LangFest Montreal: Four Takeaways from the Language Festival

As I alluded to in my last post, I went up to Montreal a week ago to attend LangFest. The conference was pretty cool and gave me a lot to think about. Here’s a quick rundown of my main takeaways from the weekend.

My LangFest language tag.

1. Motivation for Language-Learning

One of the big draws of an event like LangFest is the opportunity to socialize with people who share similar interests — both an interest languages in general, and more specifically an interest in the languages that you are also interested in (especially if you are interested in less-studied languages). That’s why everyone attending the conference got a badge to put language/flag stickers on, to make it easier to find other people who speak the same languages.

I always have a bit of trouble filling out name tags like this — what languages do I actually “speak”? How good do I have to be? What about languages I studied before but have let go? What about languages I can read pretty well but can’t really have a conversation in? Should I put down the language I just started three weeks ago?

At some point, this can devolve into more fundamental questions like — What am I even doing trying to study so many languages? Why not just focus on a few, or even just one, to get really good at? Why am I spending so much time on this language instead of that one?

Several speakers at the conference, as language enthusiasts who have studied many languages, also touched on questions like this in their presentations.

Jana Fadness gave an interesting talk about motivational techniques in language learning. A key point of this talk was that some people are simply more inclined to be generalists (or, um, “multipotentialites”) who continually jump from interest to interest, and certain motivational techniques and study strategies will be less effective for these sorts of people. I suppose I’d have to call myself “multipotentialite” too — I just never knew there was such a fancy word for it.

One interesting point Jana made was that jumping around from language to language isn’t necessarily even detrimental to language learning — sometimes, letting go of a language and picking it up again will actually help put the language into your long-term memory. I wrote a bit about “dropping” or “pausing” languages in my last post, but this was an interesting angle that I hadn’t considered before.

Another point from Jana’s talk that I thought made a lot of sense was that external motivation isn’t necessarily a good idea for everyone — like getting a friend to monitor your progress, or publicizing you language learning goals to “hold yourself accountable,” for example. I mean, I do often like to talk to people about what languages I’m studying at the moment, but sometimes I’m more effective when I just study a language“in secret” until I’m ready to start using in —that’s how I got started with Hebrew, for example. (In fact, I’m secretly studying a language right now — one which I haven’t mentioned on this blog or to many people — but you’ll probably hear about it in a few months 😛.)

Lýdia Machová, a “language mentor” who also works as a professional conference interpreter, gave an interesting talk about the different ways she approaches language study, for her interpreting job or for personal interest. And the language study process of a professional interpreter doesn’t sound like the funnest thing, to be honest.

Again, a theme that emerged from this talk was also that different circumstances call for different learning strategies, and that’s just fine — unless it’s literally your job (which, hey, maybe it is your job), the important thing is just to have fun and find ways to maximize fun. That’s always been my approach when it comes to language learning, and it was nice to hear similar ideas from other language enthusiasts at the conference.

(I think LangFest will be posting recordings of some of these presentations online later this year. I’ll update this post when that happens.)

2. Language-Learning Techniques: The Comprehensible Input Hypothesis

Language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.
A nyelv az egyetlen, amit rosszul is érdemes tudni.
Kató Lomb, Hungarian polyglot

One of the star speakers at LangFest was the linguist Steve Krashen, a leading expert in the study of language acquisition. On the night of the first day of the conference, Dr. Krashen gave a very informative talk about his hypothesis for how language acquisition really works — the “comprehensible input hypothesis” (or “comprehension hypothesis”). You can see the lecture notes to his talk on his blog.

The comprehension hypothesis’ main competitor has historically been the “skill-building hypothesis,” which says that language learning involves learning a whole bunch of rules and then practicing them a lot, correcting mistakes as you go. That’s basically the hypothesis that most language-teaching in schools has been based on in the past.

On the other hand, the comprehension hypothesis says that the essence of language acquisition (for both adults and children) is simply exposure to comprehensible input over an extended period of time. No need to memorize grammar rules. No need to force yourself to start speaking right away. No need for constant corrections. But the key is that the input you receive has to really be comprehensible (and compelling and interesting) and finding such input, rather than learning a bunch of grammar rules, is really the hard part.

