Extreme Polyglottery

The Polyglot Gathering in Berlin last week was fantastic and I enjoyed everything about it. The organizers did an excellent job and everything went well, with only minor hitches. Many other people helped things to run smoothly, and gave talks and/or arranged discussions and language practise sessions.

The A&O Hauptbahnhof hostel/hotel where the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin took place in June 2014

The venue was a huge hostel/hotel near Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof (main station), and not far from famous places like the Reichstag (home of the German parliament) and the Brandenburg Gate. It was equipped with hotel and hostel-style rooms, a dining hall in the basement, a reception area with seating and a games section on the ground floor, and a roof-top bar on the 5th floor. The gathering itself took place mainly in function rooms on the 5th floor, with a large room for the talks and activities and two smaller rooms for discussions and talks. One of the smaller rooms also served as a tea room – Gufujo (owl room in Esperanto) – in the evenings for those looking for somewhere quieter than the bar for a chat. There were also spontaneous outbreaks of polyglottery in other parts of the venue, and outside as well.

The program for the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in June 2014

The program included lectures, talks, discussions, games, and plenty opportunities to practise languages and to talk about language learning, language and languages – or polyglottery as I like to call it. The talks and discussions ran from 9am to 1pm, with two hours for lunch, and from 3-6pm. In most time spots there were two or three things going on at the same time, so you couldn’t go to everything. Fortunately the talks were all videoed and the videos will appear online when they have been edited, so I can watch the ones I missed, and those who weren’t there can watch all the ones that interest them. The program booklet was printed several months before the gathering, so there were some changes, and people filled in empty spots with talks on a variety of language-related topics, and other activities.

The talks I went to include ones on Proto-Indo-European, careers for polyglots, neuroscience and language learning, practising languages in virtual words, Scots and Scottish English, Welsh; and discussions on passive v active learning, and synesthesia; and introductions to Indonesian, Toki Pona and Macedonian. Some talks were quite academic, others were more informal. All were interesting.

On the first evening there was an international culinary festival with food and drink from many different countries. There were polyglot games on the subsequent two evenings, and an international culture evening with songs and poems in many different languages on the final evening. I started it off with a song in Welsh – Lisa Lân, and my Manx/English song about seagulls and chips – Spollagyn son tey / Chips for tea, and finished it with my song Everyday Adventures, which all went down well.

Here’s me singing Lisa Lân and Spollagyn son tey / Chips for tea (videoed by David J. James):

The most impressive contribution was Richard Simcott singing Let it Go from Frozen in some 20 different languages from memory:

There were some 230 participants there from all over the world ranging in age from teenagers to pensioners. All spoke at least two languages, and many spoke quite a few more – I think the average number of languages spoken there was around four or five, with a number of people who speak ten or more languages. There were plenty of students there who are studying languages, and many other subjects, as well as people who run language-related businesses, or work as translators, writers, journalists, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and many other professions. Whatever our background, we all shared a passion for languages, and were interested in finding out about other peoples, countries and cultures.

A group photo of most of the participants in the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in June 2014

Meeting so many other polyglots and being able to talk in many different languages and about languages and language learning was wonderful. I don’t often get to do this as I only know a few other polyglots where I live, so the gathering was fantastic for me. I didn’t need to suppress or hold back any of my enthusiasm for languages, as I usually do to varying degrees when talking to people who don’t share my passion. Everyone was friendly, interesting, and had different stories to tell, and I now feel like a part of the polyglot community. Before the gathering I had watched videos and read blogs and forum posts, and even commented from time to time, so I was familiar with a number of polyglots with an online presence, but felt that I was kind of on the periphery of the community. Few people recognised me, but many were familiar with Omniglot, and were happy to meet the guy behind it.

I found the talks, discussions and other activities interesting and fun, especially the discussions on synesthesia, and on raising bi/multilingual children – I don’t any kids, but my niece is being raised bilingually in English and Russian, and quite a few of my friends are raising their kids with two or more languages, especially English and Welsh.

I would recommend this kind of event to anybody interested in languages, and I’m looking forward to the Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad in Serbia in October.

Chinese, Czech, Dutch, Endangered languages, English, Esperanto, French, German, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Language, Manx, Polish, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Spanish, Swedish, Taiwanese, Turkish, Welsh 3 Comments

Language quiz

Here’s a song in multiple languages- it’s a multilingual version of ‘Let it Go’ from the film Frozen sung by Richard Simcott at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin. He sang it a capella and from memory – very impressive. The sound quality isn’t great, but it’s okay.

Can you identify the different languages?

Language, Quiz questions 5 Comments


I’m having a wonderful time at the Polyglot Gathering. My luggage arrived, finally, and I’ve been speaking even more languages, including Cantonese, Taiwanese, Irish, Japanese, Czech, Russian and Turkish (a few words only). I haven’t found any speakers of Breton, Manx or Scottish Gaelic yet though.

I have been to some very interesting lectures and discussion about subjects like synesthesia, Scots, Indonesian, raising multilingual children, maintaining multiple languages, and the neuroscience of polyglot brains.

