Have you ever felt like traveling into your past while being marveled by the present?

My trip to Budapest for the Polyglot Conference was both a trip to my past and a wonderful journey to be with others who are passionate about foreign languages.

Before my trip to Budapest, I was in Mexico doing presentations on learning English for the US Consul General in Tijuana and I had no time to practice my Hungarian. Sorry Hungarians, but who wants to practice magyar when you can admire the stunning sunsets and sand animals at the tip of the Baja California peninsula instead?

Sand Animals in La Paz, Mexico

My Hungarian had once been at an A2-B1 level. But that was in the last millennium when Hong Kong had just been “returned” to China. Not exactly yesteryear and not anywhere in the forefront of my memory. The only person with whom I sometimes exchange pleasantries in Hungarian in California actually speaks less Hungarian than I do even though he spent twice as many months in the country as I had.

When I reached home in Alta California (the US side) from Baja, I had four days to unpack, wash my clothes, pack, celebrate Mother’s Day, handle two media interview requests, see friends, sort through the mound of mail and bills which had accumulated while in the “other” California, pay my car registration, lest I return to an illegally parked vehicle and do a host of other tasks. Rekindling the Hungarian that I had learned, was not on my list of priorities. I photocopied some pages of a Hungarian phrase book to read on the plane. Matt Damon was well, a more attractive entertainment option in flight than my Hungarian phrase book. Mr. Damon was not sitting by my side. One of his movies was being shown. By the time I got around to reading my photocopied greetings, I fell asleep very quickly. So much for cramming my magyar .

Budapest, Castle District

I arrived in Budapest, Hungary, a few days before the Polyglot Conference started. As soon as I stepped into the car taking me to my rented apartment, I read and understood the advertisement on the car for a “Learn Languages Fast Language School”. As David, the driver, drove me from the airport to the Oktagon area of the city, I had known Hungarian words flying to me from shop signs and billboards. It was like being in a space ship with stars flying past me. But in this case, the stars weren’t just flashes of light, they were actual words which I understood. Forget the photocopied phrase book, I was in Hungarian recollection mode and I was loving it! Not surprisingly, the words I first recognized were for beer, wine and ice cream!

I went into my favorite falafel restaurant in Budapest and I was able to order in Hungarian! Mind you, I didn’t understand the clerk’s question about whether I was going to eat in or take the food home.

Falafel Faloda
Falafel Faloda in Budapest

I walked around the city enamored with re-discovering this language which had been lodged inside my memory. Much to my surprise, I was able to navigate the city with little reference to the map. Even in places where I had not recalled having spent much time, I seemed to instinctively know where I was going. It was as though I had always been in Budapest.

Budapest was glistening. Some parts I didn’t even recognize because the city government had torn down buildings to make room for spacious squares or something else. The shimmer of the city also was reflected in the prices which were about two to five times the post-Socialist prices of the late 1990s that I so fondly recalled.

While I was walking on a popular street parallel to where I used to live, I didn’t recognize the shops or restaurants but something in my intuition made me slow down. Something felt familiar. I saw a street sign and it looked oddly familiar, but it had the word “Posta” in in it and since I was looking for a post office, I thought the street would take me to the post office. As soon as I turned right on this street, I knew exactly where I was! One block away, was my former apartment building overlooking on the Danube.

Maybe my words here don’t express the profound joy I felt at finding my old apartment building while walking in a city which I sometimes physically didn’t recognize but in which I felt I had an internal compass guiding me.

It comes as no surprise that I felt so “at home” at the Polyglot Conference  amongst people whose videos or Internet posts I had previously seen. Somehow, in between work and family life, Luca Lampariello and Richard Simcott, organized the first ever Polyglot Conference. I don’t know how these two managed to do this. In addition to being speedy and prolific language learners, they can also pull off a language conference, on the side.

Meeting other language enthusiasts was fantastic. When I gave my presentation on the documentary I’m co-producing, Saved by Language, about how a young Bosnian boy saved his life in the Holocaust by speaking in Ladino/Judeo-Spanish, I didn’t have to convince the audience that languages are important. They were already with me!

Richard and Luca at the table, Susanna presenting

At our first dinner, I sat next to Robert Bigler , whose videos on interpreting and translation I was familiar with.

Polyglot Conference
From Left: Susanna, Bartek and Alberto

To my right, was sitting a Polish polyglot attending a Spanish language high school in Krakow. Little did I know that Bartek, this very mature Pole, was only 16 years old and was asking me detailed questions about language learning! In front of me was a super enthusiastic Italian polyglot with his own Italian language learning program, Italiano Automatico where he teaches Italian via a self-development program. Alberto is only 18 years old. Robert came with his Austrian polyglot friend who is also 16 years old. I was so amazed that the conference attracted teenagers. If we can get more kids and teenagers to learn more languages, they can then influence their friends and we can spread the virtues of multilingualism far and wide.

I won’t go into details about each person’s presentation because other conference participants and attendees have already done that in their blog posts and you can read their summaries. True to the spirit of the Polyglot Conference, not all of these blog posts are in English!


Benny’s post, Polyglot conference, re-activating Hungarian and very easy click request!

Alex’s, Polyglot Conference 2013: Looking back on Budapest

Chuck’s, Polyglot Conference in Budapest

The Polyglot Conference blog, 1st Polyglot Conference – A great success!

In French by Fabien, Retour sur la Polyglot Conference 2013

In Portuguese by Nathalia, Sobre a Polyglot Conference

Brian Kwong made a short video about the conference:

Iversen’s video response to the Polyglot Conference:

Short interview in 16 languages with Emanuele Marini, who speaks 30 languages:

The conference organizers will release the videos from the presentations after editing the videos. I’ll post those videos here when they are ready.

The next Polyglot Conferences in North America will be in Montreal and New York City in the Fall of 2014. There will also be a Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in June 27-30 2014.

Maybe we’ll meet at the next Polyglot Conference!