Polyglot Conference 2013: Looking back on Budapest

I’ll always remember that week leading up to the Polyglot Conference in Budapest as one in which I was extremely nervous. When I first heard about it from Luca Lampariello and Richard Simcott, whom I met in Italy in November, my initial reaction was that it was nuts. Firstly I couldn’t believe that two people would want to take on so much work in addition to their already busy lives and existing commitments, and all at great expense to themselves. Secondly I had doubts about whether the whole idea would even work: what was going to happen when you took a group of people who’ve never even met, having interacted only behind computer screens on Facebook and YouTube, and put them all in a room in Hungary for the weekend? My biggest fear of all was that it might turn out to be one of those ruthless YouTube massacres, but only this time in real life. The trolls would be sitting there, hurling their trollage at the vulnerable polyglots as they stood up on stage, desperately trying to work out how to deal with the onslaught without the aid of the ‘delete comment’ and ‘report spam’ buttons. And so, as the date grew closer and my own talk started to look more and more unfinished, I was fairly apprehensive.

I work best under pressure, but I was pushing it with my presentation last week.

I work best under pressure, but I was pushing it with my presentation last week.

But that wasn’t just my only concern. A number of other speakers had also commented that they were nervous, and the reason why was because there was no way of telling how the conference would go: there had never been anything like it before. How was I supposed to pitch my speech? My only previous experiences were of academic conferences, consisting of people reading out 5000 word essays to people who were nodding off, playing Bejewelled, and trying to work out exactly how they were going to pose that question to the speaker afterwards, along the lines of “would you mind emailing me that speech because I didn’t listen to a word of it and at some point I’d really like to rip it off.” Besides, before when I’d been speaking publically about languages, it had been a fairly simple case of preaching to the non-believers. This time it was different: not only would I be preaching to the converted, but I would even be preaching to the preachers. For one whole hour, the people that I had always looked to for advice and inspiration would suddenly be listening to me.

However it didn’t take long after I’d arrived on the first day for all of my concerns to be put to rest. As I went up the stairs to the convention room, the whole building seemed to be buzzing. There were language books everywhere, all sorts of airport luggage tags on the floor, and all the signs that this could only be the meeting of one very special group of people. These were the famous YouTube polyglots, and for the first time ever they were all gathered together at the same time, in the same place. The enthusiasm was infectious.

Photo by Maria Makienko

Although the days were fairly intense, starting at 9 and 10 and finishing at 5.30 and 7.30, the participants had to be physically removed from the building at the end of each day, simply so as not to incur further costs with the venue. Everybody was absolutely enthralled, and I was no exception. All the speeches were filmed with the help of Stu Fergus (Wolf Lilt), and will be edited and posted on the Polyglot Conference’s YouTube Channel in about a month’s time, so that everyone will get a chance to watch them if not for the first time, then again.

And I will certainly be doing that. We started off with a brief introduction by Veronika Tóth, who played a big role in organising the event, about the language clubs she has been running in Budapest. We then heard a really moving speech by Susanna Zaraysky about endangered languages. She also talked about the work that she has been doing trying to film a documentary about the story of one of Sarajevo’s last surviving Ladino speakers, who says the language saved his life in the Second World War. Carole Westerkamp then took the stage to give all of our brains a good rattle, as she talked to us about “The Power of Words”, and showed us how our memories work and what we might be saying without realising it.

Judith Meyer then gave us a fascinating talk about computational linguistics, explaining how internet-based translation services such as Google Translate work, and describing what they might look like in the future. We then had two very interesting talks about Esperanto by Zsófia Pataki and Eva Fitzelová, who seemed to have brought a particularly large contingent of enthusiasts with them. Esperanto seemed to generate a lot of interesting conversations and heated discussions over the weekend!

Giving my speech in Budapest

Then I gave my talk about learning small languages, including a little introduction to Yiddish. When I had gone through my talk before it had never lasted longer than 25 minutes, and the daunting hour slot had been something I was worried I wouldn’t be able to fill. However the moment I was on the stage I was really taken aback by the warmth, the interest and the enthusiasm of that audience of experts, and before I knew it we only had ten minutes left for questions. I was really touched by the positive response I got from everyone, and I’m so glad to have been able to get some publicity for Yiddish. Benny Lewis ended the day by giving us all a master class in how to improve our blogs, how we should be making our videos, and how to try and reach as wide and diverse an audience as possible. I really took a lot of points from him, and found him to be a really approachable and down to earth guy.

