NYC Polyglot Conference ’15: chronicle of a crazy weekend

So I recently stayed for a week in New York. My goal? Obviously, to attend the 3rd Polyglot Conference taking place over the weekend of October 10-11! I’d been waiting for this weekend to come for almost half a year, and so was incredibly excited for the chance to mingle with language lovers of all around the planet. However, I’d like to go over just what this event is. I mean, the name itself throws us back to the age old question: “Who is a polyglot?” The name of the event is as imposing as it is vague, since just about all discussions on the definition of what polyglots are have ended in frustrated standstills. How many languages does it take to be called a polyglot? At what levels? What about the people who know several languages that happen to belong to only one linguistic family? Is it a classist word, meant to divide us rather than make us one?

From what I saw this week, the “polyglot community” has grown beyond the definition of a polyglot being a person who speaks more than two languages: it is now a denomination for anybody who loves languages in general, without foolish distinctions based on ability, work or number of languages. While I talked to other conference goers, I was happy to realize that we were all very different people coming from all walks of life, joined by a communal (and all-encompasing) love of languages. I’d be lying if I said that the presence of a few “hyperglots” (people who talked over ten languages) didn’t intimidate a few people, but the general environment of the conference was that of warmth and motivation. It was notable how some of the most senior members of the community (some of them, speakers at the conference) put it upon themselves to estimulate the curiosity and thirst for knowledge of other younger or less experienced members.

It was obvious that smaller groups exist within this large community. I was thrilled to be able to finally meet several other language bloggers (hi, guys!) that I’d only ever connected with through the internet, but a lot of other conference goers were actually high school- and college-level students using their weekend for this purpose. It was really nice to see teenagers whose goal for language learning was self-improval. Above all, one of the greatest little details I noticed after only a few hours into the conference was that the level of camaraderie and cohesion between community members was so visible that it immediately attracted other people who’d just joined the conference out of curiosity or even for work.

The goal behind the conference was to gather speakers talking about a very broad variety of subjects. This means the topics ran the whole gamut of languages, so there were talks on particular languages, linguistics, learning and teaching, languages and jobs, and other topics.

New York, New York! ♫

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I think I should mention that this was my first time visiting New York, a visit made worth it by the fact that this is probably the most linguistically dense city in the world. (Of course, it goes without saying that I also ate good food, saw great architecture, met awesome people outside the conference and in general felt the city’s immense respect for immigrant culture.) What with it being the first time the Polyglot Conference happened on the American continent, having it take place in New York City was the right choice. It’s quite amazing to notice just how much of the city is translated for the benefit of both citizens and tourists–most of the signage is in at least three languages (and I say “at least three” because there’s actually a picture around Facebook of conference-goers completely mesmerized by the presence of a MTA sign written in about seven. Leave it to us language geeks to get all flustered and excited over something like that!).

During my week in New York I used the subway only what could be said to be “one hell of a lot”. On one hand, I knew that the NYC subway network is immense and very convenient, allowing for transport into all five of New York’s boroughs (and some of its suburbia), but the reasoning behind my decision was actually the wish to “listen” to New York as much as I could (I’d like to mention that in order to be able to use the subway that much I acquired an unlimited MetroCard for 31 dollars. If you consider that a trip currently costs $2.75, the card pays for itself after 11 trips, and believe me, I used it WAY more than eleven times in my week in New York). I’m glad I decided to do this: each trip in the subway was a linguistic expedition that allowed me to take a peek into the city’s polyglot nature, even in the days preceeding the actual event.

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I found periodicals and newspapers in more languages I can remember, although Spanish and Chinese language ones were predominant among those. I would’ve loved to take a few Chinese newspapers back home to study with, but my backpack and carry-on were already at bursting point by the time I left so I’m glad I didn’t! (Keep reading to find out more about the final loot.) There also was all sorts of signs, art and publicity that was obviously aimed at particular groups. I remember thinking at the very beginning that with relatively little need to speak in English in their daily lives, people may be prone to a bit of xenofobia (and to a very small degree, I think I wasn’t wrong), but I soon realized that New Yorkers are generally warm people, ready to help and even chat a bit if you talk to them in their own language. Many of these people see New York’s multilingual nature as just one of its many charms; little did they know that would make the city an ideal home for 400 polyglots during the weekend!

The day the polyglots met

The morning of October 10th would’ve transpired as planned if most conference-goers (for example, yours truly) hadn’t fallen victim to the so-called “Weekender”, which is an elegant name for several lines closing down for repairs over the weekend. As I was living in Queens, this meant that a commute that would’ve originally been a straight line from A to B became a multi-leg commute passing through points A through E. I still managed to make it to the venue a little after quarter to nine, some minutes after the hour that we’d been told the doors would open for socializing between ourselves.

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After registering at the venue, we were all given an awesome gift bag full of more promotions and products than I think I can use within what’s left of the year, as well as two books (a Swahili dictionary and phrasebook and a “Dirty Portuguese” book) and a gift card with 10 dollars from my beloved Italki. Besides the gift card we were also given an ID card with space to write our names and languages we could speak (in order to invite appropiate conversation, I also added the levels of my languages). During the hour before the start of the event, the SVA Theatre’s lobby was a melting pot of multilingual conversation. Many people arrived as strangers and departed as friends and mutual admirers. The IDs created an interesting dynamic between conference goers: people would just wander around with their ears leaning towards the small groups that formed in the lobby, until they found one they could use their languages in. People would care first about a person’s languages and then about their name and country. Seeing the ease with which conversation happened was fascinating, in particular if you consider that many language learners can actually be said to be a relatively shy bunch.

