BY ELLEN JOVIN
In late October, hundreds of polyglots and language enthusiasts from around the world will descend on Thessaloniki for a weekend of language-themed talks and events at the fourth annual Polyglot Conference.
Thessaloniki, a cultural and linguistic crossroads, is an ideal site to host people who dream in foreign languages and drool over obscure grammar books. The venue will be Thessaloniki Concert Hall, with world-class facilities opening onto spectacular seafront views.
Polyglots – in other words, people who speak multiple languages – come from all walks of life. Conference attendees in the past have included linguists, authors, interpreters, translators, teachers, professors, YouTube polyglots who record themselves speaking in a dozen or more languages, bloggers and vloggers, employees of international and government organizations, and teenagers whose language ambitions far outstrip the linguistic offerings of the standard junior high or high school curriculum.
At the Polyglot Conference, it would be unsurprising to find a 17-year-old Swedish anime enthusiast talking about, or even in, Basque or Greek or Arabic or Korean or Swahili or Gaelic with a 50-year-old Russian programmer. The community truly transcends national, religious, ethnic, gender, professional and demographic divisions.
The idea for the conference originated with Richard Simcott, from Chester, Great Britain, a lifelong language learner who has studied more than 40 languages and is one of the world’s most respected and best-known polyglots. Co-organizer Alex Rawlings, born and raised in London, is of Greek descent and became a polyglot celebrity back in 2012 when he won a national competition run by HarperCollins and was proclaimed Britain’s most multilingual student.
One of the most important principles behind the Polyglot Conferences is that, despite the somewhat intimidating event name, they are open to anyone who loves language. You do not have to pass a language test. You do not have to prove you are a polyglot. You do not even have to be a polyglot. People are nice. They are friendly. They do tend to talk in a lot of different languages whenever they are not in lectures, but if you don’t understand something, just ask!
The conference travels each year. The first conference, in 2013, was held in Budapest, Hungary, and the second in Novi Sad, Serbia. The third took place in New York City at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea last October (and was co-organized by the writer of this article). Some 425 polyglots came to the New York conference, making it the largest polyglot event in history.
This year will open with an evening mixer on October 28, to be followed by two days of wide-ranging language talks. Presentations cover an astonishing array of subjects, from “Lives on The Line: Language and Conflict in Central Asia” and “Sephardic Humor and the Ladino Language” to “Size Isn’t Everything: Studying Tiny Languages” and “Why Is My Accent So Bad?”
Richard Simcott’s original vision for the conference was that the contents would be made available to language lovers from around the world who were unable for financial, political or other reasons to travel to such an event. To that end, the organizers maintain a Polyglot Conference channel on YouTube with recordings of all the presentations.
This year’s sponsors include language-learning giants such as Oxford University Press, Babbel, Assimil and Michel Thomas. Registration is 99 euros through the end of September (student discounts are available), after which prices will increase. Θα τα πούμε σύντομα!
More information is available at polyglotconference.com
Ellen Jovin is a Manhattan-based polyglot whose website ellenjovin.com documents the language life of the world’s most multilingual city and includes her language-learning product reviews across 20 languages.