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June 22, 2014 | Persian

2014 Polyglot Gathering in Berlin: A Brief Memoir

Looking back to reflect on the happenings of...a few days ago.

I am in Germany, in Berlin, and I can’t get out!

My plane back to New York had a technical problem. “Technical problem,” in my experience, can mean many things, many of those many things not actually technical at all.

Berlin on a Dramatic Day This Month

Berlin on a Dramatic Day This Month

I do not know what it meant in this case except that I spent a healthy chunk of my afternoon yesterday at the Berlin-Tegel Airport. Specifically, I sat on the ground and worked on my laptop while an expensively dressed lady behind me talked about her Xanax and alcohol strategies for surviving the ordeal of air travel.

She seemed unnecessarily overwrought. I just kept typing.

I realize, looking at the date of my last blog entry, that I have fallen off the face of the earth blogwise. Many things have happened since my last entry. I set aside my Persian for more than two weeks, as I was coming here to participate in the 2014 Polyglot Gathering Berlin. Not many Persian speakers would be attending, so I thought I might as well focus on my European languages in advance and also, naturally, while I was here in Germany.

In an effort to multitask, I decided to test Michel Thomas for French, German, and Italian as part of my pre-travel warmup, so I will be writing reviews of those products shortly. I was impressed, but they did not dislodge Pimsleur from its supreme place in my personal language-product pantheon.

As for the gathering: it brought together under one roof 230ish language nerds from around the world. The organizers were three Berlin residents: Judith Meyer, Chuck Smith, and Martin Sawitzki. It was way more fun than I expected, and I was expecting it to be fun, so that means it was really fun!

Polyglots Polyglotting

Polyglots Polyglotting

Me With Fellow Attendee Ruslan Kokorin

Me With Fellow Attendee Ruslan Kokorin

Before coming to Berlin, I had been under the impression that this polyglot community had been around for a while. Instead, I was told by more than one person there, this was a relatively new group of the, er, linguistically well-endowed, a group whose identity came to be formed because the internet finally allowed them to find one another. I don’t know whether that’s the final word on how this all went down, but that is at least the initial story as I have heard it.

Berlin was in fact only the second such coming-together for this crowd of polyglots. A conference in Budapest last year was the first time many of them had met. Quite a few of the people I got to know in the past week will also be at the next polyglot conference, which will take place in Novi Sad, Serbia, in October.

Attendees ranged from 16- or 17-year-old high school students all the way through to retirement-age scholars. For some of them, this coming-together was like a coming-out: the first time they had been around people with similar intellectual tastes and interests. A few people told me that they hadn’t until recently even been aware that there were others in the world like them. 

That is just plain moving.

Talks in Berlin were given by academics, linguaphiles, hyperpolyglots, and language entrepreneurs. Sometimes the best (meaning the most extravagantly multilingual) polyglots were not the best speakers, and vice versa. But that is part of the human condition, and I cannot tell you how exciting it was just to be in such a global group of word-crazed people.

An Englishman named Gavan Fantom spoke on being raised as a native Esperanto speaker. Amazing!

Not that I actually heard his talk. I would have liked to go, but unfortunately, I was giving one at the exact same time, so I couldn’t.

Language Lessons on a Napkin at a Greek Restaurant There

Language Lessons on a Napkin at a Greek Restaurant There

My own topic was “Polyglottery at Work: Beyond Translation and Teaching.” The gist was this: The global economy offers many work possibilities for multilinguals, but since polyglots will not find an abundance of “polyglot wanted” signs in shop windows or on job boards, they need to have an entrepreneurial spirit in order to define and develop their own unique professional opportunities. 

Another talk was “Learning Languages Through Etymology,” delivered entirely in German by Professor J├╝rgen Nowak, who smiled happily throughout his presentation.

People who love their work lead happier lives.

I also enjoyed a talk by Simon Ager, creator of the marvelous and long-lived Omniglot website, who spoke on the theme “Language Death and Revival.”