This morning I gave a talk about language death and revival, focusing particularly on the Celtic languages. When I saw that I’d been given an hour in the programme I thought I wouldn’t have enough material to fill it, but I could have easily talked for twice as long. Instead I talked for about 45 minutes then opened it up for questions. My talk was semi-structured and semi-stream of conciousness, but it seemed to go down well, and people found it interesting.

Tonight there’s another polyglot games evening, similar to the one we had last night. Tomorrow night I’ll be singing a few songs in the international culture evening. I will probably do a Welsh one and maybe an Irish one, but haven’t decided which ones yet.

Breton, English, Japanese, Language, Manx, Russian, Scottish Gaelic Leave a comment

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 9 Comments

Polyglot Gathering

I arrived in Berlin yesterday for the Polyglot Gathering, which starts today. I flew here on KLM via Amsterdam, and unfortunately my luggage stayed in Amsterdam. It should arrive today though, and I’ve coped without it so far. This is only the second time this has happened to me – the last time was when I went to Cuba via Madrid, and my luggage stayed in Madrid for a few days.

Last night I met some of the other polyglots, some of whom speak even more languages than I do. I spoke lots of Esperanto, French and English, and some German, Dutch, Mandarin, Italian, Welsh and Spanish.

The next few days are packed with talks, language lessons and other language-related activities, and lots of polyglottery. A few people I’ve met so far are even familiar with Omniglot, which is great as I rarely meet people who know the site.

Chinese, Dutch, English, Esperanto, French, German, Italian, Language, Spanish, Welsh 3 Comments


There’s an little interview with me on Chinese-Tools.com today about language learning and specifically about learning Chinese.

Language Leave a comment

Going through the motions

In German there are two main verbs that mean ‘to go’: gehen, which is used in expressions about going in general, and particularly going on foot / walking; and fahren, which refers particularly to going/travelling in a form of transport (car, train, bus, boat, etc).

So I could said, “Am Samstag gehe ich nach Berlin” (I’m going to Berlin on Saturday) and this would indicate that I was walking there – which is possible, but would take rather a long time from Bangor. I am actually going to Berlin on Saturday for the Polyglot Gathering – getting the train to Manchester Airport, then flying to Berlin via Amsterdam, and getting the bus into Berlin from the airport – so I could say, “Am Samstag fahre ich nach Berlin” (I’m travelling to Berlin on Saturday).

In Dutch similar verbs exist – gaan and varen – however they are used in different ways. Varen as a verb means ‘to go, to travel, to sail, to navigate, to ride’, and as a noun means sailing. Gaan is the generally word for to go, which also means to travel, to ride and to go on foot (te voet gaan). So in Dutch I could say, “Op zaterdag ga ik naar Berlijn.” (I’m going to Berlin on Saturday), and this wouldn’t necessarily indicate that I was going on foot. If I said, “Ik vaar naar Berlijn.”, that might indicate that I was going there by boat / sailing there – at least that’s how I understand it.

There’s also my favourite Dutch verb lopen (to go, walk, run, march, step, stride, stroll), which seems to be cognate with the German verb laufen (to run, go, walk), and I’m sure there are other verbs of motion in both languages.

Do other languages have separate verbs for different kinds of going?

Dutch, English, German, Language, Words and phrases 6 Comments


While listening to Deutschlandradio this morning one word that kept on coming up and that I didn’t understand was Stockung. It appears mainly in traffic reports, so I assume it meant something like delays or traffic jams.

According to Reverso, Stockung means:

- interruption, hold-up; congestion, traffic jam, hold-up
- breakdown (in negotiations)
- slackening or dropping off (in trade/business)
- break, lull (in speech); pause, hesitation
- thickening; curdling (of milk)

Related expressions include:

- Verkehrsstockung = traffic jam
- der Verkehr läuft wieder ohne Stockungen = traffic is flowing smoothly again

A related verb is stocken, which means: to miss or skip a beat; to falter; to make no progress; to flag; to grind to a halt; to stagnate; to be held up or halted; to thicken; to curdle, to go sour; to become mildewed, to go mouldy/moldy.

Stockung and Stocken come from Stock (stick), which comes from the Old High German stoc, from the Proto-Germanic *Stukka (floor, beam, tree stump), from the Proto-Indo-European *(s)teu- (to push, stick, knock, beat), which is also the root of the English words stick and stock [source].

What are traffic jams / hold-ups called in your country?

English, Etymology, German, Language, Proto-Indo-European, Words and phrases 8 Comments

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 6 Comments

How many languages is enough?

I came across an interesting article in The Guardian today about Alexander Arguelles, who says, “I can read about three dozen languages and speak most of them fluently, and I’ve studied many more.” The headline, “Experience: I can speak 50 languages”, is perhaps a slight exaggeration of the kind that’s common in these kinds of articles. The subheading is, ‘I’m often asked what the secret is. The truth is it’s mostly down to endless hours of reading, studying and practising grammar’, which neatly sums up one approach to language learning.

Have you got to the stage where you feel you have taken on enough languages? Or are these always other languages that you’d like to learn one of these days?

Recently I’ve been concentrating mainly on 15 of my languages, and have been trying to maintain and improve my knowledge of them. There are plenty of other languages out there that I’d like to have a go at, but I’ve been resisting the temptations so far.

English, Language, Language learning 6 Comments