I think this hypothesis is great, and probably (hopefully) true — Dr. Krashen devoted much of his talk to various case studies that seemed to confirm his point. It makes language learning a lot more fun and much less of a chore—immerse yourself in enough interesting content and eventually your brain will just sort things out on its own — and it matches my experience in a number of languages I’ve studied myself:

  • Serbo-Croatian: because I had already learned Russian before , a lot of Serbo-Croatian input was already somewhat comprehensible to me from the get-go. After about four months of watching Serbo-Croatian movies (with English subtitles), watching Serbo-Croatian YouTube videos, and reading Serbo-Croatian books on Balkan history and politics (which were compelling and interesting, at least for me), I was already able to have conversations in the language with people on the street in the former Yugoslavia.
  • Hindi: my comprehensible input for Hindi consisted largely of Bollywood movies, which I started watching after a couple of months of textbook-based study. English subtitles helped make everything comprehensible, but the whole time I was actively parsing the dialogue I heard as well. After about half a year of this, I finally started actually talking to people in the language, and it went pretty well.
  • Portuguese: Similar to the Serbo-Croatian situation, knowing a related language (Spanish) helped make a much broader range of input comprehensible early on. I did get a grammar book to help learn Portuguese, but I didn’t really focus on the grammar per se — I mostly just skimmed the grammatical rules and payed much more attention to the example sentences. Then I went and watched a bunch of Brazilian movies, used DuoLingo for more repeated exposure, and in two months I was having substantial conversations in Portuguese.

Of course, since I apparently also fall into the five percent (by Krashen’s estimate) of people in the world who actually somehow enjoy grammar, my language learning experiences have rarely been pure examples of the comprehensible input hypothesis. But for most of the languages I’ve actually gotten to a decent conversational level in, mass exposure to comprehensible input has played a significant role

In particular, whenever I’ve dropped a language and picked it up again a few years later (e.g. Persian, Turkish, Albanian, etc. etc.), the thing that’s really helped me recover my previous language knowledge has not been reviewing all the grammar rules I’ve forgotten, but simply re-exposing myself to a lot of content in the language.

A few other talks at the conference helped drive this point home further. One was given by New York City polyglot and language teacher Paul Ducett, whom I’ve been friends with for a few years now. He gave a great talk about how Dr. Krashen’s findings triggered a revolution in language education decades ago, although the revolution is still far from complete.

Paul gave some interesting examples of how he’s been able to bring comprehensible input into the classroom, and get students more engaged in language learning — most students, after all, aren’t that interested in memorizing grammatical rules, and this method requires much less rote memorization of that kind. He also shared a number of resources (many developed by polyglots) which can help anyone study a language using the comprehensible input principle.

Another talk that touched on the comprehension hypothesis was given by Steve Kaufman, a well-known Canadian polyglot and creator of the LingQ app. Based on his own experience learning fifteen-plus languages, Kaufman spoke about ways in which anyone can use the comprehensible input principle to learn languages more effectively, and stop worrying about perfection, rely less on grammar books, and be comfortable not looking up every new word you come across.

One particularly interesting tidbit from Kaufman’s talk was this: every time you encounter an unknown word in context, your brain is actually able to pick up a certain percentage of its meaning (10% to 50% I think, I forget the specific numbers) from the context — so even if you don’t look the word up in a dictionary, seeing the word five times will probably be enough for you to acquire the word, and probably more effectively than if you had just looked it up in a dictionary.

(Kaufman and Krashen are apparently good friends, and Krashen’s lecture notes have a whole bunch of other greats quotes from Kaufman, who was one of Krashen’s case studies.)

Kaufman’s LingQ app is also an interesting concept — it’s basically just a tool for helping you keep track of what words you already know while reading in your target language. It comes with a lot of interesting texts built in, and you can also import your own reading material for the app to track as well. Free voluntary reading is core piece of the comprehensible input approach, and this app aims to make that as easy as possible. I’ll be playing around with this app a bit more in the near future, which brings me to my next takeaway…

3. Language-Learning Apps

“Kuzu zangpo. Khoe kade beyoe?” (Dzongkha lesson from Mango Language)

Up to this point, I’ve haven’t really been a big fan of apps when it comes to language learning. I’ve found DuoLingo to be actually useful a few times in very specific circumstances (reviewing languages I had previously studied, and learning Portuguese when I already knew Spanish), and that’s about it. My preferred language-learning apps have always just been… Abode PDF Reader and VLC Media Player (and a BitTorrent client (shhhhh)).

Attending LangFest exposed me to several other language-learning apps, and I’m open to reconsidering my position if they prove to be useful. But I’m not entirely convinced just yet.

If you take another look at the name-tag photo at the beginning of this article, you’ll see that LangFest featured a long list of sponsors, many of which were language-learning apps. A couple of them were also offering prizes to attendees in exchange for completing various challenges during the conference. And I won two app-related prizes!

The first prize I won was a year’s worth of free access to uTalk for any single language of my choosing. I got this prize in a raffle that I entered by answering a bunch of language trivia questions (like “what letters are used in Zulu to represent clicks?” or “what does a Greek question mark look like?” or “match these Tok Pisin phrases with their translations”), which are my favorite kind of trivia questions. I think I got at least 80% of the questions right on my own without even having to Google anything.