On the last day of the conference, when I was looking for a session on Tyrolean dialect, I accidentally wandered into the wrong room and ended up in something called “Lightning Rounds.” This session allowed various attendees to give very strictly timed impromptu five-minute talks on a language topic of their choice. 

I Studied Persian at This Indian Restaurant in Berlin

I Studied Persian at This Indian Restaurant in Berlin

Towards the end of the Lightning Rounds, two young guys, Ashley Tan Yuan Zeng and Leong Wei Qi, got up to give a talk on why people should study Asian languages. Ashley announced that, since they had a lot to say and very little time to say it in, he was going to talk really, really quickly.

I must confess, I groaned inwardly. That is most definitely not what we advise our presentation skills training clients to do.

Only about 15 seconds into their presentation, though, they had totally won me over. Ashley talked at a frenetic pace while his presentation colleague wrote frenetically on the board, in various languages. A smiling audience was introduced to the—surprise!—ease of studying Asian languages such as Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean.

Then the two of them did a gleeful high-speed improvisation that produced entertaining snippets of speech, designed, I suppose, to seduce us into studying.

It might have worked! The two of them were hilarious. They really made me laugh.

I Felt a Need to See Whether Polyglot Olly Richards's Hair Was Prickly. It Wasn't.

I Felt a Need to See Whether Polyglot Olly Richards’s Hair Was Prickly. It Wasn’t.

A Speed-Limit-Busting Talk on Why One Should Learn Asian Languages!

A Speed-Limit-Busting Talk on Why One Should Learn Asian Languages!

Before the conference, many of the people I met in Berlin were known to me only through the Polyglots page of Facebook. What struck me throughout the first day there was that everyone looked just like their profile photos.

Among my single peers in their forties, I tend to hear a lot of tales of woe about how the people they meet up with from Match.com and other dating sites do not live up to their profiles’ promise. In the language of online dating, “athletic build” can mean a guy who played junior varsity football 25 years and 50 pounds ago, and “recent photo” may be interpreted by wishful thinkers to include any picture from the past decade.

The polyglot attendees were mostly pretty young, though, and I guess when you are 23, you have no need to lie about your age.

What are you going to do, after all—put up a Facebook profile photo from when you were 13?

Thus, the polyglot conference, with so many people knowing each other only online beforehand, was kind of like going on a mass blind date where all involved looked like their pictures and really did have the interests they promised in common with you.

It was a very special gathering. Many thanks to the gracious and diligent organizers.

Comments (9)

Chris Huff • Posted on Sun, June 29, 2014 - 11:28 pm EST

The most salient bit that struck me from this was:

“For some of them, this coming-together was like a coming-out: the first time they had been around people with similar intellectual tastes and interests.”

So true!

Thanks for coming back to us and writing about your experience in Berlin.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, June 29, 2014 - 11:34 pm EST

One of the great pleasures of the gathering was meeting you, Chris. Thank you.

Chris Broholm • Posted on Mon, June 30, 2014 - 2:44 am EST

Great write-up as per usual Ellen, and it was a delight to meet you in Berlin and discover that you are just like your online persona in real life :-)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, June 30, 2014 - 3:12 am EST

Same right back at you, Chris Broholm! Danke. :)

Lindsay Dow • Posted on Mon, June 30, 2014 - 6:39 am EST

Aww, all these posts filling up my Bloglovin feed! Wish I could have gone but it’s been great to read about everything here and on other blogs. Thanks Ellen! :)

Shannon K • Posted on Mon, June 30, 2014 - 1:24 pm EST

Aww. I would have loved to have heard your talk. It sounds like it was really informative and useful.

I look forward to reading your reviews of the Michel Thomas method!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, June 30, 2014 - 3:26 pm EST

Thank you, Shannon. I think the talk will be on YouTube at some point. There was recording equipment around. :) I’ll post a link if it is.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, June 30, 2014 - 11:37 pm EST

Lindsay, someday soon we will met, I’m sure!

Christopher Nairn • Posted on Sat, September 19, 2015 - 3:04 am EST

Damn, I really wish I’d been there and I wish that I were going to the upcoming one.

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