Why join a language event? Polyglot Gathering 2021 blog

polyglot gathering 2021 Cantonese language practice room

Last Monday (2021-05-24), the annual Polyglot Gathering came to an end.

This year’s event was planned to take place in Poland, but like last year, as the pandemic is still lingering, it was once again changed to online, and the physical event is postponed by another year.

So today, I’ll do a brief introduction of language lover events like the Polyglot Gathering, my recollections from this year, and why you, too, should join!

But before we begin—the Polyglot Conference in October this year will also be online, so if it’s normally hard for you to fly around, seize this opportunity and sign up!

What are polyglot events?

In case you don’t take part in the online language community often, you might not know the term polyglot very well. It means ‘many languages’ in Greek (‘language’ and ‘tongue’ share the same word, like in many languages), and during the last decade, it was popularised on the Internet, most commonly associated with YouTubers speaking many languages, but often describes language lovers in general.

Later, inspired by Esperanto events, some better-known polyglots started events like the Polyglot Conference and the Polyglot Gathering. The former takes place every year in a different part of the world, while the latter is mainly for Europe: it stayed in Berlin for a few years, then changes country around once every three years. Obviously, because of the pandemic, both have been taking place online since last year (2020).

Can I join if I don’t speak many languages?

Of course! The reason I emphasised the wider meaning of polyglot above is so you know that as long as you love languages, no matter who you are and how many languages you know, you’re always welcome!

For one, the definition of ‘knowing’ a language is very personal. You might have dabbled in different languages, but didn’t take them to a high level.

Or perhaps you are very into one particular language (especially minority languages), and that’s why you haven’t ‘collected’ languages.

Besides, I’ve seen some monoglots who took part in the events out of curiosity about the language-learning world!

What do you do at these events?

These activities take the form of an academic conference. Within the couple of days, there are a number of talks and workshops. There is usually a wide variety of themes, from the most academic (like history) to light-hearted jokes and games. Some of the most common topics include learning methods and tips, or introduction to a particular language (or a language crash course).

Anyway, in my opinion, these activities are just an excuse to gather. What’s most important is to make friends.

While you’re at the event, there are usually two or three concurrent talks, and if you aren’t interested in any of them, you can strike up conversations along corridors, in social rooms, or even on a rooftop. I still remember being just legal in the 2016 Gathering and talking with new friends with a drink. (If you haven’t tried it, you get more fluent when tipsy…I think!)

Apart from that, over the course of the event, lots of people enjoy their meals together. In some cases, you even live with other participants! When the Gathering was in Berlin, and when it’s in Poland next year, the organisers have booked an entire hotel, so that participants can stay in the same building all day and focus on socialising. When I went to the Gathering in 2019 in Bratislava, I just happened to have booked the same hostel as a couple of fellow participants, so every morning, we could set off to the activities together.

Things are a bit different online these two years. The talks and workshops of the Gathering were all scheduled in daytime in Europe, and in order to simulate the social rooms in real life, there were three video chatrooms, available to all (one of them is called Gufujo, where you cannot speak English or your mother tongue). The best part about the online Gathering is that there are six language practice rooms at any given hour, 24/7, so you can pick your languages and join. In comparison, during in-person events, you’ve got to look around for someone to practise with.

2016年,柏林。

Reflections on the 2021 Polyglot Gathering Online

Compared to last year, I feel like I got more out of the Gathering this year.

I’ve been to the event in Berlin once, once in Bratislava, and once online, and whenever I received the programme, I would start circling all the interesting talks right away, as if I were Hermione picking classes. I also remember that some bigger polyglots told me that having fun is more important, but I didn’t listen.

Indeed, back at the physical events, if I missed a talk, I would have to wait half a year before I would catch up on YouTube. But during the online event, all talks are available for a month after the livestream. That’s why, despite knowing that I would definitely miss this one-month deadline, I decided to focus on language practice rooms instead, and go to the talk only when I had some spare time.

So how was it? Satisfying!

What did I take away from the event?

Inspiration and motivation

The annual event (biannual if you count both events) is like a boost for us language lovers.

