As the clouds finally broke that Friday evening to reveal the most stunning sunset over the Aegean, more than 400 polyglots, language lovers and enthusiasts were making their way to Thessaloniki’s main concert hall to mark the start of this year’s Polyglot Conference.
That evening the glass, sea-front venue was abuzz with multilingual chatter, as people exchanged languages, told stories, and made friendships that would last for many years to come. The next morning when the conference officially opened, there was no mistaking it: the polyglots were in town!
After previous events in Budapest, Novi Sad and New York, Thessaloniki seemed an obvious choice to organisers Alex Rawlings and Richard Simcott for the 4th annual Polyglot Conference. Its size, large student population, and long history of being a crossroads for languages and cultures makes it a fascinating place for any visitor. The city was once the global centre of Sephardic Jews and the Ladino language, and also the birthplace of Kemal Atatürk. For language lovers, a wealth of linguistic history lies beneath the city’s streets, waiting to be uncovered.
This year the Polyglot Conference celebrated its host city’s heritage with a talk on Ladino Humour and Culture by Karen Gerson Sarhon from the Sephardic Centre of Istanbul. It welcomed 27 talks in total, with keynotes by Ghil’ad Zuckermann from Adelaide, Australia on Aboriginal language revival, campaigner for multilingual education Eithne Gallagher on managing multiple home languages in the classroom, author Gaston Dorren on different European languages’ “hidden secrets”, and Professor Alexander Arguelles, one of the world’s most multilingual people, on how he had lived his life as a “professional polyglot”.
What marked this year’s Polyglot Conference was its internationalism. Over 85% of participants had travelled to Thessaloniki from all six continents, compared with just 30% to New York the year before. Generous sponsorship also made more discounted places available than ever before, and 45 local volunteers were on hand at all times to represent their home city and help out with the organisation.
In a year that has been marked by difficult events, the Polyglot Conference offered a breath of hope to those who still believe in a more tolerant, more international, and more multilingual world. That weekend participants from Iran and Israel, Albania and Serbia, Greece and Turkey, and all over the world rubbed shoulders and broke bread together. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that they had more that united them than divided them: the Polyglot Conference was about their shared love of language, and their passion for exploring the world.
The Polyglot Conference offered its participants a chance to define themselves separately from their country of origin. Despite its reputation for anti-multilingualism and recent vote to leave the European Union, the best represented country after host nation Greece was the United Kingdom, followed closely by the highly Anglophone USA. Participants from these countries relished at the chance to speak multiple languages, and demonstrated a thirst for multilingualism and multiculturalism that sadly is so absent from headlines about those countries.
Next year’s event in Reykjavik, Iceland is already set to be an even greater success, with numbers growing year on year and the organisers forming ever closer ties with sponsors and supporters. Language lovers across the globe are already looking forward to a chance to reconnect and share their hobby at the Polyglot Conference 2017, this time to the stunning backdrop of the Northern Lights. Nearly 100 former participants have already piled into a group on Facebook dedicated to the group study of Icelandic, and by next year we will see how well they get on.
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Written by Alex Rawlings – Organiser of Polyglot Conference and Workshops. London, England.
Photos source: http://polyglotconference.com