It is either by good fortune or pure luck that my interest in languages coincided with the rise of language conferences across the world.
About a year and a half before I began taking French in school, the first Polyglot Conference had already been held in Budapest. Soon after, there were talks of a new meeting of polyglots to be held. Its name: the Polyglot Gathering.
By the time I had begun my Italian journey in early 2015, I had a plethora of resources to help me learn my first foreign language independently. I soon fell in love with lectures from great polyglots, like Luca Lampariello, Olly Richards, and Benny Lewis ;).
As much as I loved these resources, the idea of a conference, with dozens of tongues being spoken, excited me to the core. However, there were several obstacles working against me. For one, I was (and still am) a student. Unlike these polyglots I idolized, I couldn’t pack up and travel in a moment’s notice around the world.
On top of this, I didn’t consider myself “good” enough in French and Italian to go to one of these conferences. Being a pre-teen isn’t the most comfortable stage in life; trying to speak a foreign language that you’ve just started doesn’t make it any easier!
I Thought I Had Missed My Opportunity…
About a year and a half later, I felt much more relaxed. I discovered that languages were my true passion, and I had raised my Italian to a C1 level as a 13 year old. Although I enjoyed my French class, the pace of the class slowed to a near crawl. To supplement this, I began to study French at home.
Although I still enjoyed watching videos from the numerous Polyglot Conferences and Gatherings, I had also moved to reading every language blog out there, including I Will Teach You A Language, italki’s blog, and Fluent in 3 Months. I read insatiably, soaking up every and any language learning method.
Sadly, the possibility of attending a language conference dimmed in my mind. The closest one to me was the North American Polyglot Symposium (now called LangFest), and even that was a 4 hour drive! Not to mention that the event had already passed, to my disappointment.
“Do You Want to Go to NYSAFLT?”
One day, as I was toiling away at the French concept of the passé composé, my aunt came over. She had learned Spanish to proficiency, and was a teacher of Spanish at a middle school. As we talked about languages, and our shared love of Fluent in 3 Months and other blogs, she told me that she had a gift for me.
As I opened my eyes, I saw that it was a program to a language conference! Not to any old conference, but the New York State Association of Foreign Language Teachers’ Annual Conference (otherwise known as NYSAFLT).
Every year in late October, teachers from across New York converge upon a conference center to talk about new strategies, new research in the field of foreign languages, and new developments across the state. Over 75 presentations, and countless exhibitors, showing off what they could do for students’ proficiency! And it just so happened that all of this was going to be held 20 minutes away from my house!
Most language classes don’t get a good rap, and I can see where some classes can get their bad reputation (case in point: my snail-paced French class). However, my aunt and I thought that if we could change the conversation on actual communication in the classroom (pun intended), we could inspire proficiency in students all across New York!
Without hesitation, I immediately accepted her invitation, and before I knew it, I was at NYSAFLT!
Caption: My aunt and me at a Festival of Nations I organized in May, 2016
My First Day At a Language Conference
As soon as I arrived, I felt a little nervous. With all of these professionals walking around me, I couldn’t help but feel awe-inspired. As my aunt and I gathered our materials for the day, she introduced me to the coordinator of the event. He told me that I had been one of the first (if not the first) student to attend the conference. To his recollection, there hadn’t been one. I couldn’t believe it; I was making NYSAFLT history!
Throughout the weekend, as foreign languages fluttered about, I had a great time at the conference. My aunt and I learned a lot about languages (and those who teach them as well). I could go on and on about why you should attend a language conference, but I have narrowed it down to five reasons why you should attend.
1. Learn From The Best in the Field
I had learned all about independent language learning from Benny and Luca, but what about learning in a classroom? The teachers whom I listened to were seasoned, experienced, and extremely thoughtful in their presentations. These professionals cited their own research at times, because they had taken the initiative to survey their students and ask them what they had to say about learning a language.
Likewise, the polyglots at a language conference know what they are talking about. After all, they have learned at least 5 or 6 languages to a high proficiency. Countless times I’ve seen polyglots survey their own readers, whether it’s for the best language courses, or asking for their advice on other topics. Also, their experiences and their stories are extremely relatable to my own struggles and challenges, and anyone can use their strategies to overcome them.
Regardless, the similarities between these polyglots and the language teachers are numerous. Their expertise, research, challenges, and successes can all help anybody who’s willing to listen. I guarantee that you will be better informed on the given topic than anybody in your language learning circle if you attend a language conference.
2. Ask Questions Direct to the Pros
During these presentations, I would often hesitate to ask questions,
thinking about what everyone else would think of me if I asked a question. I shook off these fears and fired away. Let me tell you: it is totally worth it!
Asking a question directly to those who know the material most can only help you in your language endeavors. You get a clear, crystal-cut answer from the professional. I know that many people are naturally shy; however, if you wait too long, you’ll miss an opportunity to further your language strategy.
I believe that it is better to go into a conference and ask more questions than necessary than none at all and have regrets later. I always like to bring a piece of paper to every conference I go to, so I can record notes about what I liked about the presentation, and answers to my questions.
Another thing I like to do is ask the presenter if I can access their materials/presentation while at home. At NYSAFLT, the organizers put together an “NYSAFLT Annual Conference” Google Drive folder, where you could access some of the presentations’ handouts and other materials.