Learning a language is no easy task, especially if you do it without moving to the country. Not only do you miss out on using the language for socialising, but you also sacrifice some of your social time for the sake of learning. The best you could do is chat with an online teacher, or if you’re lucky, a language exchange partner.

During the weeks leading up to these events, a lot of people, like Vlad, polish all their languages and wake up their ‘dormant’ ones, in order to be able to use them with other people. Some people also learn a bit of the language that’s spoken where the event takes place. For example, the Gathering has been planned for Poland since 2019, and over the two years that it’s been postponed, I’ve noticed that many people have started from scratch and got to a level way above mine.

During the event, you meet a large variety of language lovers. Most commonly, you see people who speak an obscenely large number of languages, such as Tim Keeley, who shows up in basically all the practice rooms. You learn a lot from these people. For instance, after Tim listened in on our Hebrew practice session, he unexpectedly started sharing his wisdom for the better part of an hour. Some people, in contrast, have certain specialties, whether it’s a particular language or a particular language-related academic field, and these people might just awaken your interest in their fields. Even more so, you meet fellow learners (especially during the online events, because of the large number of participants), who are interested in the same language as you. Whether they are ahead of you or behind you, you can encourage each other and share your challenges.

As the event came to a close, I felt unsatisfied, and wanted to keep practising and improve my level. That’s why every time after the events, I’m inspired to set some new goals and concrete plans, as if I were fully charged and raring to go, so that my passion lasts longer through the grind..

Forcing myself to use my languages, a lot

The reason I loved hanging out in the practice rooms is that it feels great to speak a foreign language. Since my usual method mainly involves input, I seldom pay any attention to my progress and current level. But once I enter a practice room, once I start speaking (or listening) about interesting topics, I soon forget that I’m still learning this language.

To me, this is the best part of learning a language.

Of course, while I was speaking, I would trip up frequently, whenever I didn’t know a word, or made a grammatical mistake. This was a golden opportunity to remind myself not to fear mistakes, and to find workarounds for gaps in my knowledge.

And more importantly, to enjoy the process, because the more your brain enjoys an activity, the easier your brain learns.

Indeed, during my peak this year, I spoke Polish for 2.5 hours and Hebrew for 3.5 hours straight. Unlike studying on my own, time simply flew; and whenever someone explained a new word to me, I would apply it in my speaking immediately, and still remember it to this day.

Making friends

Let’s face it, (obsessive) language learning isn’t a popular hobby. It isn’t easy to find someone with a similar interest, let alone someone interested in the same languages.

At these events, you meet two kinds of people: one kind that you enjoy spending time with, but only during that intense time; another kind that you stay in contact with. I can still recall some friends that I met in Berlin in 2016—one got married recently, and the other regularly posts important messages about equality and Taiwanese autonomy.

This year, I made an Israeli friend that I felt an instant connection to. Through them, I learnt a lot about Jewish family values and customs. It just so happens that they’re learning Chinese for an exchange year, so we became language exchange partners.

How much does it cost? How do I sign up?

When it comes to costs, I can only speak from experience.

If we’re talking about the online Gathering, it takes only a few hundred HKD to join. But since this year’s event has ended, you can pay €25 to watch the talks until the end of June (you’re probably better off waiting until they’re on YouTube).

If everything works out, it’ll be a physical event next year, which normally costs a few hundred pounds, possibly including room and board. Of course, you’ll have to take transportation into account, so I recommend it to friends based in Europe.

(I got lucky—since I’d signed up and paid for the 2020 event in Poland, every time they postponed the event, they offered me free access to the online event.)

For more details, you’ll have to check the official site when they open for application again. There might even be student pricing!

On the other hand, the Polyglot Conference is still online this year. If it’s anything like last year, it’ll be pay-what-you-can, with a default of around £15–20. If you’re capable, please support them with a generous donation, whereas you can request a free ticket if you need to.

Once again, all are welcome! Even if they ask what languages you speak, the data is only used for scheduling, and not for rejecting newbies 😅

I hope to see you in October at the Polyglot Conference Online and next May at the Polyglot Gathering in Poland!