October 27-29, 2017

Reykjavík, Iceland


Speakers and Agenda

The Polyglot Conference will open on Friday evening with a welcome event at Harpa. Nicolas from Assimil will be serving us a very special 90 minute DJ set with pop and jazz hits in over 30 languages. Then talks and lectures will run all day on both Saturday and Sunday, as per the agenda below:

Saturday, October 28

Daniel TammetSigríður Kristinsdóttir

Daniel Tammet and our adventure into Icelandic

Have you heard the myth that it is impossible to learn Icelandic? Or that Icelandic is one of the most difficult languages in the world? The production staff of the British documentary 'Brain Man' had heard this rumour, so they gave its leading figure, Daniel Tammet, the challenging task to learn Icelandic in one week in the summer of 2004. Sigríður Kristinsdóttir had the privilege to be Tammet's guide into Icelandic - an ancient language which has preserved more of its inflections than have most Western European languages. Today, an internationally bestselling and award-winning essayist, novelist and translator, Daniel Tammet will join us to recount the success of his Icelandic adventure in conversation with his former teacher (now friend), and present his latest work, a collection of essays on the theme of language(s) entitled Every Word is A Bird We Teach to Sing.
Kristín Jónsdóttir

The Icelandic Culture Boom: Threat or Asset?

For centuries the Icelandic language has been spoken by very few people, and mainly only by Icelanders. The same goes for Icelandic culture. Of course, Icelandic culture was not totally isolated from the rest of the world, but it was definitely not widespread. The language itself with its medieval structure, and the Sagas, have mostly been of interest to linguists and literature specialists, and then maybe few "nerds" who have fallen in love with Iceland. Although Iceland has been wide open to influences from around the world, Icelanders have ferociously protected their tongue from being "polluted" by communication with the outside world. Fear about the language's disappearance has been growing ever since American soldiers were based in Iceland after WW2. But lately, with new technology, when computers, fridges and other domestic devices are starting to speak, these worries have resurged. While linguists and lovers of Icelandic are campaigning for the government to start funding research towards keeping up with technology, the Icelandic language and culture have begun facing a significant change. Literature, music, even theatre are no longer exclusively destined for Icelanders only, but also more and more people around the world. Iceland has become fashionable. Bjork is indisputably the pioneer of this boom (with respect for the wave that the Nobel prize winner Halldor Laxness previously caused). Since Bjork, Sigur Ros, Emiliana Torrini, Of Monsters and Men and many more have been producing music on an international basis. Icelandic literature is being translated all around the world. Authors are spending more and more time discussing their work abroad. How will this flourishing Icelandic soft power movement affect the future of Iceland's language and culture?
Jared Gimbel

Using Video Games to Learn and Maintain Languages

Video games are slated to become one of the largest industries on the planet. As such, in a time in which languages feel threatened, many of their online communities will make Indie games and create translations of existing games (like Minecraft) in order to get people to engage with their language in a technological sphere. You can use video games to learn a vocabulary set in extraordinary detail (such as military, sports, high fantasy or even cooking vocabulary). The important thing: pick a wide variety of games and always read aloud. But within contemporary video game culture lies a genre of video that is arguably one of the most efficient, unorthodox and unused language learning tools: “Ley’s Play” videos, in which a person or a group of people play a video game with live commentary. Such videos are viewable for free in dozens upon dozens of languages (although mostly those from the developed world) for hundreds of games. These videos exist in rarer languages like Welsh and in Icelandic as well as more common languages like German or Portuguese. The “Let’s Play” genre enables people to engage with casual registers of a language used in their most natural, unscripted states (something that a lot of television doesn’t do). Furthermore, a lot of commentators, when playing English versions of the game, translate all game dialogue and item names into their native tongue, making it a very efficient “picture dictionary” that can help train you to think in a language very quickly.
Yanjaa Wintersoul

Mastering Mongolian as a Modern Nomad

First, we'll take a look at where, how and why Mongolian is thriving and dying in different parts of central Asia. Why the Mongolian dialect of Buryat is dying at an unbelievable pace in its autonomous regions in Kazakhstan and Russia, while Old Mongolian in Inner Mongolia experiences declines and revivals at seemingly random intervals. How the demographic of Mongolia (50% of the population is 25 and under) and its hyperconnected activity on social media influences the way the language is evolving. Second, we'll take a look at how Mongolians living abroad preserve their mother tongue. How can some live abroad for years but speak as if they never left, while others do an exchange semester and come back speaking like foreigners? What are some common mistakes that parents can avoid when relocating? Is it too late for those who didn't grow up speaking Mongolian, once they've reached adulthood? Should we always approach language preservation from a holistic viewpoint or is it better to focus on one aspect (speaking, writing, reading etc) at a time? The answers to these questions are answered with findings from modern research papers on language preservation, highlighted with personal anecdotes and experiences of being Mongolian in Stockholm, Tokyo, Nairobi and Texas/ Tennessee. Third, a summary of lessons learned and suggested approaches for keeping Mongolian alive and well no matter where we are in the world, giving a toolkit for language preservation for all.
Bérengère Digard

Bilingualism: help or drawback for the social life of adults on the autism spectrum?

