At school in the late 80s and the 90s in the UK, we didn’t have the Internet and liking language learning was frankly a little bit weird for most people. It was tough for most of my classmates to understand how or why I would like French class, let alone why I would want to study even more languages that I didn’t have to study at school.
Fortunately, I did have some tolerant friends during my school years, and they thought my quirky love of language was something that they could just accept, and I would take with me to university and then probably relocate to Brussels. They joked that one day my head might explode, were I to be crazy enough to learn many more languages, especially the “weird” ones like Serbian or Croatian!
“Oh! That Richard! The one who speaks like a gazillion languages!”
Everyone had their ideas as to where languages would lead me and what is possible for anyone who loves them quite so much. Mostly I was someone they would tell other people about, like someone you hear about in the Guinness book of world records. If I ever met these people who knew of me, there would usually be a nudge of the arm, or a wink of the eye, “Oh! That Richard! The one who speaks like a gazillion languages!”. Usually, it would be followed by “Say something in all of the languages you know!”. I’d sigh but often oblige in some way as not to disappoint. My usual trick was to say “Well, you don’t understand me anyway, so I can say what I like” in a random assortment of languages. Then they’d ask me what I said, and I’d tell the truth, much to their amusement.
How the Internet changed everything
At university, the Internet was the new, cool thing that everyone was discovering. Chatting with different people around the world via IRC (Internet Relay Chat) was possible, and I used it to the full. I was able to go into various chatrooms for the languages I studied officially and unofficially at university. I thought I was in heaven. I will never forget the first time I met another person in more of those language chatrooms than me. He caught my attention, and we started chatting. I had never realised that other so-called “polyglots” were out there, but I found it quite exciting. Finally, I had the name of the condition: Polyglot. A year or so later another student, on my degree also shared my strong passion for languages, and we hit it off immediately. At last, I had real people I could talk to about the subject I loved most: learning multiple languages.
For my studies and with jobs following that time, I started travelling around to different places. Meanwhile, the Internet was a place that changed, evolved and grew during that time. I would dip back into the online world that offered me my languages at the press of a button now and then too.
"I was no longer the only one, or the rare beast at the university campus.
I had found my tribe."
One day I found myself at a loose end and started looking for new communities of language lovers online. I stumbled across an online forum called “How To Learn Any Language” (HTLAL as it was known to its users). It was like a treasure-trove of topics related to polyglottery and people who dedicated their time to learning multiple languages like me. I was no longer the only one, or the rare beast at the university campus. I had found my tribe.
I got into communicating with other people on the various threads, and as YouTube became more popular, I decided that I would upload a YouTube video in multiple languages. I had a few reasons for doing that. Firstly, it was a way for me to reach out to more like-minded people. Secondly, it was a way to show other children out there, who were like me, that they were not alone and that they belonged to something bigger. Thirdly, it was a way for friends and family to show off my “party trick” to people without me having to perform like a seal and to be able to do that when I was not even in the room.
The video I made got a lot of attention, and social media was starting to play a more significant part in our language learning community too. Very soon, I was connecting with hundreds of other language learners via Facebook and Twitter too. I was able to meet with some of them also.
The very first Polyglot Conference
During the summer of 2011 in Poznan, through conversations with Luca Lampariello, the idea of getting people together from the community came up. From that conversation, the Polyglot Conference was born. I was able to organise the conference from my background in conference coordinating in previous roles at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. My employer, The Social Element (formerly Emoderation) supported me and the conference as its first sponsor. With their backing, I was able to stage the very first Polyglot Conference in Budapest in May 2012. Since then the conference has grown from strength to strength in numbers of participants and presenters. People come from various spheres of academia, professionals using languages and language aficionados to share their language interests, skills, experience, knowledge and learning techniques.
The Polyglot Conference changes location every year so that we can celebrate new languages and cultures each time. We take in the host city’s and country’s languages and cultures, as well as some of the regional languages and cultures too. By changing the country each year, we also afford more people the chance to experience the community off-line too. It’s a real melting pot for people to hear from academics with a lot of great things to share. It also gives a platform for people using languages in business or in other professional endeavours, to show what can be done to make money too. However, most importantly, it is a place where people interested in language can come together, learn from each other and get motivation from each other’s stories and language journeys. All of the presentations are recorded and made freely available on the Polyglot Conference YouTube channel so that many more people around the world can easily enjoy and make use of the information presented.
The Language Learning Community today is a formidable force on social media, representing a broad spectrum of learners with one thing in common – we all love language!
About Richard: Richard Simcott is a British hyperpolyglot who has been called ‘one of the most multilingual people from the United Kingdom’. Besides being fluent in more than a dozen languages, Richard also has studied more than 30 others.
Richard is a Languages Director at The Social Element, a company that specialises in global social media management, where he works with global brands running multilingual social media projects. He is the co-founder of the Polyglot Conference, an annual event that brings together polyglots from around the world.