3. Network! Make New Friends and Contacts
At many conferences, there will be an opportunity to visit exhibitors and vendors. Typically, this room holds representatives for companies in the field of language learning, travel agencies, and other organizations pertaining to the field.
Here, I made several new friends and many new contacts. For example, a local chapter of French language teachers sponsored an exhibit. Asking what I could do to help out at the local level, they told me that I could write an article in their quarterly journal. After a busy summer of writing posts for other language blogs, my entry in Le Cocorico appeared at the beginning of March!
Another example of a contact I made was with the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese (or AATSP). With my aunt, we learned about the association, its advocacy work, and more. They also provided some resources for me to do some things pertaining to them, something I wouldn’t have ever discovered without them. They also provided me with confidence, something discussed in the following paragraphs.
4. Practice Your (Weaker) Languages
When I attended the NYSAFLT Annual Conference, my Spanish wasn’t great, to say the least. My only memorized phrases were “Hola”, “Cómo estás”, and “Mi español no es bueno”. It was a starting point; after all, the expert in anything was once a beginner, right?
After every session, we broke for a half hour to go to the exhibitors. When I visited the AATSP booth, I exchanged greetings with both teachers, in Spanish. Thinking that I was fluent, they began to talk to me about their mission and goals, entirely in Spanish!
I was caught up in a whirlwind, not knowing where to turn or what to say or think! But slowly I realized that I understood most of what was being said, thanks to my study of Italian and French. When they began asking me questions, I couldn’t believe it: I began to piece together sentences in Spanish, a language I had only begun passively studying a month before!
Don’t get me wrong, I still practiced my French and Italian, and I had wonderful conversations in the weekend that I spent at the conference. However, I suggest that you get out of your comfort zone and speak your weaker languages as well to strengthen them!
What better place is there to polish your wobbly language skills with patient, encouraging mentors? Not to mention you’ll impress polyglots whose blogs you read and work you admire. Nobody will judge you on your language skills (unlike the French), so why not practice your French with someone a little less harsh than un français or une française ;)?
After holding my own in my first Spanish conversation, I was pumped for more Spanish. I was hesitant about jumping back to square one, and feeling uneasy, nervous, and anxious again. I am extremely thankful for those two teachers, who convinced me (unknowingly) to continue learning Spanish. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be anywhere near fluent in Spanish, and wouldn’t have the Hispanic friends or connections I have today.
5. Relight Your Fire for Languages
This is, by far, the biggest why for attending a conference. The many attendees you will meet will encourage and inspire your own learning. As a student, I received heaps of encouragement from teachers across the state, from the Adirondacks to New York City.
I was particularly motivated after a session that was conducted completely in Italian. The presentation dealt with Italian films and their effect on the culture in general. I was able to follow along, participate, and ask questions during the entire seminar! It was definitely a huge moment for me and my language learning. Seeing that I could participate and contribute to a session in a non-native language was something that definitely made my aunt very proud.
After the conference, I thought I could conquer the world; I felt great! Keeping the momentum going after the conference is a different story, but I was able to make so many great connections and I steamed ahead, not being able to wait for the next language conference I would be able to attend.
My Next Big Step: Becoming an NYSAFLT Presenter!
In the end, my first NYSAFLT conference enriched my life through new friends, new knowledge, and the connections and work I have done following the conference.
While searching the web at the beginning of 2017, I came across an advertisement for NYSAFLT 2017. It just so happened that it would be the 100th Annual Conference! Inside the advertisement was a call for proposals for workshops. Curious, I clicked on the link.
As I read up on the requirements to present at the conference, it appeared to me that I did not have to be a teacher, nor did I need to be an adult! Willing to test my luck, I filled out an application for a workshop of my own: Say Goodbye to Shy: A Student’s Perspective in the Classroom.
It was mid-May, a long time since I had even thought about my presentation, which was submitted in early January. Scrolling through my email, I was stunned. I received the following email from NYSAFLT:
I had been accepted to speak at the conference I had gained so much from! Now I would be able to give back to the language community by passing along my perspective and insights to language teachers across the state!
Piece by piece, I created my NYSAFLT presentation. I pored over every detail, slide, and even the activities! For the month leading up to the conference, I performed countless run-throughs, further refining my presentation and my information. Another project in itself was the handouts: what teachers would literally take away from the conference!
The day of the conference came. As teachers started pouring into the seminar, I began to think to myself: The moment has arrived! In the end, over 30 teachers attended the presentation!
That’s me at the front of the room, along with all the attendees participating in an activity I created! As the presentation continued, I became more and more comfortable. By the time the hour was up, I couldn’t believe how fast it had passed!
If it weren’t for my initial venture with my aunt to the NYSAFLT Conference, I would not have been able to do many things: begin seeing languages from an educator’s point of view, begin guest posting on the biggest blogs in language learning, and impact the statewide language community by presenting at the 100th Annual NYSAFLT Conference.
If you take anything away from this article, take away this: language conferences can only help your language learning, by boosting your motivation, helping you make new friends, and giving you access to expert advice about learning languages. So, what are you waiting for? Go to a language conference today, and I might see you there!