Polyglot Gathering Berlin 2015 Trip Report

I just came home from my trip to Berlin to take part in the Polyglot Gathering. Last year was a life-changing event and I've literally been counting the days since I left last year until the day I could return. In this post I'll share my experience of the 2015 version and try and explain some of the differences or similarities from last year.

Last year I barely made it. There had been an internal sign-up going for some time, before the polyglot gathering was announced to the public so there wasn't a ton of seats available when I first saw it. As an unemployed student my finances weren't great, but for some reason I just signed up and blew caution to the wind. Something in me was telling me; “You just gotta to this.” I'm not sure what it was, but as I had recently found languages as a path of life it seemed like this was the perfect event.

The rest is history. Last year I was so excited about the trip I wrote a 10-part trip report. You can check out part 1 here.

I won't be doing 10 trip reports this year. That was excessive.

The Gathering this year had few surprises for me, it was just an over-all awesome event. It was fantastic to meet so many of my friends from last year and as always be introduced to new friends.

The day before the day before the gathering

I had accidentally booked my flight 2 days before the gathering was set to begin, but fortunately for me others had done the same. I hadn't been in Berlin for long before I found myself in a tiny Mesopotamian restaurant and once again being completely bewildered by the menu. This seems to happen to me often in Berlin, particularly in the company of Judith and Chuck.

I ended up picking a lamb dish with multiple kinds of cheeses and it was fantastic. What a wonderful start to the trip.

I also met Roberto Salazar there, an incredible polyglot who I'd met on Judith's Esperanto course last year. I started a running joke with saying “Saluton!” to him every time I saw him, because we had both forgotten most of the Esperanto we had learned during that course. However there is a reason for this madness, as I'll come back to a little later.

As a hobby poker player I also wanted to try to play a little poker, so after having met a lot of people already, including Peter from the US, I grabbed a taxi to the Spielbank in the center. I had a good time in spite of being tired and it was fun to play some cards again. Knowing what was ahead I decided to leave relatively early, to prepare myself for the epic event coming up.

I didn't make the best of impressions of my room-mate though as I came home about midnight, which I would say for a hostel is relatively early, but the bathroom door was wide open against the main door, so when I came in it made a loud spectacle and woke him up. I didn't know him at all, and he didn't bother with a reply to my apologies, but merely turned over in bed with a grunt.

Very awkward way to start the gathering. Anyway it was only going to be for one night as my friend Viktor Berrjod would be taking over the day after.

The day before

On the day before the gathering, the atmosphere was already getting electric. I met more and more friends, old and new and I felt instantly comfortable back in Berlin. I hung around the venue and even took part in some of the polyglot games, hosted by Cesco and Miro, that were running as a warm-up. One of the hardest tasks was having to listen to two different stories in two different foreign languages at the same time! So I was listening to a Russian story in one ear and a German story in the other ear. After which I had to answer questions based on the text.

I completely failed the Russian and did okay with the German, but the questions were also a lot easier for the German and it's a stronger language of mine. After the first round of games I decided to socialise around again, which as you can probably tell is my favourite activity.

An uneventful evening with socialising at dinner as well as in the rooftop bar and lobby saw me go to bed relatively early again. Not willing to miss anything of the first day.

The Polyglot Gathering 2015

Talk-Selfie during the first day's programme! On my right is Chris Huff.

Lots happened during the actual programme of events, so what I share here are merely some overall observations.

We started the official programme with watching Michael Levi Harris' movie: The Hyperglot, a 20 minute short film about a socially awkward language learner, who learns obscure languages for fun – sounds familiar?

It's funny, when you're in a room with hundreds of language learners that's exactly what they do. They learn languages for the sake of learning them. It was a great movie, hilarious and all the jokes were well received by the community. I've invited Michael to come on the podcast to talk about his experiences learning languages as well as the movie, so you should be able to find that in the near future.

My polyglot gathering consisted mostly of socialising, mingling, catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. Sprinkled in between I had some business to attend to, regarding partnerships and there were also some strategy sessions with accomplished entrepreneurs.

Not to forget some amazing talks too. I particularly enjoyed the talk by Alex Rawlings, as it was well-performed and it really applies to where I am in my life right now. I took part in a variety of talks and most of them were high quality. A particularly hilarious (perhaps unintentionally so) was the introduction to Scots where Gary Dale, originally from America, struggled to understand Ed's Scottish English accent, and thus needing live interpretation.

With all the talks being recorded I never make it a priority to go to talks if there's an opportunity for socialising or mingling.

Making use of my languages

The biggest change for me this year compared to last year, was that I had added 2 new languages to my repertoire. Last year I had Danish, English and a broken German. This year I conversed in at least 5 languages: Danish, English, German, Russian and Esperanto. This made a HUUUGE difference to my motivation, because I could begin to see the rewards of my studies.

Not exactly known for my hard work and efforts it was a great boost to see that I had actually learnt something during the last year.

My Russian and Esperanto are not particularly strong either, so I didn't have hour long conversations (yet) but that doesn't matter. By practising successfully I'm building on successes that will allow me to grow the languages even further. I'm also happy to have reached levels in these languages, where the next step consists of more native material and less grammar lessons and flashcards.

I'll shortly be posting about my new language learning mission, as my Russian has officially ended. It doesn't mean I'm done learning Russian, as there's still some way until what I would call comfortable fluency, but I've hit a stage where I'm beyond the beginner stage, which is very important.

Brian Kwong, Jo Stefani, Tristan Foy and Chris Huff at a talk
Brian Kwong, Jo Stefani, Tristan Foy and Chris Huff at a talk

Just speak!

One of my challenges in the past has been the inability to speak early. Having followed Benny Lewis for a while I knew the benefits of speaking early, but I never really had the confidence to do it. Speaking when I knew I was making mistakes was too “awkward” so I just didn't speak. This for instance meant that it took me 7 months to find a Russian tutor!

But slowly as I got more experience with learning and the community my confidence has risen to the point where I can now just speak. This was highlighted with my friend Roberto, who I share a low-ish level of Esperanto with. Just saying saluton to him every time we met might seem like a joke, but slowly we built on it and eventually spoke a lot of Esperanto in the Aligatorejo (alligator-room, you're not allowed to speak English or your native language)

Another example was with French. I told my friend Sebastien I'd like to learn French next and then I just started saying stuff. It was mostly wrong, but just trying and failing made a huge difference and I'm sure I'll learn French faster than any other language I've ever learned because of this. Again I'll talk more about the upcoming projects in a blog post soon.

The aftermath

After having seen inspirational talks, spoken with motivational people and overall just being impressed with people's ability to learn many languages I'm now more motivated than ever before. I want to be a better language learner and I want Actual Fluency to be a better website as well. I've been slacking off a bit lately, not putting in enough effort in either of those two projects and it's a shame.

But the Gathering really helps with motivation and inspiration. Trust me on that one.

See you at the next one!

PS. I cheated a bit with the cover image, it's actually from last year. But since I missed the picture session this year (sadly) I figured the last year's one would have to do.