But once I got the uTalk prize, the tricky part was deciding which one language I would use a year of free access on. And there were over a hundred languages to choose from! It had to be something I hadn’t already studied much of by other means, but it also had to be something that wouldn’t add too much extra work to my language-study schedule and which I could stick with for a year… I finally decided to go with Egyptian Arabic, which is a good middle point between familiarity and novelty for me, relatively low-effort while still being interesting.

A small sample of uTalk’s selection. (Egyptian Arabic is missing from this list because I’d already started studying it.)

Fortunately, doing uTalk exercises in one language gives you points that you can use to unlock other languages too… so I might still get to check out the Assamese or Hausa lessons later on. My first impression of uTalk has been pretty promising so far — I’ll have more say about this in a few weeks.

The second prize I got at LangFest was a year of free access to Mango Languages. (You can also get free access to this app by registering through your local library, so this prize really just helped me save a bit of paperwork.) In order to enter the raffle for this prize, I had to complete three Mango lessons for one of these less-studied languages: Cherokee, Dzongkha, Scottish Gaelic, Tuvan, or… “Pirate.”

I decided to check out Dzongkha, a dialect of Tibetan spoken in Bhutan, which I thought it would be interesting since I’d done a little Tibetan before. Mango’s courses don’t provide much assistance with learning new writing systems (you can click on a word to see how it’s pronounced, and that’s is), but this wasn’t an issue for me since I still knew the Tibetan alphabet. I did the three lessons, learned how to greet people and ask how they’re doing in Dzongkha…

…and I won the contest by default because I was the only person to enter the raffle. 🤔

As with uTalk, the first thing that really impressed me about Mango Languages was its wide range of language options. For example, right now…

Pronunciation: “Neenu maangoo langwejes anee goppa websayTu upayoginci telugu neercukuNTunnaanu.”

Again, I’ll probably need a few more weeks to form a full opinion of this app. I thought the Dzongkha lessons I did were very good and well-explained, and the Javanese lessons (which I dabbled in, but have put on hold for later) do a good job of explaining the different levels of formality, which is a particularly tricky feature of Javanese. On the other hand, the Telugu lessons have been a bit more uneven (some of the “literal translations” and grammatical explanations been a bit weird), but they’ve still been helpful, and I have other Telugu study material to supplement it with anyway.

(Random observation: while Mango Language currently has only two units’ worth of lessons each for Telugu and Tamil, it somehow has four units of lessons for Malayalam!! Very interesting. I may need to investigate further.)

4. Next Up — More Language Conferences!

LangFest Montreal was conceived as the North American counterpart to a couple of other yearly language-enthusiast/polyglot conferences which have been around for years, mainly based in Europe:

  1. The Polyglot Conference, started in 2013 in Budapest, with subsequent events in Novi Sad, New York City (which I attended in 2015), Thessaloniki, and (later this year) Reykjavík.
  2. The Polyglot Gathering, a week-long event that started out in Berlin in 2014 and relocated to Bratislava this year.

I had previously considered going to the Reykjavík conference this October, but ultimately decided I wouldn’t be able to make it. First of all, I would only have time to spend a weekend there, which wouldn’t be enough time to really enjoy the country (I’ve also technically already been to Iceland once before, during an overnight layover). And more importantly for me, a trip to Iceland would absolutely require that I study Icelandic before the trip, and I don’t really have the time for that right now — although I must say it seems like really cool language that would be fun to learn at some point.

Next year’s Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava, on the other hand, is something I’m very interested in attending. Time is a big factor here — I’ll likely have more time to travel next June than this fall — but more importantly, it’s been a few years since I last geeked out over Central-Eastern Europe (when I studied Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian, German, Czech, Polish and Ukrainian to varying degrees in the span of two years, in addition to traveling around the area on two separate occasions), and this would be a nice opportunity to revisit the region and its diverse languages.

Ethnic/Language map of Austria-Hungary. Bratislava = “Presburg” (the old German name), near the intersection of Austria, Hungary and Slovakia. Under the Hapsburgs, Pressburg was 40% German-speaking and 40% Hungarian-speaking, though it’s now 95% Slovak.

Anyway, that event is still almost ten months away, so I have plenty of time to slowly ramp up my German/Hungarian language review, in addition to picking up a bit of Slovak (I’m gonna try to see how far I can get with nothing but comprehensible input and my prior knowledge of Slavic languages).

I’m also already confirmed for next year’s LangFest (the event was offering great discounts for early registration), and I think I might consider proposing a presentation topic at the conference next year myself — maybe something about creole languages, or Chinese dialects, or Indian languages and writing systems? To be determined.

While at LangFest, I also found out that the language-tutoring company italki’s headquarters are in my hometown, Shanghai! They’re organizing a language conference there later this month which I won’t be able to attend, but next time I’m back in town I’ll try to drop by for a visit.

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