The Language Event is a new type of event sponsored by the Polyglot Conference and organised by Richard Simcott as well as local organisers. In the case of Edinburgh, the co-organisers were myself (Maureen) and Gary McCann and we also had help from local resident Laura Strzelak on the registration desk. The main difference between the Language Event and the Polyglot Conference is the size of the event. The Polyglot Conference tends to attract around 500 participants in much larger venues. The Language Event is held in smaller venues with around 80-100 participants. In addition, the Language Event has a main theme of celebrating the languages of that particular region, as well as some other presentations on other themes if time allows. The Polyglot Conference usually has more themes due to the size of the event.
The Language Event was held for the first time in Melbourne, Australia. We decided to hold one in Edinburgh the first weekend of March as it was around half a year away from the Polyglot Conference and it gives people another opportunity to attend a language event at another time of year. Having a smaller audience also enabled us to organise social evenings in local pubs and restaurants, which would normally be too difficult with a larger crowd.
The main theme we had was the Languages of the Isles and we therefore prioritised presentations covering Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Irish, Manx and Old English.
We firstly invited some speakers who we knew were experts on the above languages and then opened up applications for any others. We received a high quality of applications and although the event had a main theme of Languages of the Isles, we were able to incorporate other language-themed presentations too.
We started with a social gathering on the Friday evening at a city centre pub for drinks and snacks. This was not just an opportunity to meet new like-minded people, but also to have language exchange. Unusually, the language I practised most on this evening was Welsh. After the pub, I then went with 3 other people for a lovely Lebanese-style dinner at a nearby restaurant before retiring to bed in my hotel.
On Saturday morning, the four organisers, volunteers plus our cameraman arrived bright and early to set up the room for opening. Our venue was the stunning French Institute building in the historic centre of Edinburgh. The venue was just right in size for our event with a cafe downstairs and surrounded by shops and restaurants.
The first presentation of the day was entitled “The Challenges O’ Broadcastin in Scots” by Frieda Morrison of Scots Radio. Frieda has been a broadcaster for many years and started her career at a time when Scots was not present at all on radio or TV and Scots speakers were encouraged to speak Standard English and lose their accents! The radio station is now thriving, packed with interesting interviews and discussions about a wide range of subjects such as arts, history, language, sport, films, music, cookery and much more and of course, all in Scots. You can listen to these broadcasts HERE.
Some of you may have read on my previous posts about Scots that it is only very recently that it has started to be taught in schools. In my school days, all school teaching had to be in Standard English. Speaking Scots was widely discouraged and often referred to as “bad English”. That brings me onto the presentation in the afternoon by Michael Dempster, Director of the Scots Language Centre. He spoke about Scots in the age of the internet. Websites such as the Scots Language Centre have been promoting the usage and learning of Scots for several years now. Through the website and face-to-face workshops, native speakers are encouraged to write in their native Scots, which can be difficult for us when we have not been educated in the language. We have difficulty with spelling and have to look up words we know in the dictionary just to check the spelling! There is no standard spelling for Scots and there are various dialects around the country.
Our other national language, Scottish Gaelic, was well represented on the second day of the event with Àdhamh Ó Broin presenting on Latheron Gaelic, which was spoken in Caithness in north-east Scotland, not typically known as a Gaelic-speaking area. We were shown some examples of phrases in the language and it was interesting for me to see how it differed to the Gaelic I’d learned from my course with the college Sabhal Mor Ostaig on the Isle of Skye. Àdhamh also read aloud a passage of revived Latheron Gaelic , making this perhaps the first time the dialect has been heard spoken at length in over 50 years.
Chris McCabe from the National Poetry Library in London gave us a presentation about his new book “Poems From The Edge of Extinction”. The book contains 50 poems written in endangered languages from around the world. He played us some audio of a poem in Welsh. The book also includes poems in Shetlandic, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Each poem appears in its original form, alongside an English translation, and is accompanied by a commentary about the language, the poet and the poem. You can read more about the book here.
One of my own personal favourites was the presentation by Mark Atherton from Oxford University about Old English. Mark is also the author of the Teach Yourself Old English book. Last year, I attended an Old English weekend course at the British Library in London. English as it was written and spoken over 1000 years ago looks very similar to German and also had declensions. Mark showed us some text from the great Beowulf story, taught us some numbers and showed us a text that described the languages of Britain at the time. Mark is also a musician. He sang us a song in Old English too! If you’d like to find out more about Old English and doing the course in London, please read my BLOG POST about it.
A regular presenter at the language events is Simon Ager, owner of the Omniglot website and who speaks all 6 Celtic languages at various levels. Simon gave us a fascinating presentation comparing all six Celtic languages and it was very interesting for us Celtic language speakers in the room to see how much we could understand of the other Celtic languages. At previous events, Simon has presented on Manx and Welsh and his presentations can be found on the Polyglot Gathering and Polyglot Conference YouTube channels.