Knowing several languages shapes the way people interact and the way they lead their social life. But how does it work for people on the autism spectrum, who can experience specific difficulties in social interaction? To answer this question, I designed the Autism & Bilingualism Census (ABC), an online survey addressed to all adults on the autism spectrum, monolinguals and multilinguals alike. By focusing on both the language exposure and use, and the general life satisfaction and social involvement of the participants, the ABC is new, unique, and valuable tool to understand how knowing several languages influences the way adults on the autism spectrum lead their social life. The ABC also brings to light this population often overlooked that are bilinguals and multilinguals on the autism spectrum. The ABC will be completed by the summer 2017. In the meantime, adults on the autism spectrum, whether they know one or more languages, can take part by simply following this link:
Kristina Cunningham

Multilingualism and straight bananas - languages in the EU policy priorities

Can you imagine getting paid to promote language learning and linguistic diversity in Europe? That's my job! The guideline was agreed between EU Heads of State and Government back in 2002: every European citizen should be taught not only one, but two foreign languages in school, and language learning should begin at a very early age. So do all Europeans speak three languages? No way – as European polyglots you know very well that you are a tiny minority. The results of the EU Member States' language education efforts have been disappointing, even for the first foreign language, which in almost all cases is English. We'll take a look at the particular role of English as a global lingua franca, the advantages and the negative side effects for people with English as their mother tongue. I am going to demonstrate just how bad a problem the general lack of language skills is – for individuals, for businesses and for society. I shall then convey some inside information on how the European cooperation in the field of education and training works and discuss how multilingualism is supported and encouraged in different ways at European level. Iceland is not an EU Member State but is in the fortunate position to benefit from full participation in the EU funding programmes for education and culture, such as Erasmus+. Will this be the case also for the UK in the future – who knows?
Tetsu Yung

Multilingual acquisition as part of a complete multitalent development package in young children.

Raising our kids to speak multiple languages in our family is one of several ways we get our children to develop multiple talents, not just to become productive citizens of the world, but also to increase self-confidence and, in the end, learn skills that can help them further enjoy their life. In terms of languages, they are brought up in an environment that requires them to use English, French, Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish on a daily basis. Similarly, we provide an environment that favors development of other talents also, including sports and music. The basic idea is to provide the environment that naturally requires or encourages them to develop the skills that we want them to learn, based on simple concepts. Specifically for languages, applications of the concepts OPOL (One Person One Language) and CLAP (Contextual Language Acquisition Philosophy) will be discussed and demonstrated in this talk.
Dr. Rob Painter

Can 'small' languages survive in the age of texting?

Linguists estimate that there are nearly 7,100 languages in the world, yet many (3,935) are 'small' languages with fewer than a thousand native speakers and a third (2,467) are endangered, threatened by global 'big' languages, such as English, Spanish, and Chinese, and by loss of the community where the languages are spoken (statistics from Simons & Fennig 2017). As their speakers acquire 'big' languages, 'small' languages are dying off rapidly. For instance, Anderson (2012: 16) reports that 142 of the 175 Native American languages are moribund with the remaining speakers in their 80s. Likewise, UNESCO recently added 13 German varieties such as North Frisian and Jutlandic Danish to the list of at-risk languages due to a decline in speakers (Levitz 2011). World-wide linguistic diversity is diminishing, and field linguists now race to document language varieties from 'last speakers' (see e.g. Evans 2005). This talk presents a linguistic account of the vitality of 'small' languages against the globalizing influence of 'big' languages, and addresses what steps can be taken to help 'small' languages survive. Citing studies from efforts to maintain Low German (Wölck 1997) and Faroese (Dorian 1989), I survey two proposals for maintaining 'smaller' languages and dialects: First, that favorable attitudes toward a 'small' language by the community will allow a local language to compete strongly with 'big' languages (Wölck 1997), and second, that conscious effort by communities to speak 'small' languages in situations where 'big' languages are making inroads is effective in keeping smaller languages alive (see Crystal 2002).
Thei Zervaki