The next day I unfortunately missed the two careers-based talks by Robert Bigler on interpreting and translating, and Ryan Boothe on conflict management. I did however catch all of Anthony Lauder’s talk on being bad at languages, or a ‘polynot’ in the local terminology. Anthony, the man behind the famous Fluent Czech YouTube channel, has an incredible story to tell, and he brought the house down with his fantastic powerpoint presentation of over 260 slides. He says his experiences of languages are from the point of view of someone who had spent their whole life being convinced that he was no good at them. His speech is full of invaluable advice, and I urge everyone to watch this as soon as it comes out!

Anthony Lauder (Fluent Czech) introducing us to the mathematician's approach to languages

Anthony Lauder (Fluent Czech) introducing us to the mathematician’s approach to languages

We were then given an insight into the workings of Hungarian by local expert Atilla Mártonfi, the only speech to be delivered not in English, before Russian polyglot and ESOL teacher Svetlana Gracheva told us about her experiences learning languages from abroad, in a country where – as I know from my experiences – only 5% of the population claims to speak English, despite 90% studying it. The session was finished off by Kőrösi Bálint, who told a story and offered an analogy that I think rang true with everybody in the room. Languages were just like sport, and to get the most out of them we had to work together, and help each other. That was one of the most crucial messages that I left Budapest with.

I managed to catch Richard’s talk about the role that linguists can play in online moderation but unfortunately I had to miss Luca, who closed the conference as a whole, to catch my flight back home. I feel like I could write at least another ten posts of this length about the conference and still not have written enough. I’m absolutely buzzing with ideas now, and loads more new material for the blog.

Kőrösi Bálint captured the atmosphere of the whole conference perfectly with his talk about sport and languages

Kőrösi Bálint captured the atmosphere of the whole conference perfectly with his talk about sport and languages

Beyond the speeches, the most wonderful aspect of the whole weekend was the chance to meet other language learners, and all sorts of them. There were ones who had come from as far away as California and Kazakhstan, and those that just lived across the street. Everybody wrote down the languages they wanted to speak on their name badges, and the rule was you couldn’t speak your first language to anyone other native speakers. In the space of two days I managed to speak every language I knew, and not just the ones I’m most comfortable with. There was no element of competition and no superiority by anyone. The atmosphere was simply one of everyone encouraging everyone else from all sides. People would help you out when you struggled with a word, and at the end of the day they just wanted to speak! Even I was persuaded to wheel out my miserable Italian by some particularly insistent native speakers, who made me feel like I could actually speak it far better than I’d thought. And just as I was beginning to think I’d got away with it, someone came bounding up to me at the end of the first day and proceded to have a full conversation with me in Catalan about the billingual education system in Catalunya. I was very tired though, and he let me reply in Spanish when my Catalan broke down.

We were told to write the language we wanted to speak in on our name badges. We weren't allowed to use our first language with  other native speakers.

We were told to write the language we wanted to speak in on our name badges. We weren’t allowed to use our first language with other native speakers.

I met so many inspirational people, including Maria Makienko from Russia who had moved to Greece two years before to go to university, yet in that time had managed to pick up absolutely flawless and native-level Greek. There was also a man from Italy, Emanuele Marini, who was not that well known before, but turned out to speak over 35 languages, and all extremely fluently. When I spoke to him in Greek and Russian I was convinced in both instances that he was a native speaker. He amazed absolutely everyone, and luckily someone managed to snap him up for a video in one of the breaks. Hopefully we’ll all be hearing a lot more from him soon!

I went to Budapest at a time when I was starting to feel a bit demotivated about languages, and I thought I was running out of material for my blog. I was stressed, I was busy, and life was really starting to get in the way. Now I’ve returned so inspired. I’m going to work harder on my languages, on my blog, and sort out getting some more videos up on YouTube. I couldn’t ever have imagined a friendlier or more encouraging and inspiring group of people to share my language learning experience with. In many ways I still felt like a bit of a newcomer to the well-established online community, and sometimes I’ve felt uncomfortable with the level of publicity that my video with the BBC generated last year. Sometimes it’s especially felt like none of that has really been under my control. I didn’t exactly choose all this coverage, I just entered a competition because I wanted to win an iPad. But when I met Richard, Luca and David Mansaray back in November, they persuaded me that actually, I might have something to offer the community. We made a video, which showed me that it can just be as simple as that. Then when I came across Stu Fergus’s article about YouTube polyglots in December, I was shocked to see my name at the top of the list. That was what made me decide to set up this website, and since then my experiences of the online community have grown, and I have never looked back.

The question now is where to go next. I’m delighted that the Polyglot Conferences will continue, with the next meetup in New York and Montreal in October 2014. I would honestly urge anyone to try and go, and I’m going to look into making the trip closer to the time. What this weekend proved to me, was that even if you don’t consider yourself a language expert, you will have never experienced an atmosphere as unique as this, and you will never leave anything feeling so confident and inspired. The conference and its coming videos offer something for everyone everywhere, and I’m really proud to be able to say that I was a part of it.

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