Another endangered language we featured was Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Carlos Yebra López presented on the positive impact of digital homelands on the revitalisation of Ladino. Ladino is a romance language with Old Spanish origins. The language spread to various countries after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the 1490s. Ladino is spoken today in around 30 countries and these virtual communities create opportunities for Ladino speakers to come together to be able to maintain or grow their language.
Patricia MacEoin from All About Irish presented about how Irish is taught in schools in Ireland and how alternative methods could be used to remedy some of the gaps that exist in the way Irish is currently taught. She looked at the advantages and disadvantages of the current methods. This was followed by a short lesson in basic Irish for us!
The final presentation of day one was from Thomas Bak of the University of Edinburgh. He showed us the results of one of his studies about the benefits of bilingualism. In Europe, learning languages was seen for a long time as the foundation of education. Then, over the last century, monolingualism started to be interpreted as the normal state of human mind and society and multilingualism as a source of social discord and cognitive confusion. In the last decades, the views changed again, with positive effects of language learning and use being demonstrated from childhood to the advanced age. Thomas discussed the current “bilingualism debate” in light of human evolutionary history as well as modern neuroscience.
The evening was free for social activities. I had made a reservation at the local Mediterranean restaurant, The Wild Yarrow, in Edinburgh’s Old Town. In total, 50 people wanted to attend so I hastily arranged extra space at the restaurant and it was fun to walk around Old Edinburgh being followed by a trail of 50 or so polyglots! At the restaurant, we sat in tables of 6 to 8 people and of course we had the time for plenty of language exchange! As an experiment and for the interest of others on my table, I decided to have a conversation in Scottish Gaelic with an Irish speaker to see how much we could communicate like that and it seemed to work well!
Day Two kicked off with Tony Fekete’s presentation entitled “ The Private Polyglot Library: The role of language books in the late 18th and 19th Century in establishing cultural, national and regional identities”. I had been following Tony for some time on social media and I knew he was a collector of old and rare language books (as I am myself on a much smaller scale). Tony showed us plenty of examples from his wonderful collection, including some early Romanian books written in the Cyrillic script, some of Shakespeare’s plays translated into West Frisian and Armenian and an 18th century New Testament published in Scottish Gaelic. Tony posts about his new acquisitions on his Facebook group The Private Polyglot Library.
Next up was Gareth Popkins of How To Get Fluent who told us about how he learned Welsh, the language of his grandfather, as an adult. Gareth’s presentation was entitled “Welsh Language; Russian History” and he began by telling us how he started learning Welsh up to fluency along with the challenges he faced in learning a lesser-known language before we had internet resources. As a result of learning Welsh to a high level, he obtained a job making use of his Welsh and became a university lecturer teaching Russian history through the medium of Welsh.
Apart from languages, my other passion is history and the next presentation combined them both. Hilbert Vinkenoog, a Frisian speaker, from the YouTube channel History With Hilbert, gave a presentation on “A History of Language in Early Medieval Scotland”. Hilbert gave us a intriguing historical account of the early languages in Scotland, including Pictish, Cumbric, Old Scots and Scottish Gaelic and how the arrival of the Vikings impacted on the local languages to this day.
Shereen Sharaan from the University of Edinburgh presented about her recent study on the Impact of Bilingualism on the Executive Functions Skills of Children with Autism. Although research is still ongoing, early results show that bilingualism could have a positive effect on the executive functions of autistic children, depending on the type of task involved. There was widespread belief that learning a second language could “overload” an autistic child. This research has so far shown that autistic children have the capacity to function successfully as bilinguals.
Next up, we listened to a presentation about the current situation of the Manx language by Christopher Lewin. His presentation was entitled “Back From The Dead: The Revival of Manx”. Christopher is a Manx speaker and is teaching the language to his child. He is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh specialising in Celtic Languages. Christopher told us that since the death of the last traditional Manx speaker in 1974, there have been many efforts within the local community to revive the language. In 2001, the first Manx-medium primary school opened on the Isle of Man.
At the end of the day, we had two short presentations on the theme of language learning. Firstly, Ermy Pedata gave us alternative ideas to traditional language exchanges and told us about how she managed to improve her English through the world of art, one of her interests, by interacting with English-speakers from the art world instead of just looking for language exchange partners. Having a shared interest resulted in more regular practice in her target language. Finally, Amanda Patterson presented on “Feedback: The Give and Take – Improving High Level Languages” and she gave advice and recommendations for gaining valuable feedback, suggesting that non-specialist native speakers may not be the best option and how a skilled tutor should focus on limited, specific points to work on, without discouraging the learner.
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