The Language of Food: What a linguist turned food writer can teach you

The language of food is fun, familiar but often unexpectedly surprising. I started http://ediblyy.com/, a culinary thesaurus more than a year ago featuring one word each Friday describing a food (dish, pastry, baked good etc.) from any region or country in the world. As a food writer, I am familiar with the food words featured but I am not always aware of their origin. During the process, I realized that food words are more just sounds and letters, a dish we all love or hate; they come with a long and intriguing history that very few know and can talk about. In this presentation, I will discuss the language of menus, packaged foods and their linguistic descriptions, cookbooks and culinary dictionaries and even do some quizzes to test your culinary knowledge. At the end of the presentation, participants will know what is kuku and how to make it, what ketchup and ramen have in common, why apples are gluten free and what halo halo means. Participants will get some ideas of improving their culinary vocabulary and language teachers can use some of the examples in the classroom. Extra bonus: I will teach how to write ambrosia in Greek and sushi in Japanese. I will provide bibliography and interesting readings as well.
Jean-Paul Demoule

The canonical Indo-European model and its assumptions

The canonical Indo-European model, which was originally a purely linguistic model, is founded on a central assumption: that of an original people (Urvolk in German), who inhabited an original homeland (Urheimat) where they spoke an original language (Ursprache). They left this homeland to spread throughout a large part of Eurasia, giving rise to all of the known Indo-European languages. One can nevertheless challenge this model on at least for levels. First, on a factual, strictly extra-linguistic level, based on data provided by archaeology, comparative mythology, biological anthropology and linguistic palaeontology: this approach leads to the conclusion that, in the present state of knowledge, it is impossible to confirm the validity of the centrifugal tree model in its various forms. Secondly, on a historical and cultural level, we have to call into question the correspondence, based on the model of the 19 th  century Nation State, between an “archaeological material culture”, a “people” and a homogenous language. Thirdly, on a linguistic level, we can question the validity of the tree model for charting the resemblances and correspondences between languages. Finally, on an ideological level, we can show by means of historiography how the idea of an original people was constructed over time by European thinkers. So much so that one can also question the starting point, which takes the existence of a unique language that could be entirely reconstructed (“Ursprache”) as the only model possible for the undeniable resemblances between the Indo-European languages.
Johan Vandewalle

Turkic Languages, Multilingualism and Polyglottery

Throughout the centuries, Turkic languages (41 in number according to Ethnologue) have been spoken over a vast, nearly continuous area, stretching out from the Balkans in the west to Siberia and the Chinese Wall in the east. Recently, the Turkish diaspora, with more than 4 million people of Turkish origin in Western Europe, was added to this area. This broad dispersion of the Turkic languages has led to numerous multilingual situations, in which Turkic languages came into contact with genetically and typologically quite different language families: Indo-European (Slavic, Albanian, Greek, Iranian, Armenian), Semitic (Arabic), Sino-Tibetan, Mongolic and Tungusic. This contact often yielded linguistically fascinating results in both the Turkic and the non-Turkic languages. All of this makes turcology a very demanding study as to the required knowledge of languages by researchers. It is therefore not surprising that many of the well known turcologists are or have been polyglots. The aim of this talk is to give an overview of this huge variety of multilingual situations, demonstrating with clear examples the linguistic effects of the language contact and discussing the requirements as to the knowledge of foreign languages by researchers. Finally, a number of famous turcologists will pass in review and their knowledge of foreign languages will be described.

Sunday, October 29

Shereen Sharaan

Towards Evidence-Based Best Practices for Bilingual and Multilingual Children with Autism

  • Shereen Sharaan | DART
Clinicians and teachers often recommend that bilingual parents expose their children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to only one language, despite the limited research on bilingualism and children with ASD. These choices hold consequences for the treatment, education and formation of ethnic identities of the increasing number of bilingual children with ASD. The push to use only one language with autistic children from bilingual households stems from the notion that becoming bilingual can “overload” children with ASD and might even cause additional language delays. However, there is no research support for the belief that children with autism who receive input in two languages will be worse off than their monolingual peers. In fact, they have demonstrated their capacity to function successfully as bilinguals. Furthermore, evidence from typically developing literature suggests certain cognitive advantages for bilinguals and multilinguals, particularly in the areas of executive functions. While some studies debate the existence of any cognitive advantages for bilinguals, there is no dispute that findings have been focused on non-clinical populations. This Fall 2017, our study will launch to investigate this topic with residents of the United Arab Emirates, a unique country that presents multilinguals in a large variety of cultural and linguistic variations, unlike the UK and US for instance. Potential challenges, potential outcomes, and significance of this research on a local and international level will be discussed at the conference.
Tita & Ana Beaven

