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After last week's announcement, you should know that I had an intensive project to re-activate my Hungarian! The reason I was doing this was to prepare to go back to Budapest to attend the Polyglot Conference, and I had a great time at it, but I did want to make sure I was using some Hungarian outside of it. In this post, I'll say how both the mission and the conference went!
Firstly, I had signed up for six hours of Hungarian spoken lessons via italki. While I had blogged that I would be putting about ten hours into the project, once again my super-secret project in Berlin was consuming my time, and I barely had 10 minutes before each lesson to quickly revise things. So in total, I had about 7 hours of exposure time to Hungarian before arriving.
I find that because I am so busy on another project, if I don't actually schedule a lesson, then I could keep putting off the work, so I'm really glad I did put aside that time in advance. Busy or not, when you know you have another person scheduled to talk to you, you'll make the time!
If I was starting from scratch, I could have replicated what I did with Polish and be able to get by for the absolute basic touristy things, but something very interesting happened this time for me; it was the first time I was attempting to re-activate a language that I had genuinely put work into learning, so things did indeed come back to me.
If anyone would have said something in Hungarian to me over the last three years, since lack of maintenance means you forget languages easily, I simply wouldn't have been able to participate. But the very slight effort required to remember the basics, review essential vocabulary, and get back into basic conversations, meant that even though I just put seven hours in, I climbed up very quickly to a level almost as good as what I had at the end of my time in Budapest!
I had essentially reached my seven week point in the language in just seven hours!
A catch for when you are out of practice
There was a catch though. I found that because I was so out of practice, even though I could somewhat say what I wanted and start to understand many things people were saying to me, my confidence in using the language in many situations was abysmal. This is something that had truly dissipated in me over the last three years, and what I would need more practice with to get back to the level I had in it before.
This meant that when I was in a queue of people under time pressure, or when people asked me to say something to a taxi driver, or ask what something was in a restaurant for them, or if someone just plain came up to me at the conference and started speaking Hungarian to me, I felt under too much pressure and couldn't deliver. Normally, I don't have an issue with feeling like I'm being “judged” but this may also have something to do with the fact that normally I travel by myself and don't have to worry about other foreigners hearing me speak.
But then again, when I was out and talking with a Hungarian friend, I could have the same level of conversations I used to have (basic as they were; A2 or thereabouts), and when I was out by myself I could order food and ask questions in Hungarian fine. It's a weird performance anxiety that made me nervous if non-Hungarians were present.
This kind of natural flow and ease with using the language in more varied situations is not something that can be crammed for, and does require a bit more time. But it's good to know that at least if I want to be an independent traveller, I can go through a similar experience to re-activate languages that I've learned in the past! My Hungarian definitely came in useful because there were several situations when I was away from the conference and not in the touristy centre, where I really did need to use it.
On the taxi ride back to the airport, I had a nice chat with the taximan about holidays (it was a national holiday), sports (we passed a stadium being re-constructed and we both lamented that our country's national team isn't quite World Cup material), and reminiscing on my last time in Budapest, all in Hungarian. It was like I had never even left!
Oh, and of course he commented that Hungarian is the hardest language ever. Normally I would protest if those interested in learning it are around (see below), but Hungarians themselves just want you to massage their ego on this point so I had a much more laissez-faire attitude and cheerily said “Sure, hardest language I've ever studied!” while I was actually thinking how easy it was to get back to this basic conversational point despite three years of no Hungarian whatsoever.
Definitely a very successful mission over all!! But I know for next time to try to be that extra bit more confident at the start, and I'm sure it would open the floodgates for being able to use it more casually in other situations. Momentum is essential, and I think a bumpy start slowed me down more than it should have. With a few more days in Budapest, I think I actually could have been back to precisely where I was at the end of my last trip!
This is wonderful news because I wasn't really aware of my re-activation abilities until now, and it just goes to show that we should stop selling ourselves short so much, as we have hidden skills and remnants of a language hiding around in our head if only we'd fish them out!
