“What’s in a name?” – William Shakespeare.
On October 10th and 11th the largest polyglot conference yet took place in New York City. The event saw the coming together of 400+ polyglots, and some of the most influential speakers in the field of foreign language education and linguistics. The speaker line-up was star-studded, with talks delivered by John McWorter, Loraine Obler, Barry Farber, and other celebrity scholars, linguists, and polyglots. The talks covered diverse topics from finding work through your passion for language to historical linguistics.
When discussing this event with others, the question that inevitably arises is, “What, or who, is a polyglot?”
A traditional definition of a polyglot is a “person who speaks, writes, or reads multiple languages”. This definition does not quite capture what those attending the Polyglot Conference seem to mean when referring to “the polyglot community”. In becoming a community, the word itself gains a special, distinct meaning.
There are many reasons why one may speak several languages, including upbringing, education, extended family or friends. We collect languages and bits of languages in environments where multiple languages are present. Growing up in multiple countries will very likely to result in someone who at least “speaks a little bit of X, Y, and Z”. Depending on the particular situation and circumstance, a person can grow up perfectly quadrilingual without much conscious effort or significant notice of the linguistic feat.
Attempts to define “polyglot” begs the answer to yet another question: what does it mean to ”speak” a language?
The range of “speaking”, so often designated as “fluency” can be hard to pin down. Designation through a system of proficiency levels (A1 – C2) can also break down. There are, technically, no Esperanto speakers at a C2 level (as the test for the C2 level does not exist), though there are, of course, plenty of fluent and native speakers of Esperanto.
In addition, language is not a perfectly testable skill, and varies with domain specificity. A native fluent speaker of English, for example, would still have trouble comprehending a lecture on human anatomy. Speaking “doctor” and speaking “English” are different skills. Though both are contained within the umbrella designation of “English”, listening to an intense, specialized conversation between doctors can be as incomprehensible to an average English speaker, as listening to a conversation in Farsi or Afrikaans.
The city of New York is teeming with languages. The language landscape of the city is at a rolling boil. Pockets of language communities are everywhere, and though most people speak English, having a 2nd or a 3rd language is entirely unsurprising. If anything, single-language speakers may be in the minority here. The old joke goes “a person speaking 3 languages is trilingual, two – bilingual, and one – and American. New York defies this stereotype.
There is, however, a difference between the polyglot population of New York (or any other place in the world) and the sort of polyglots that willingly cross states, countries, and oceans in order to attend the conference.The people that came together to spend a weekend celebrating language are actively seeking out exposure, continuously learning and exposing themselves to the fear and vulnerability of making mistakes, being uncomfortable, and saying the wrong thing. While many of those in attendance can be quite shy this tolerance for vulnerability is inspiring.
This attitude, this purposeful vulnerability, is something that seems to tie the community together. Seeking out a new environment, a new perspective, a new door of perception through which to connect with others: that is a polyglot. In this sense, a polyglot is someone who actively seeks perspective and connection through the eyes of a speaker of a different language.
What the Polyglot Conference atmosphere has achieved a sense of community, of curiosity, and of support for learning. italki is extremely proud of sponsoring and participating this event, and hope that the speakers and participants, as well as italki students and teachers, will carry this open-minded, can-do attitude into the world.
Our favorite summary of the experience comes from Siskia Lagomarsino, also known as “The Polyglotist”:
“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. “
We are excited to be part of this community, and truly look forward to meeting again in Thessaloniki 2016.