Investigating self-directed learning in an online community:  the Add1Challenge

Self-directed learning (SDL) can be defined as a process started by an individual, which involves needs analysis and goal setting, followed by the implementation - with or without the support of others - of the necessary learning strategies and identification of the most suitable resources to meet one’s learning objectives and assess results (Knowles, 1975). The online environment offers a fertile ground for self-directed language learning, by providing - among others - the possibility to create communities of learners. One such community is the one formed around the Add1Challenge, organised by Brian Kwong, in which participants commit themselves to learning a language in 90 days, with the aim of being able to hold a 15-minute conversation with a ‘native’ speaker by the end of the Challenge. The Add1Challenge online community seems an ideal place to investigate self-directed language learning and, in particular, the strategies used by participants specifically regarding the development of speaking skills in the L2. The study involves 18 participants in one of the Add1Challenges taking place in the spring of 2017. The data is being collected in the form of pre- and post-challenge questionnaires, learning logs provided by some of the participants through the online community page, and longitudinal semi-structured interviews at different stages of the 90-day challenge. A version of the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL) framework (Oxford, R.1989) is used as a framework for data generation and analysis.    In our presentation, we will discuss our findings from the study, in order to contribute to a better understanding of the strategies used by self-directed language learners.
Dr. Thomas H Bak

Cognitive effects of language learning: implications for smaller and indigenous languages

Recent research suggesting that multilingualism and language learning can have significant effects on cognitive functions throughout the lifetime has added a new and potentially highly relevant argument to the list of potential benefits associated with learning languages. Drawing on my research in different populations in the UK as well as in India and Singapore I will demonstrate that: (1) The benefits of bilingualism are not restricted to early, simultaneous childhood bilinguals but can be demonstrated in those who have learned languages in adulthood and even in later life. (2) Changes in attentional functions can be detected after only one week of an intensive language course and can be maintained in those who practice 5 hours per week or more. (3) The cognitive effects of language learning lead to a better cognitive performance throughout lifetime, slower cognitive ageing, later onset of dementia and a better recovery from stroke. I will argue from an evolutionary perspective, suggesting that lifetime multilingualism constitutes the natural environment in which human language has developed and thus the natural linguistic habitat for our brains. Importantly, all these effects can occur through learning of any language, independently of the number of speakers and its political, economic or social importance. Hence, the cognitive benefits of language learning provide one of the most powerful arguments in favour of the preservation, learning and reclamation/revival of small and indigenous languages throughout the world.
Benny Lewis

Visualizing the Data Science of Languages

As we learn more and more about the languages we learn, the methods people use to learn them, and the people who speak them, we start to gain fascinating insights that change our perspective on the subject, the more we know. But these insights tend to be on the individual scale, and based on a tiny sample size. What if we could take a step back and appreciate all the information about linguistics and languages on a grander scale? In this talk, Benny is going to combine what he has learned in the last decade and a half of acquiring languages, and combine it with his original mathematical and engineering background, while bringing it all together with his recently acquired knowledge of data science, visualizations, and several years of presenting, to give a fun take on what we can see from the large-scale data we find on the subjects polyglots hold dear. He'll be doing this through fascinating visuals.
Estefanía Nava

Beyond a different language: becoming local to integrate into a new society

  • Estefanía Nava
This paper explores how localisms as part of culture can shape identity and difficult integration in a new society on top of known language barriers. Global migration issues are not limited to crossing country or continent boundaries, they can also be triggered when changing cities or in cases where the same language is used differently due to other cultural origins. On top of learning the new language, immigrants need to adopt the cultural traits of the language used locally to have a greater chance of achieving social integration. To do so, they reject those specific to their own language and identity and the ones learnt elsewhere. Otherwise, they risk not being accepted as more than foreigners or tourists. How can learning the new place of residence’s linguistic nuances and specific idiomatic usage, tones, pronunciation and expressions increase an immigrant's chance of success? How can language programs cater to this need by teaching local tacit knowledge that is hard to pinpoint and even harder to transfer to a different culture? In which situations is learning the broad “Spanish”, “German” or “Chinese” form of languages enough for an immigrant seeking meaningful integration? As part of the definition and assessment of this phenomenon, in depth interviews and surveys will be carried out with expats in scenarios that encompass both speaking their own language in a different culture and learning the language from scratch in order to suggest what gaps should be handled for a more effective language experience.
Ellen de Visser