Photo by Zsolt Balai
After seeing some old Hungarian friends, and Fi3M readers for the first 2 days, I was ready to join the Polyglot Conference group! Brian, who wrote a guest post here a few months back, set up a dinner the Friday night and I had a first chance to meet many people I had only see making videos online, in three dimensions for the first time!
The great thing was that I got to meet people who I had worked together with to record the Skype Me Maybe music video! I also saw recognizable faces from commenters on this blog, and from forum images on this and other sites.
The morning of the first day, I got to meet Richard Simcott for the first time! I was most looking forward to meeting him, and he was the guy behind organizing the entire conference, along with Luca Lampariello. I finally had a chance to sit down with both of them separately, after being in touch online for so long, and have a great chat at various points during the weekend (including getting some much needed assistance from both of them for my secret 3-month project), despite the many things going on.
The general feeling for the entire weekend was one of collaboration and enjoyment. Everyone present is incredibly passionate about learning languages for their own reasons, and are more than happy to encourage others to do so too. Definitely no sense of competition or conflict between anyone. We all went out together after the conference each day, enjoying Budapest's nightlife.
During the day we had many fascinating talks, and I very much look forward to sharing them with you when they are all online, because they were indeed all recorded for your viewing pleasure! This will take a while for editing etc. so I'll try to share them here mid-late June when they are all up on Youtube, most likely on the Polyglot Conference channel.
My favourite talks included Susanna's (you'll remember her from the Skype me maybe video and several guest posts on this blog) on the Ladino language, and the importance of keeping endangered languages alive, and Judith's fascinating talk on computational linguistics, what it is, and how machine translation works and its many limitations (confirming many suspicions that I've written about myself). We also had Alex, the UK's most multilingual student give a very interesting talk on Yiddish, and very convincing reasons for why people should learn such languages, presented excellently!
I ended the first day with a talk on blogging and Youtube techniques. I wasn't going to try to inspire this audience to learn languages, since many of them are much more experienced language learners than I am, but I did want to give them some tips on presenting their language learning messages more efficiently online (something I do have some experience in…). I think my talk wasn't that well organized (my Berlin project didn't allow me to put the same time into this presentation that I did for my recent TEDx talk for instance), but I did indeed manage to share very specific tips that I know they can apply to their own blogs/Youtube channels.
Robert Bigler started the next day with an overview of how translation and interpretation works, which I have experience in myself, but I especially loved his anecdotes related to the weird situations he has gotten into as an interpreter, and we'll see if he can share some of them with us on the blog here!
One of my favourite talks of all though was Anthony Lauder‘s – he has been commenting on my blog since it started and gave me a wonderful idea to apply conversational connectors to my early stages in language learning. In this talk he gave a very entertaining presentation about what separates “PolyNots” from polyglots.
There was a presentation about the Hungarian language, since ironically so many attendees of the conference who speak many languages were forced to use English when out and about in the city, since Hungarian was not among their languages. I found this talk a bit too linguistic, theoretical and grammatical for my interests, almost serving no purpose other than to propagate Hungarian's difficulty and had to request the microphone to add a comment at the end to encourage those in the audience that Hungarian was in fact not that hard, and was one of the most logical languages I've ever come across.
But there were many linguist-heads in the audience who I'm sure found all those phonetic vowel charts fascinating. This was just a good reminder why my head would probably explode if I attended a linguists conference… not that they would have me. 😀
Next was Svetlana Gracheva who surprised me by telling me that she was a professional language hacker, borrowing the term from me! She also has a blog about language learning in Russian, and talked about her experience learning Spanish from a distance.
Herself and a few others told me that they were very much inspired by my blog and certain articles, which was very nice of them to say! This is always a strange thing to hear in person because I consider myself as sloppily punching a keyboard and vomiting videos online. Like they say in Toy Story, I can't fly, but I can fall with style! So, I do appreciate it when people enjoy my stylish stumbles!
Bálint, who helped me record my final video in Hungarian 3 years ago gave a very clever talk tying language learning in with sports, keeping the analogy up very well throughout his talk.
