Ellen Jovin Interview & Polyglot Conference

In today’s interview blog post Ellen Jovin tells us about the upcoming polyglot conference in NY she’s co-organizing with Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings and about her language learning methods. 

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Tell us more about the Polyglot Conference in NYC? How much work is involved in organizing it?

Polyglot Conference NYC 2015 will bring hundreds of linguaphiles — polyglots, linguists, language enthusiasts — together in the world’s most multilingual city to hear some wonderful speakers and hang out and talk and network with one another. It will be held at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea, which is a bustling neighborhood in Manhattan full of restaurants, bars, varied architecture, and one of my favorite places to take visitors, High Line Park. The dates are October 10 and 11, but there will be various activities before and after, as many people are arriving early and/or leaving late. I am beside myself with excitement. It’s a lot of work to organize, but in my view gracious hosts are not supposed to make a point of that!

Who is organizing it?

I am working with English polyglot Richard Simcott, who originated this conference series in Europe, and Alex Rawlings, another English polyglot, who worked with Richard on the most recent Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad, Serbia. There have been two in Europe already, so this will be the third, and I joined Richard and Alex in order to bring this event to the U.S. for the first time. Both are truly impressive polyglots, and good, thoughtful people as well, so it has been a joy and an honor to work with them.

Is it the first time you organize something like that?

This is old hat for Richard and Alex. As for me, I am accustomed to organizing events for Syntaxis, a business I have had with my husband for 15 years. Those events are smaller, but they are nonetheless language-related undertakings in Manhattan requiring some similar kinds of preparatory activities.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

I am a linguaphile. I am attracted to language. I cannot help it; it is hardwired into me. I studied languages in college, then returned to them as an adult. Everything I have done in my adult life — teaching, writing, etc. — has revolved around my love of language, whether my native language or foreign ones.

What languages do you speak?

I do my best work in English. But I also speak Spanish, German, French, Italian, varying degrees of Portuguese depending on when I last examined it, and bits and pieces of a bunch of others. Right now I am reviewing previously completed lessons in Polish, Russian, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and a few other languages.

Do you dream in a foreign language?

Sometimes. Last night I dreamt that I missed a flight from Paris to JFK, and in the dream I was on a cell phone on the streets of Paris in the pouring rain, trying to negotiate a new flight in French so I could get back to New York.

What do you think of constructed languages? Would you be interested to learn one?

I am less interested in constructed languages than in the people who construct them. I find some of the conlangers fascinating — incredibly creative and knowledgeable linguistically. It’s fun to hear them talk. I like reading the posts in the conlang groups. Half the time I can’t even understand what they’re talking about. It’s fantastic.

When you learn a new language do you always follow the same strategy?

More or less. I like to start with audio lessons, then quickly jump in with the writing system and grammar after I get a basic feel for a language’s oral qualities and structural features. I am unusually fond of grammar, I would say. I love doing grammar exercises. I love conjugating verbs. I hate not knowing how a language is put together.

How has your strategy to learn new languages changed over the years?

I don’t think it has changed all that much. I am pretty stubborn and I know what I like.

Do you have a favorite language?

I really love Italian. There are so many ways to say “the.” And Italian feels good in my mouth when I am pronouncing it. I am feeling very fond of Levantine Arabic right now, too.

Which resources do you normally use most?

Pimsleur, grammar books, Memrise.

What do you think of LearnWithOliver.com?

Are you fishing for compliments? You already know I really like it. It is carefully edited and responsible, and I dig that. I have used it for a whole bunch of languages.

What is your definition of fluency?

Fluency has arrived when I can express a large percentage of the things I want to say in a language — even if they don’t always come out beautifully. The important thing is being competent enough to reroute into another way of wording something if I get stuck.

What keeps you motivated to keep learning?

It is intensely pleasurable to me.

Which language do you think is the most romantic?

I am not romantic, so I don’t care about which language is the most romantic. I just like expressing myself.

And what point would you recommend reading up on grammar?

This is a personal choice. I like to start in on grammar very early on. If you hate grammar, then I wouldn’t recommend doing that. Whatever you use, you will make less progress if you don’t actually like it, so it is important to reconsider your materials if they aren’t working for you. Language is not a one-size-fits-all undertaking.

Who do you think is the most accomplished polyglot you’ve met?

I have a few in mind, but I cannot know the answer to this question, because I do not at present have the skills to test the most accomplished polyglots I’ve met. They know too much. Fortunately, I am not concerned about who the most accomplished one is. I just really dig being around people who like language.

How important do you think talent is when learning a language?

I have noticed that many people hate talking about talent. I don’t get that. I am not very good at yoga. So what? That doesn’t mean I can’t do yoga, or that I can’t improve at yoga, or that I can’t benefit from yoga, or that I can’t enjoy yoga. It just means you will not see me on the stage at the national championships.

Do you use mnemonics to learn new words?

Only when I’m really desperate and simply can’t remember a word no matter what I do. I am otherwise not into mnemonics. I do like saying that word though. Mnemonics. Mnemonics. Mnemonics. It’s cool!

To learn more about Ellen Jovin please visit her blog “Words & Worlds of New York”. To get more information about the upcoming polyglot conference in New York please click here.

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