deploying your language talents in unexpected ways.

david mansarayDavid Mansaray


Mind Control when Speaking a Foreign Language

As I walked into David's talk he was in the middle of a story about a search for a morning-after pill one rain-filled morning in Spain, and how he found himself lost for words when he eventually found a pharmacy and was face to face with the pharmacist!

Just as I was starting to wonder if I'd wandered into the wrong talk, he went on to talk about how experiences like this helped him gain a newfound respect and appreciation for the differences between languages and cultures.

We shouldn't worry about being the best in a language. It's all about the experience and the growth we undergo during the learning process.

What can languages do for you as an individual? How can you grow as a result?

Languages are not about words and sentences but about connecting with the hearts and minds of people.

Eryk Walczak

UCL profile

Polyglots’ Brains – Neuroscience and Language Learning

Eryk gave a detailed talk about neuroscience and language learning, in particular asking: What and who is a polyglot? It was an interesting, detailed talk which I won't try to replicated here, but here are some notes.

Why study brains?

Because brains are the “cultural centre for language”. By studying the brain we can better understand the process of language and language learning.

What is neuroscience?

A good example of what scientists might look for would be: What happens in the brain one millisecond after a certain stimulus?

The standard way to undertake a study of the brain is by using a technique called brain mapping, and this can be done in two ways:

Do multilinguals have different brains from monolinguals?


But that's not so surprising; anyone who does any repetitive activity has a unique brain. 🙂

Schlegel et al (2012)

This study found that the plasticity of white matter plays an important role in adult language learning.

Mandarin students' brains were analysed over 9 months. Over the course of this period, several regions of their brains changed, with white matter density increasing.

Their gains weren't limited solely to language learning though – these  same students also went on to achieve higher grades at school.

Why do outcomes vary so much between language learners?

Eryk was quick to say that there is no clear scientific answer to this question. However, in his experience, major difficulties in learning a language are probably most likely to be based on…

What are the benefits of learning multiple languages?

One demonstrable benefit is a delay in the onset of dementia.

In Summary

It's complicated!

Learning languages creates changes in the brain's structure and functionality, although no one part of the brain can be said to be responsible for language learning.

Importantly, there is ample evidence that learning multiple languages is within the range of the average person's ability.

And that seems like a good, positive note to end on!

Were you at the Polyglot Gathering? If so, click here to tweet this report out to others!

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