Multilingual Manchester

Part of the Manchester Day Parade 2016

I had a multilingual day in Manchester today – I spent part of it listening to choirs and other groups performing as part of the Manchester Day celebrations. They sang in English, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Maori, Hebrew and Yiddish, and I also watched the Manchester Day parade.

Part of the Manchester Day Parade 2016

I also went to the Polyglot Pub, a meet-up arranged by Kerstin Cable of Fluent Language. The seven of us who turned up spoke in English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian and Swedish, plus odd bits of Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Japanese, Finnish and Estonian. This was the first Polyglot Pub in Manchester, and hopefully won’t be the last.

Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service Pipe Band

You can see more photos on Flickr

There will be a language quiz tomorrow, by the way.

Reflections on the Polyglot Gathering

Polyglots dancing at the Slaughterhouse in Berlin

I got back from the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin late on Monday night. I travelled by train the whole way, which is a bit more expensive than the plane, and takes a few hours longer, but I prefer to travel this way, and you see more. The journey went smoothly, apart from the train from London, which was an hour late getting into Bangor. Fortunately I got a partial refund on my ticket. On the Eurostar I talked to a interesting lady from Vancouver, and on the train to Bangor I talked, mainly in Welsh, to a doctor from Felinheli.

This year’s Gathering was as much fun as previous years – it was my third. I arrived in Berlin quite late on Wednesday evening the day before it officially started, and missed out on most of the polyglot games that were going on in the afternoon and evening. Next year I might arrive a day or two before the start to give me a chance to explore more of Berlin – this year I spent most of my time in the venue and didn’t go exploring.

Over the next four days I learnt about many things, including Portuguese-based creoles, Greek, minimalism, Sardinian languages and dialects, why many language learners don’t acquire native-like accents, metaphors in native Canadian languages, language mentoring, how musical techniques can be applied to language learning, the stagecraft of multilingualism, and much more. I got to know old friends better, met lots of new ones, and I spoke lots of different languages. My talk on Manx went well, as did the introduction to Welsh that I helped with.

The talks were mainly in English, with some in French, Italian, German, Esperanto, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, Indonesian, and in various combinations of these.

Between us we polyglots speak quite a few different languages. The most common (i.e. those with quite a few speakers / learners) include English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian, Esperanto, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Russian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Serbian, Greek, Finnish, Hungarian, Welsh, Irish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Malay, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Swahili. There were also speakers and learners of Wolof, Punjabi, Hindi, Marathi, Romani, Tamil, Latin, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish, Breton, Sardinian, Luxembourgish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Slovenian, Albanian, Basque, Tagalog, Turkish, Navajo, Toki Pona, Klingon, and probably other languages.

I’m looking forward to the next polyglot event – the North American Polyglot Symposium in Montreal in July. I’ll be doing a talk on the origins of language there, so should get working on it.

Some things I learnt from the Gathering

There are many ways to learn languages, and no single way will work for everyone. Some like to focus on one language at a time until they have reached a level they are happy with, then move on to the next language; others like to study many different languages at the same time. Some learn grammar and vocabulary first, then learn to speak; others start using their languages straight away, or soon after they start studying. Some like to study on their own; others like to study in a class and/or with a private tutor. Some combine many of the above and more, to varying degrees – I certainly do.

From Malachi Rempen’s talk on cartooning, minimalism and language learning (Less is More: What Silly Doodles Can Teach Us About Fluency), I learnt that you can do a lot with a little. He showed how he can make his Itchy Feet character express a wide variety of emotions with just a few lines, and suggested that the same can be applied to languages – you can communicate even if you know only a little of a language. He also argued that fluency means different things to different people, and might not be the best thing to aim for.

Tim Keeley, professor of Cross-Cultural Management at Kyushu Sangyo University in Fukuoka, explained that the idea that only children can acquire native-like accents in foreign languages is wrong – the brain is flexible throughout live and you can learn to perceive and produce foreign sounds. However there are emotional barriers which stop many people from sounding ‘native’. When learning another language you can also take on or create a new identity, and those who are willing and able to do this are most likely to sound more like native speakers. You also shouldn’t worry about mimicking people. In fact that is a good way to acquire native-like pronunciation.

Michael Levi Harris, an actor and polyglot from New York, talked about parallels between learning a part and learning a language. He explained that actors tend to exaggerate speech and physical mannerisms when learning a part, then make them more subtle, and that language learners can try the same things – exaggerate the pronunciation, gestures, etc. until they become second nature, then tone them down. He also talked about taking on different identities when speaking different languages and with different accents. If you can find a native speaker of a language whose voice and mannerisms appeal to you, then you can create your character in that language based on them.