The conference started with a greeting from the organizers, Ellen Jovin, Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings, all of whom, from this point onwards, were only seen as blurry rushes of activity all over the theatre, ocassionally stopping to talk in their many languages with the speakers and conference-goers (anecdotically speaking, Richard’s ID card had so many languages in it, it sort of became the conference’s running joke). As an opening act, we were all treated to a showing of The Hyperglot, a short film filled to the brim with references to the plights and happenings of a multilingual life. It was so good that it had the entire theatre bursting with laughter. Buy it and watch it. I mean it. It’s THAT good.

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The actual speakers were an incredibly diverse group that spoke, conversed and debated with us in a variety of interesting subjects. I’d like to take a moment to show just how diverse nature this community is by pointing to this picture of Tim Doner (left, 19 years old as of this year) and Barry Farber (right, 85 years old), both of whom honored the conference not only with their presence, but with the sharing of their experiences. While Tim spoke of the Indo-European language family and historical linguistics, Barry spoke of his life as a polyglot, a monologue of sorts, filled to the brim with the anecdotes and stories that only a man who has been studying languages for sixty-odd years could know. While they stand at completely opposing sides of the language learner personality range, both gentlemen are well known in the community for having inspired people to start learning languages, and are very good examples of how different each speaker and their topic was the others.

I must admit that my top three favorite speakers were John McWhorther, who spoke strongly but amusingly about Whorfianism (or the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or Linguistic Relativity–put the name you want on it) and why it falls flat on its face as an explanation of language influencing thought; Alexander Vera, whose integral exposition on Third Culture Kids made me realize a part of my identity I had no name for before, and Khady Ndoye, a charming Parisian of Senegalese parentage and lover of African languages (she’s also the author behind La Polyglotte and is slated to be the Oct 30 guest of Babeltitlán) who gave a talk on the dissemination of African languages through the internet. I also really liked the talks by Vladimir Skulketya language lover with a rich history of his own, as well as Benny Lewis, who I believe needs no introduction.

The bringing together of four great publishers of language learning materiales (Assimil, Teach Yourself, Hippocrene and Routledge), showed the degree of dedication the organizers put into the conference, and their resolve in closing the gap between language learners and product makers. Pretty much since the moment I heard this was going to happen, one single question had been floating around in my head (actually, make that “banging around”): would these respectable brands ever bring their material to Mexico (where I live) and Latin America? After insisting so much that I’m sure Alex Rawlings (the organizer in charge of running around handing the mic to the people asking questions) must’ve hated me at some point, I somehow managed to get the mic for the very last question, and voiced my concerns to the representatives of these publishing powerhouses. I’d be lying if I said I’m not somewhat disenchanted with the answer: in short, they essentially said they hadn’t even tried breaking into the Latin American market because of what they saw as lack of interest. As a language learner I consistently run into trouble trying to get physical copies of language learning materials and courses (it’s very much one of the reasons why I’ve shifted strongly towards online learning) in my own country, and from the reactions and comments I got after asking the question, I’d say I’m not the only one who thinks Latin America feels somewhat ignored. However, I’d like to think that my question gave the publishers food for thought, as one of them even expressed interest in re-evaluating their answer.

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The conference officially ended on the night of October 11, with a merry expedition to a rooftop bar on 5th Avenue that had an espectacular view of the Empire State Building. This was the last “official” event organized by conference volunteers (although the following day there was also a “book bash” event through which many of us acquired a good deal of language related books at a great price, and which greatly contributed to my carry-on nearly exploding before arriving home), and though due to the nature of the event it wasn’t possible for the youngest conference goers to join us, it was a nice way to bid adieu to those that had to go back to real life on Monday. I hung out for a while, taking the chance to speak Japanese with a small group I’d met back at the venue (oddly enough, there weren’t that many people who spoke Japanese at the Conference), but by this point  I realized exhaustion was starting to settle in, so I said my goodbyes to most of the people I knew wouldn’t be at the book bash the following day, and went back to my lodgings to start processing the whole weekend.

What can I say that isn’t already obvious from what I’ve written? The Polyglot Conference was an amazing learning experience from which I’ll draw motivation for many months to come. It was thanks to this opportunity that I got to meet some truly incredible people, re-think my experience and position as a language learner, and see some truly awe-striking places.

So what about next year?

In case you haven’t heard already, in 2016 the Polyglot Conference will take place in Thessaloniki, Greece, on October 29/30, so mark the date! I know, I know: for people like me who hail from the American continent, it isn’t a super accessible place, but as far as Europe goes, it isn’t so expensive. Besides, the organizers have already started working on the most ambitious community-level project (their own words): helping everyone learn enough Greek to enjoy their stay there! (In case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve already slated Greek into my schedule.) Hope to see you there!


Were you at the Conference? If you were, share your experience with us in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in New York!