On the 25th and 26th of September, the Drongo Language Festival took place in Utrecht, the Netherlands. The Drongo Language Festival is the largest language festival in the Netherlands. This year, the event focused on multilingualism. Though I worked as a volunteer on both days, I did get the opportunity to look around. Needless to say, as a language lover I had a great experience! The events were categorised under four domains: culture, education, science, and the language and business market. As a volunteer, I was responsible for activities within the education and science domain. I was present at multiple fascinating presentations on academic linguistic research and witnessed how a pair of toddlers learned some basic German. As a visitor, I spent a lot of time at the language and business market, where I got the opportunity to speak to representatives of many different businesses, including (but not limited to) scientists, publishers, translators, interpretors, and teachers of language courses.
There are a few presentations and conversations I remember especially well. I will discuss them briefly here.
1. Language research and its benefits for society
I talked to the Language in Interaction consortium, a Dutch research organisation where researchers from various fields work together to research variablity and universals in language. Some of the research outcomes are used to develop applications to help society. Some examples of target groups are second language learners and people suffering from aphasia. Using research for the benefit of society is a modern, well-known concept, so as such it was not new to me. It was different to experience these apps firsthand, though. It gives a lot of insight into the human brain and the effect of language disorders. These revelations made me realise just how important it is to utilise research for more than just the development of scientific theories when possible. I was impressed.
2. Presenting scientific research to the general public
I was floormanager at the Taalpodium, where researchers got the chance to present their research to both specialists and nonspecialists. Hence, I got to attend many interesting presentations on diverse topics, ranging from bird song and its implications for language evolution to various words for ‘old’ in Old English. These presentations were, of course, informative on their own, but they also taught me something else. The presentators showed me how complicated, academic research can be presented effectively to people who lack all foreknowledge of the subject – those who are simply interested, rather than specialised in language. I’ve had some experience with presenting to nonspecialists at conferences, but at a listener at those conferences, I had always had some knowledge on a topic in advance. Now there were topics I knew absolutely nothing about, such as bird song and language learning disorders. Nevertheless, the speakers managed to convey their research to me. I deducted the following strategies:
- Use only the essential jargon and then explain it using illustrations (no time lost due to oral explanations).
- Leave out methodological stuff (that is much to difficult for the general public to grasp, as they will not know the programmes and equipment that was used anyway. The results will be understood without it).
- Don’t elaborate if it is not necessary (use short sentences and only focus on the main hypothesis, the answers to the sub questions, and the overall conclusion).
Using these steps, the presenters succeeded in reducing their PhD thesis or PostDoctoral work to simple diagrams which could be understood at a glance. This is simplification taken to the highest level :).
3. Children are impressive language learners
Children learn fast. I observed how two small children learned some basic German within twenty minutes by playing with kitchen tools, while the tutors explained to them how to bake cookies. The tutors only spoke German and neither of the children knew any of it beforehand. Objects were introduced gradually and steps in the process of cooking were explained in German while they were carried out. Hence, the children learned gradually and with visual input, just like they would have learned their first language. The most interesting thing was that the children had no idea what they were doing exactly. They were just playing along and picked up new information automatically. This is what I suspect at least, as, when I asked one of the children whether he could say something to me in German afterwards, he replied: “what’s German?”. He had no idea what he had been doing besides ‘baking cookies’.
In short, I enjoyed myself at the festival and I have learned a lot about language. I have every intention of going again next year. Who knows what else I could learn!