Learn more Germanic languages with historical linguistics

I will take the audience on a journey into the history of Germanic languages and explain them a bit about the (Grimm’s) Sounds Shifts, tell them about how language can change over time and give them some examples about what could influence language change. Why does everyone say that Dutch is a mixture of German and English? Why are these three languages so similar and how can you learn new words easily by have a bit more information about their background? And how is it that some people talk ‚Denglish‘? At the end of the presentation, I want to practice these language laws and showing the public how easy learning new words between these languages is. E.g.: t>s en/nl water, dt. Wasser p>pf en/nl pond/pound dt. Pfund If you get to know these general rules, it will be a lot easier to especially read texts at the beginning of language acquisition. In addition to that, it is a lot of fun seeing these laws can be applied easily.
Alexander Arguelles

Viking Dreams: The Old Norse Sagas as a Gateway to Icelandic Culture and to Polyliteracy

The people of Iceland formally adopted Christianity in the year 1000 and, from that date on, it was forbidden to practice paganism openly.  However, a high percentage of the population continued to do so privately for the next several centuries.  Already the heirs of a literary culture of dream interpretation, they wrote most openly of their old gods in the dream records in their family sagas, which are thus rich in mythological and religious symbolism.  In order to access these texts, one must master the Old Norse literary language, first and foremost, and in order to appreciate them in their full comparative context, one also needs Latin, Middle High German, Old French, and other medieval literary languages.  The study of the Old Norse sagas is thus a perfect gateway to polyliteracy, that all-too-often neglected diachronic side of polyglottery that explores the literary languages of times gone by.  This talk, therefore, will not only celebrate our host culture's rich heritage, but also provide insight and advice into how to get underway on the path of polyliteracy.
Mundolingua Museum

Mundolingua: Museum of Language and Linguistics

Mundolingua, museum of language, languages and linguistics opened in 2013, after years of gestation, and aims to take the somewhat remote and academic field of linguistics to the general public in an enjoyable way. We look at some of the principles used in the conception of the museum : the difference between a museum and an interactive space, catering for the widest possible publc, the leitmotiv of fun, that it be hands on, relatively easy to shift, with recycling and use of available resources. No particular view was to be favoured, nor any particular language. Numerous challenges resulted from these principles – which languages to use for all the information, how to display all with very limited space, and how to cater for the multiple target markets. To these we add the day to day existential challenges – mostly financial but also things like vandalism and theft, technical hiccups with hard and software and problems with the historic building we are in – leaks and dust and new legislation … Future perspectives for the museum are also part of our discussion and finally we have a look at the actual content of the museum, split into the 2 levels – language on the ground floor and languages in the basement.
Guðrún Theodórsdóttir, PhD

The Icelandic Village: Guided Participation in Real-Life Interaction in Icelandic

  • Guðrún Theodórsdóttir, PhD | Website
This paper presents a ground-breaking scaffolding L2 pedagogy that brings participants’ everyday practices in the wild to the core of language learning and teaching. Known as the Icelandic Village, the project has designed an environment for L2 interaction outside the classroom; a bridge between classroom interaction and real life interaction. The Icelandic Village is a network of businesses in downtown Reykjavik and/or on the campus of the University of Iceland (in Reykjavik) where L2 learners of Icelandic are offered an opportunity to participate in interaction with local Icelanders on a daily basis in everyday life situations such as doing business in the bakery, borrowing a book from the library, buying a coffee in a café etc. The businesses and their employees have agreed to use Icelandic with the learners and have been trained to do so. This training is necessary to prevent the locals from switching to English (Theodórsdóttir & Eskildsen, 2011) A sojourn through the Icelandic Village is thus a guided participation in real-life interaction in Icelandic. The design of the Icelandic Village is in the shape of an infinity symbol, ∞, linking classroom interaction to the learners’ interaction in the Icelandic Village; the learners first visit the village for investigating the place, collecting words and phrases, opening their eyes and ears to the language all around them in the place. The next step is bringing their ‘catch’ to the classroom to work on with the teacher to prepare the actual business encounter. The learners then do their business, record the encounter, and bring this recording back to the classroom for further scrutiny in a de-briefing session (Theodórsdóttir & Wagner, 2013). The paper presents the Icelandic Village and shows, through data from the business encounters and the classroom, how rich in learning and teaching opportunities this environment is.