The extend to which you take on a new identity in a new language depends on how much you want to integrate into a new culture. If you want to be taken for a native, then you need to sound and act like them. Alternatively you could try sounding like a native, perhaps with a bit of a foreign accent, but not worry so much about acting like them. If you spend a lot of time in a different county interacting and observing the natives, you’re likely to pick up at least some of their behaviour anyway.

Fiel Sahir, an Indonesian-American musician and polyglot who currently lives in Germany, talked about applying musical techniques to language learning. He explained how practice is the key to music and language, but it has to be intelligent practice that focuses on areas that you find difficult. This might be particular passages in a piece of music, or particular tenses or noun declensions in a language. By focusing like this, you can make a lot of progress.

Focus is something that I find difficult sometimes. I can and do focus, but often get distracted. I was thinking about how I’ve been dabbling with a variety of languages recently and not making a lot of progress in any of them. So my plan is to focus on one, or two, languages for the next year – Russian and Czech – and learn as much as I can in them. I will keep my other languages ticking over, but not spend much time on them.

Polyglot Gathering 2016

I’m currently at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin. I arrived here on Wednesday evening and have been speaking and hearing lots of different languages. So far I’ve had conversations in English, French, Welsh, German, Irish and Mandarin, and spoken bits and pieces of Spanish, Italian, Russian, Czech, Portuguese, Toki Pona and Esperanto. I’ve also heard some Finnish, Punjabi, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Slovak, Sardinian, Dutch, Hebrew, Indonesian, Norwegian, Swedish and other languages that I didn’t recognise.

Yesterday I went to talks on Portuguese Creole languages, Greek, language learning and linguistics, how to achieve advanced language competence, and on connections between cartoons and language learning. This morning I’ve been to talks on teaching multiple languages simultaneously, and languages and dialects of Sardinia. All the talks I’ve been to so far have been in English, apart from the Sardinian one, which was in Italian.

I’ve met lots of people I know from previous polyglot events, and lots of new people too. I might try to explore a bit more of Berlin at some point as well.

Finnish Language Day

Apparently today is Finnish Language Day or Suomen kielen päivä. It is the anniversary of the death of Mikael Agricola (c. 1510-1557), a clergyman who is known as the “father of literary Finnish” – he translated religious works into Finnish, including the New Testament, and modern Finnish spelling is based on his work. Before then there was no standard form of written Finnish [source].

It is also my birthday – Ta mee shey bleeaney as daeed d’eash jiu.

New Finnish Grammar

I’m currently reading New Finnish Grammar, an English translation of Diego Marani’s novel Nuova grammatica finlandese. It is the story of a man who is found unconscious with a serious head injury on a street in Trieste and who is cared for by a Finnish doctor, who believes he is Finnish as his jacket has a name tag with the Finnish name Sampo Karjalainen. When the mystery man regains conscious he has no memory or language so has no idea who he is, where he’s from or how he ended up in Trieste. The doctor does his best to teach Sampo, the name he adopts, to speak Finnish, then later arranges for him to continue his treatment in Helsinki.

It’s a really good translation that reads as if it was originally written in English, the language used very expressive and interesting, and there are lots of interesting bits about language acquisition and about the Finnish language. Here is a selection:

“In the Finnish language the noun is hard to lay hands on, hidden as it is behind the endless declensions of its fifteen cases and only rarely caught unawares in the nominative.

Is this true?

In the Finnish sentence the words are grouped around the verb like moons around a planet, and whichever one is nearest the verb becomes the subject. In European languages the sentence is a straight line, in Finnish it is a circle, within which something happens.

Is this a good description of Finnish sentences?

I was beginning to be able to express myself, even if somewhat stiltedly. I would learn the words already declined, a different one for each case, and when I did not know how to put them together I made do with saying them at random, hoping that intonation and gesture would go some way towards making up for lack of syntax. And yet, while still lacking firm banks, the Finnish language was gradually carving itself out a bed in the quicksands of my mind, with the words that I had tamed coursing down it and gradually informing me of the meaning of others. Branching out and joining up, they sent the thousand drops of sound which make up a language into circulation, watering and strengthening my awareness, my ability to sense the boundaries of meaning.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but am enjoying it so far and would certainly recommend it.