Richard talked about his work at e-moderation, and then Luca talked about making a living through languages. He opened the floor up to people to ask him questions in any language they like, so I gave him one in Spanish. He handled it fine, as well as another one in Italian, and another one in Russian, while giving the talk itself in English! We would have had him speaking many other languages I'm sure if time wasn't running out.
As well as the main speakers, we had cameo videos from several polyglots who couldn't make it, including Glossika (Mike) and Steve Kaufmann, who had a very lovely message to say about the language learning community and for me and other speakers.
What languages do polyglots speak together?
I got asked this question during the weekend – do we switch languages every minute, have a special conference language, all just speak English, or what?
It was definitely very interesting to meet so many language learners who are super passionate about the languages they learn, but we all learn them for very different reasons of course. I think of myself as a homeless vagabond on the road for a decade before I think of myself as a language learner, and have only ever learned languages for current or upcoming travels to be applied immediately.
This question of “which language will I use?” is a non-issue for me most of the time, since I almost never meet other language learners and simply speak the language of the country that I am in, or the native that I'm speaking to, no matter how good or bad my level is. But on rare occasions when with several nationalities, I would use English so as to not exclude anyone (why I keep my time with expats when travelling at a minimum generally).
As such, if many people were present I would speak English to be sure to not exclude anyone, as a force of habit. (For this reason, all of the talks were also given in English, or with interpretation to English). It took some adjusting to use other languages and realize that many people could still follow along, so it wasn't really until the first night when I started using my Spanish, Portuguese, Esperanto, German, Dutch, Mandarin etc.
Although, I much prefer to stick to a smaller number of languages, whichever is most practical, which is quite unlike a lot of the polyglots who really got a kick out of using as many of them as possible. Whenever I see people's shocked reactions at me or anyone else switching languages, it feels like showing off and putting multilingualism on a pedestal, which I'd prefer it to not be viewed as, and work hard on this blog and in my videos to make use of other languages feel more “run of the mill” for average folk.
Of course that point of view is less relevant when pretty much everyone present is a polyglot, which as I said is a very strange experience for me. As such, nobody here was actually showing off, but simply using languages they knew would be understood, while they enjoyed experimenting with all these languages they loved.
If someone started talking to me in any given language, I would reply in that language. Strange to have the control of such situations in someone else's hands, since I'm always the one who picks which language a conversation will be in 🙂
As I said, I'm quite a newbie at such polyglot meet-ups. I do go to language meet-ups wherever I am regularly, but generally would find a particular language (or at most two) and practice that all night. I do indeed practise all my languages regularly, but generally with completely different people. So, I will certainly see if I can get more interesting experiences out of future polyglot conferences and meet ups!
I was very pleasantly surprised when two attendees came up to me and spoke some Irish with me, and to be honest apart from English, Esperanto was the language I used the most over the weekend, and the easiest answer to the question as the fairest language to be used (even though Esperanto speakers were more likely than everyone else to speak more languages) among multilinguals because of its neutrality.
Wonderful language learning community
Despite minor differences in preference for using languages, and very different lifestyle and background differences, it was clear that we do all have a lot in common! It was great to finally meet so many interesting polyglots in person!
Even though it's the polyglot conference, there wasn't only those who spoke many languages present. Quite a lot of aspiring polyglots were there, and joined along in the fun.
There was even a group of polyglots who spoke sixteen languages very well, who could hang out together and one attendee could speak 32 languages. Apparently they recorded a video where many other polyglots were asking him questions in various languages, so I look forward to seeing how that went! I'll share it on my Facebook page when I see it online. Of course, that's the kind of video were pretty much everyone watching it would need subtitles activated!!
And as you can see from the first photo above, there were many female polyglots showing us that it's not a male dominated community!
I didn't want to take out my camera and start recording people randomly myself, as I personally find it intrusive to have cameras on me when I am trying to just socialize with people, and wouldn't want to do that to others, although I did do some of my own special videos with certain people that you'll see some time later 😉
The polyglot conference will of course be taking place many times in future. We know that it will make it to north America late next year (Montreal and New York), and will likely take place here in Europe again around this time next year somewhere else.