What I learnt at Polyglot Conference 2019

The annual Polyglot Conference was held at Kyushu Sangyo University in Fukuoka, Japan this year! I stayed in Fukuoka for 6 days and 3 full days were spent at the conference. It was the first Polyglot Conference I was able to attend and what an experience it was! One that I will treasure for my life.

Some of the speakers this year included:
Steve Kaufmann
Elisa Polese
Alex Rawlings
Rebecca Howie
Prof Alexander Arguelles
Dr Emmanuel Ternon
Sara Maria Hasbun
Judith Meyer
And myself:

All of the talks from this year will be uploaded to the Polyglot Conference YouTube channel in a few weeks or months, and I’ll be sure to post a link to them when they’re up.

For now, here’s a summary of some things I learnt and will try to use in my language studies.

1. Take charge of your language learning process

By far, my favorite talk from the conference was Professor Alexander Arguelles’ presentation called From Start to Finnish. He spoke about how he took an immersive Finnish course at a Concordia Language Village camp for two weeks and what methods he used to learn the level as fast as he could.

While other students at the camp were adapting to the language slowly, Prof Arguelles sped up his language process not only by studying diligently but by speaking to the camp guides as much as he could. It was an exclusively Finnish environment and he made sure to listen and absorb as much as he could. Every day, he’d get up at dawn and prepare conversation topics for the day, looking up vocabulary related to philosophy and religion. He had a grammar guide which he studied and was able to have a decent conversation within days of starting to learn the language.

I was impressed with by how he made use of the native Finnish speakers around him to have them teach him correct pronunciation, intonation and vocabulary. He would drive the topics and steer the conversation in directions that would be beneficial to his learning.

Some concluding remarks by Prof Arguelles

[Taken from Prof Arguelles’ presentation slides]
Just from his third day in the immersive Finnish camp, he knew he needed:
– to take charge of the learning process, not just follow the way the camp was going
– prepare conversations each day at dawn
– scope out staff with sympathetic personalities from whom he could elicit knowledge and therefore control the learning process
– not use his own methods but use the rhythm of the camp as much as possible in a continuous cycle of grammatical study, reading aloud, comprehensible listening input (lectures), one on one conversation and targeted practice (eg phonetics).

It was so inspirational to see how seriously he takes his learning and how fast he was able to reach a conversational level in Finnish. He mentioned how he can study for 12 to 13 hours on end each day and not feel tired. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that. I take my hat off for him!

You can see his Finnish journey in a series of episodes on his YouTube channel.

Speaking at the Closing Panel with Prof Arguelles in the middle

2. Passion drives progress

One of the key things that will get you to fluency in a language is passion for learning. Wherever you are, make an effort to learn something new and use the language. I met so many language learners who can barely speak English but came all the way to the conference for the sole purpose of learning and practicing what they know. If you have passion, you’ll make progress. Don’t compare yourself to others and don’t shy away from situations where you can learn something.

I was touched so see how some of my Korean friends at the conference were not afraid to speak up using broken English to ask a question after a talk. Even if it took them a long time to search for words and form a question, they tried and that’s what matters. Stepping out of your comfort zone and taking the plunge to speak a foreign language: that’s what will build your confidence, build your vocabulary and drive you to fluency!

Someone who particularly inspired me is my new friend Dean, also knowns as Pinoy Polyglot in the Making. Dean saved up for months to make it to the conference and he truly made the most of each situation! I saw him carrying around papers with Tagalog printed on it to teach people how to say things, I saw him interviewing other polyglots, and I saw him in the front row of many presentations, taking notes an actively listening! Dean is going places, and I know that because I can see his passion.

With Dean after he taught me some Tagalog

3. Personalities in polyglottery might not be what you think

Alex Rawlings gave a thought-provoking talk on the idea of different personalities with each language you speak. He mentioned how he feels freer speaking Greek and more organized and straightforward when speaking German — but then concluded that this doesn’t mean it’s the language that makes it so, but rather your own experiences with it. For example, he would generally speak Greek when on holiday at the beach, in a relaxed environment with family. German was a school subject for him, and therefore he needed to be organized and structured.

Alex gave an interesting example — he first learnt to call a waitress as “girl!” in Russian when he was in a small provincial village. At first he thought it was rude, but realised that’s how Russians do it. He started adopting what he referred to as this ‘rude’ personality when he spoke Russian, but only realized when he was in Moscow that educated city people don’t actually talk like that. So, Russian isn’t a rude-sounding language per se, but his first experience with it was in a context that helped shape such an incorrect mindset.

This made me think – I always thought each language had an innate ‘personality’ to it – but then again, it really is the people and experiences that change your perception of a language.

4. You can create immersive language experiences without traveling to a country

I was so excited to meet Rebecca Howie this year! I’ve been following her from Irregular Endings, her online design store for language goods, for a while. I attended her presentation where she ran us through how she creates an immersive language outing day for herself.

Participants of her workshop were asked to give ideas on what you can do have a successful immersive language day: like setting up a plan of where you’ll go, what words you want to use, how you will track your progress or record yourself, how to debrief after your day and review what to learn and so forth. She has a lovely stage personality and the workshop was highly informative – one of my favorites from the conference.

With Rebecca from Irregular Endings

5. CJKV Dict is an awesome tool

Dr Emmanuel Ternon, my new friend and computer programmer-turned polyglot, is the creator of CJKV Dict, an online dictionary. It’s excellent for polyglots who are learning Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.

As taken from his website, “Besides the ability to return search results for a specific word written in Chinese characters in all four CJKV languages, CJKV Dict automatically converts simplified Chinese characters and Japanese Shinjitai to traditional Chinese characters. This makes it possible to check whether or not the same Chinese characters are used in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and/or Vietnamese to write the same word.” You can use it online or in an app form.

CJKV Dict also has a Twitter account with a word of the week in all 4 languages.

Emmanuel and I with his book on Traditional Chinese Characters (available on Amazon)

6. Strength in numbers: mobilising the language community

Finally, something I’ll take away from the event is that there are so many of us polyglots and language learners out there and we need to use what we know to improve life around us. During the closing panel, someone asked something like “how can we use our skills to improve the world around us?”. I immediately thought that we all have wonderful talents to share but we don’t always bridge connections between people.

One of the speakers, Grigory Kazakov, talked about developing language learning materials for smaller languages. Someone asked him if he has actually made any materials, but he answered and said he’s merely a strategist and comes up with concepts and methods for teaching languages, but wouldn’t design a book, per se. I thought someone like me might be the opposite: I’m a trained designer but I might not have all the knowledge on how to create language learning materials. If a designer or educational material creator could partner with someone like Grigory, we might be seeing resources for smaller languages entering the mainstream market. One way we can do this is to bridge connections between people. If you know someone who does something and know of someone else who needs help, put them in touch!

My friend Becki, who speaks Japanese fluently, is learning Ainu now. She has a big collection of resources in Japanese, but such resources are only accessible to people who are literate in Japanese. If there is someone who wants to learn Ainu but can’t speak Japanese, that would pose a problem. How can we, as the polyglot community, connect people to make Ainu resources accessible to non-Japanese speakers? I was happy to see that two Ainu speakers approached Becki after the conference, but I’d be happier to see if something exciting comes of it!

See you in Mexico in 2020!

At the end of the event, it was announced that Polyglot Conference 2019 will happen in Cholula, Mexico! How exciting! I hope to see all of you there.

Thank you to Richard Simcott and Tim Keeley for arranging a successful event, and I can’t wait to see where we will go as a polyglot community in the future. You are all so special to me!

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