Polyglots in Berlin

I’m back from Germany and I hardly know where to start to describe the amazing experience of attending the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin – 350 people with a passion for learning languages all together in the one spot! Absolutely incredible!

I had been brushing up on my Spanish, Esperanto and very rusty German, and wondering whether I would remember any French or Japanese at all, but what was the first language I spoke? Welsh!

I was waiting in the queue to collect my meal tickets for the duration when the person ahead of me turned round, glanced at the name card hanging round my neck, and started chatting in Welsh. It turned out he also spoke Esperanto and about 8 other languages, so we did have a bit of choice, but Welsh was good! At least I wasn’t rusty in that one.

But where else in the world would people casually mention that they ONLY spoke about 6 languages? At the Polyglot Gathering it wasn’t uncommon to see people with so many languages they could hardly write them all on their name card! I developed a serious case of language-learning envy!

The venue

The ‘gathering’ took place over 4 days in the A&O Hotel/Hostel, just a few minutes walk from the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the main railway station, so very convenient. I was in the cheapest accommodation – an 8-bed dormitory – and others had arrived before me so all the bottom bunks were taken. Luckily I don’t mind climbing up and down ladders and the mattress was very comfortable so that was fine. I slept extremely well!

The day programme

The programme was well organised with concurrent sessions occurring in three different rooms on the same floor. All of the topics sounded very interesting so luckily the organisers arranged for the sessions to be filmed. I’ll be catching up on the ones I missed later!

Rooms 1 and 2 had a huge variety of presentations on aspects of language learning, different methods, maintaining motivation and talks on language groups, such as Languages of Europe, Native Languages of North America, and Don’t be Afraid of Tonal Languages.

Room 3 mainly gave taster sessions on some of the lesser learned languages, e.g. Tamil, Northern Saami, Slovak, Scots and Hebrew. Those sessions were very popular and unfortunately the room wasn’t big enough to accommodate all that wanted to attend. It got pretty squashy in there at times, but that didn’t detract from the enjoyment.

The night programme

To me the after-dinner events were one of the highlights of the gathering and I enjoyed myself immensely.

For the early arrivers on Thursday night, there was a session of fun language games with two teams competing to pronounce tongue twisters in exotic languages, and a great language recognition challenge. It was similar to one that I became slightly addicted to online for a while – The Great Language Game – and I was quite pleased to find I was at least in the middle somewhere in terms of how many I could identify. I had a little advantage in being able to spot Pacific languages such as Tongan and Maori, but no chance when it came to distinguishing between others like Estonian and Latvian or the Slavic languages.

Friday night was a social mingling while tasting foods and specialties from various countries and browsing through a selection of language learning materials at the Book Fair. I would like to say that I staunchly resisted the temptation to buy lots of books …. but the truth is that I knew I didn’t have room for them in my little suitcase so practicality overruled my desires.

Saturday night was a panel competition of a polyglot game show – Ĝepardi. The contestants had to choose from categories and give a response in the form of a question that was answered by the text displayed. Sound complicated? You’re right! The winner was the person that managed to score zero, with the other two plunging into the minuses due to incorrect responses. But every time the contestants were mystified at least one person in the audience knew the answer. Some seriously knowledgeable language nerds amongst us!

Sunday night was the brilliant JoMo concert. Picture an energetic, guitar-playing Frenchman from Toulouse leaping about the stage and singing in over 20 different languages and you have an inkling of what it was like. Jean-Marc Leclercq holds the Guinness Book of Records for singing rock and traditional songs in 22 languages. He was hoping to break that record in this performance but I haven’t heard yet whether he succeeded. What I do know is that he put an incredible lot of energy into it, coming back for 2 long encores. I have become a dedicated fan!

And then we came to Monday night and the last night of the gathering. It was an International Culture Evening full of delights and surprises. We were given a beautiful demonstration of musical sign interpretation for the deaf, Irish dancing and tin whistle playing, and various other demonstrations of talent, culminating in a grand multilingual performance of Frѐre Jacques. Someone counted up to 30 languages accounted for, and my funniest moment of the gathering was the whoop of delighted from 2 attendees when they found the words online in Klingon! I joined with two other Welsh speakers and we did a quick translation then sang in Welsh. I must find the Maori version for next year!

Wrapping up

And so it came to an end, but I came away exhilarated and motivated and determined to not only revise and revitalise the languages I’ve studied in the past and let slip away, but to learn a couple of new ones for next year.

For those that didn’t make it, here’s a 1-minute taster vlog by Lindsay Does Languages for you to enjoy – Polyglot Gathering 2015.

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