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Learning Languages at International Conferences

I’m pretty sure that the last five days have been the busiest I’ve had so far in 2012. I spent the entire week in Glasgow, attending the IATEFL Conference – one of the most important conferences for teachers of English.

It was exciting, busy, and fun – I’ve learned and benefited a lot, but only now do I realise how tired I am. This, for me, is one of the best contexts for learning things: out of your comfort zone, surrounded by new and exciting developments. It’s not quite as scary as ski-jumping, but it’s up there!

Here’s the best part: you can use international conferences to learn a foreign language. Sure, its main goal is to network, present and exchange ideas within your business. But with a bit of preparation, this can become a learning experience like no other. How to make it happen? Follow along!

 1. Do Your Homework

The most important stuff happens before the conference even begins. Face it: you will spend a lot of your time, money and effort on attending this. If you don’t prepare your stay, you’re being wasteful. This is true for the business you’re planning to attend to, but equally true for any language learning missions you may want to accomplish along the way.

Get hold of a conference programme. The more detailed it is, the better. IATEFL actually provides a delegates list – in some cases all you get is a list of presenters. This is also useful. You need to find out who will be there. Do any delegates speak the language you’re learning? Are there any companies from the country whose language you’re a fan of?

Try to contact these people beforehand. Everybody is keen to perform well on a conference – so asking for materials or information before it begins will not feel premature. It’s okay to ask for brochures, specs, presentation slides – in the language you’re learning. This material could really improve your reading and listening skills.


2. Network

International conferences are one of very few contexts in which it’s completely okay to smile and talk to strangers of any race, religion and nationality. I wish the rest of the world was like that – as it is, I’m grateful for the conferences. You should be, too: this is your chance to do awesome stuff with your foreign language of choice.

Of course, it’s perfect if the language you’re learning is the official language of the conference – we’ll get to this in part three. But even if it isn’t, the preparation you’ve done in step 1 should give you something to work with. Go and meet the people you’ve identified. Explain what you’re on about. Then, if they don’t mind, switch to the language you’re trying to master. Buy them lunch or coffee. Go over their presentation, or somebody else’s.

You’re not out of your league here – remember that. Everybody at IATEFL knew what they were there for. Two days later, there was a Marine Agriculture conference in the same place – I’m suspecting the crowd there was just as international – and as professional – as we were. The moral is: you already share a very powerful context. Learning a language like that seems like a logical solution.

It’s true you may not manage to spend the entire week speaking a foreign language to the delegates – but you will gain really good learning buddies. Sending an email, having a quick Skype chat or reviewing a document online will be much easier then. (Did I mention how useful businesses are for learning languages? I did.)


3. Learn and Think

There were 500 talks at IATEFL, and I spent 5 days in a caffeine-fueled frenzy. I ran from one hall to another, sat down, listened, scribbled notes, asked questions, argued with other delegates, read slides, presentations, handouts…and then the session was over, and I ran to the next one.

Imagine doing this in a language you’re learning, in the context you’re familiar with. There’s probably an international conference for the industry you’re in; what’s more – the country whose language you’re studying probably organises conferences for your industry as well.

Of course it’s expensive, time-consuming and tiring. And you feel that you’re not ready for it yet.

Which is why you should go. Think about how painful good learning can get. Brush up your note-taking skills. Come to terms with failure. And then go.


Have you ever used a foreign language at an international conference? If you have, I’d love to hear from you! Leave me a message in the comments.

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