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It was my first ever Polyglot Conference, organized by Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings. What better place to have it than in Thessaloniki, where I had the chance to fly in from Oslo and visit a city I hadn’t seen since 1999 and to spend time on the lovely Mediterranean and enjoy the delights of Greek cuisine and music. The venue at Megaro Mousikis was incredible and Friday evening had a welcome with snacks and live music as the sun lowered on the horizon over the Mediterranean.

The weekend event offered the opportunity to meet fellow language enthusiasts, to exchange ideas, to network, to attend some inspiring and entertaining keynote speeches, and to choose among a variety of exciting and informative presentations.

The first keynote speaker, Professor of Linguistics and Endangered Languages, Ghil’ad Zuckerman drove home the importance of being connected with our heritage languages.  By discussing the utilitarian benefits that politicians need in order to implement language policies that help preserve language rather than destroy it, Zuckerman aims to make language preservation relevant to policy makers who may otherwise ignore it as unnecessary and unfruitful.

Zuckerman gives the case of Australia where what he terms linguicide has been a long-term problem. For example only 13 aboriginal languages survive today on the continent, from more than 300 before European settlement began there. In addition, when people are disconnected from their language, Zuckerman says they feel a sense of hatred for the colonisers as well as hatred for themselves. Additionally, research in Canada shows a correlation between youth suicide and lack of conversational knowledge in their native language.

Zuckerman’s case on being connected to our linguistic heritage ties in nicely with the theme of the second keynote speaker, educational consultant in language acquisition and mother-tongue support, Eithne Gallagher.  Gallagher emphasizes the promotion of home languages in the classroom. So often, immigrant families in their new environments have a split between the language used in the school system and that used at home. Gallagher encourages educational systems to bring the home languages of children into the school.

Gallagher explained that the United Nations, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Council of Europe, and the European Union have all said that home languages should be given status and cultivated in education.

With Brexit, it seems that there is the potential for the UK to drift further into monolingual isolation. Before the Polyglot Conference, I had posted an article on LinkedIn to begin a dialogue on making foreign languages fun and interesting in post-Brexit UK. Gallagher’s notions during her keynote speech ties in well to something noted in October by Speak to the Future that the UK’s starting point for language learning is its one million students  who are already using a language besides English at home.

This is something that can apply to any country in the world. Most countries have immigrant communities and various ethnic and language groups. By starting with those who are in the classroom who are already familiar with another culture and language, the educational system can encourage language learning and intercultural awareness.

In Italy, where Gallagher lives, immigrant children with another home language besides Italian are often channeled into vocational tracks. Gallagher argues that if the children’s home language were integrated into the modern education system, with what she calls interlingual classrooms then there would be an integral understanding factor that everybody would be responsive to learning where the children in the classroom would learn about all the languages in the classroom and relevance would be given to all the languages in the classroom. The curriculum would become relevant to all the languages and the parents would become involved.

In addition to four keynote speakers, the Polyglot Conference offered three tracks to choose from for a total of 24 presentations in the programme. The presentations will eventually be online at the Polyglot Conference’s YouTube channel. One of the eight presentations I attended was by Maria Filippou and Dr. Anastasios Ionnidis, regarding The Language Project.

As one of the goals of The Language Project is to offer cultural mediation services and workshops and presentations to see translation live and to create discussions about the translations, I was drawn to learn more about the project and am honoured that The Language Project invited me to write this article for their website.

As the congress coordinator for the Society of Intercultural Education Training and Research (SIETAR Europa), one of my aims is to improve cross-cultural awareness. As a polyglot, another of my aims is to encourage language learning as a way to build bridges across cultures. There are many fans of language learning who inspire us in many ways with their stories of how language learning can build cross-cultural awareness.

The Polyglot Conference is an event where attendees can meet in person and exchange views on the value of language learning. It has been an honour to have been a part of such an event in person. Not everybody is able to travel to attend events such as this, for a variety of reasons, such as family obligations, distance or expense.

For example, Richard Benton of ‘Loving Language’ wasn’t able to attend the conference but has viewpoints that would benefit the language-learning community and I would hope they could spill over into the greater community on the level suggested by Gallagher. At ‘Loving Language’ Benton encourages us all to reach out to immigrant communities in our proximity in order to learn some of their language to build a bridge with empathy and understanding.

Since not everybody is able to attend polyglot events such as the Polyglot Conference, Jimmy Mello thought up the idea of a non-profit online Polyglot Congress for one week in late January – early February.  The Facebook group known as ‘Polyglots (The Community’) has more than 24000 active members. The plan is to offer live presentations available around the globe balanced across four strategically different time zones.

Being a part of my first ever virtual conference in early 2017 will not only offer the opportunity to connect with more people and exchange ideas, but may also teach me about the technological aspects of putting on a conference for virtual attendance.

For the same motivations mentioned by Jimmy Mello, George Simons of Diversophy and SIETAR has also been in favour of conducting a virtual conference for SIETAR Europa in 2018. That way there will be a greater benefit to more people.

Δημήτρης Πολυχρονόπουλος