Expolingua Berlin: What is a language fair like?

November 24, 2019

As I arrived at the Russian House of Science and Culture (Russisches Haus der Wissenschaft und Kultur) in Berlin, I couldn’t believe my eyes. This could be the line to a Blackpink or Selena Gomez concert. An immense, chaotic crowd of teenagers waited for the doors to open. When they did, they ran inside, pushing each other in. A rebellious, middle-aged lady elbowed several others on her way in. But this wasn’t a pop concert – it was a language fair.

Language teachers, their students, freelance translators, YouTubers, app creators and job seekers all rushed to Expolingua Berlin on the 22-23 November. Of course, being a language lover myself, I couldn’t stay away. The moment I knew this event was a thing, it didn’t take me more than 15 seconds to download the tickets and get hyped. Finally, I was going to be in my element.

Walk with me as I give you an idea of what a language fair is like, what type of things you can see, and whether it could be of interest to you! (Spoiler alert: it absolutely is). Rather than boring you with a chronological narrative of what I did, I’ll guide you through the most special points.

The basics of Expolingua

The central meeting point at Expolingua. From here, one could visit two floors, 143 stands and 84 presentations/workshops.

The event had several parallel options for visitors, as is common with this type of fair. On the one hand, the entire two floors of the center were filled with 143 stands where you could get informed about language courses, language schools, new language apps, trips abroad, work and travel, volunteer opportunities abroad, and even buy language books!

There were also eight – yes, I said eight – separate rooms in which different talks, workshops and presentations happened simultaneously, from 10:30 to 17:30. From opening to closing hours, everybody was sure to have something to do! Overall, 84 presentations, workshops and performances happened at Expolingua.

Mini-language courses for absolute beginners? Yes, please.

Professor Chen Chi-Ling teaching us the basics of Chinese. We started speaking three minutes into the workshop!

Never in my life had I thought I’d be sitting in a room surrounded by strangers and start speaking Chinese to them…literally three minutes into the workshop. Well, that’s life’s beautiful way of surprising you (and giving you panic attacks!).

Without a doubt, the mini-language courses were one of my favorite part of the event. I attended a mini-Italian course, a mini-Chinese course and a mini-Russian course for beginners, where I was immediately embarrassed by several teenagers who were already fluent! Because I had no training in either of these alphabets, my notes were taken in a mix of sounds I knew from English, Portuguese, Spanish and even Turkish. What a mess!

There were also mini-courses in Portuguese, Turkish, Spanish, Persian, Greek, Finnish, Japanese, Indonesian, Arabic, Czech and Kazakh.

Unfortunately, because so many events were happening at the same time, I couldn’t attend even half of the mini-language courses I had planned to attend. Oh, well…perhaps next year!

A breath of fresh air…

Dr. Reza Sheikhbagloo makes us not want to leave with the beauty of his calligraphy.

Persian calligraphy. The Mayan language. Czech contemporary art.

Opportunities to travel to Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Ireland.

This fair was a breath of fresh air. Much of the pleasure came from sitting down with a Syrian teacher and having a (very basic) chat in Arabic. Or asking a Bulgarian lady to teach me some basic phrases. Passing by the Turkish stand, eating a piece of baklava and speaking some Turkish. Then, moving on to Iran, Indonesia, Japan, Finland and Ecuador. Walking from stand to stand, from workshop to workshop, and realizing just how much I didn’t know was fascinating, to say the least.

It was like traveling a little every couple of steps.

Language apps galore.

Which language are you learning next?

uTalk, Chatterbug, Tandem, HelloTalk…

If you’re into technology just as much as languages, Expolingua is not going to disappoint. I love trying everything out there, and have made it my mission to go practically from stand to stand and say: “Tell me more about it.”

All of these apps had something interesting to give. uTalk impressed me by its variety of language and dialect offers. HelloTalk seemed to focus a lot more on community and engagement, with several features I had never seen on other language apps that made the experience as personal as possible. Chatterbug seems to bring together the best of online tutoring with a teacher and what we love the most about language apps. I can’t wait to try all of them (and let you know the result, of course)!

Meetups, meetups, meetups.

YouTuber Martín Balbuena (El Jardín de Martín) talks about his experience as a latino in Germany, before the audience started sharing their own experiences.

Meeting people. Meeting looooots of people.

Left and right, you’re sure to find some type of Meetup that fits your level, your topic of interest or your favorite region of the world. From language tech groups meant for networking to the first ever Tandem meetup, I have met some pretty amazing human beings with fantastic skills and ideas. I have also managed to make lots of new contacts for practicing German, Turkish, Arabic and Spanish!

The best part about Meetups is that you don’t feel alone. Sometimes, when you’re living daily life, it’s easy to feel like you’re bragging when you talk about your language skills, your experience as an immigrant or past experiences abroad. You feel like you’re an alien. You start thinking you should just keep it to yourself. Here, I lost all shame and understood dozens of others were just like me.

I met a humorous, proactive woman from Tanzania, a German girl from Bavaria who could speak fluent Brazilian Portuguese and Colombian Spanish (including slang!) and a sweet Turkish-German girl who became my friend! Oh, did I mention? English was not the language of communication. German was. I was a little tired afterward, but it was worth the effort!

Some awkward moments…

Don’t mind me, I’m just over here rockin’ it at Expolingua and ignoring the awkward moments!

Diving into a variety of cultures means you’ll be confronted with what you don’t know. Regardless of where you come from, you’ll always be ignorant about some regions of the world and how they experience life. During Expolingua, I’ve heard the following comments by different people:

  • “Looking at you, I could immediately tell you speak Spanish! Man, you look completely latina.” (I’m from Portugal).
  • “Oh, so you’re from Portugal? God, I just love Spanish! The way you guys speak it?? Sounds amazing!” (We speak Portuguese in Portugal).
  • “But Brazil and Portugal are like right next to each other, why do you have different dialects?” (Portugal is in Europe, not Latin America).

Rather than feeling insulted or bitter about these comments, I thought they were quite funny and a great opportunity to tell people more about where I come from! It’s all about keeping it cool, politely correcting the person in front of you and sharing experiences about the world.

I’ve also embarrassed myself!

Now that I’ve embarrassed other people in the previous paragraphs, let me tell you how I’ve embarrassed myself!

  • Sharing the room with teenagers who were already fluent in Russian and Chinese humbled me to no end (aka, I felt incredibly dumb and started developing sweaty palms).
  • I had no idea Persian was that different from Arabic, so I just mixed it all up during the Persian calligraphy workshop. I literally used Arabic letters at a Persian calligraphy workshop until I realized (10 minutes before it ended) that I had been screwing up.
  • During one of the Meetups in which we were supposed to glue the flags of the languages we speak on our chest, I did everything in such a hurry (such a hype???) that I accidentally glued the flag of Germany upside down. No one told me about it. I just walked around inspiring people to think I’m an anarchist immigrant. And there is evidence.
Unknowingly causing mayhem.
Can you sense the panic?
I’ll definitely want to learn more about the unique beauty of Iranian culture from now on!

Some practical recommendations.

If you ever get the chance to visit Expolingua Berlin or any other language fair, I strongly recommend that you…

  • craft a plan of your day beforehand, especially if it’s a huge event with several workshops and presentations happening at the same time. This does not mean you can’t be spontaneous and change your mind, but at least you’ll not be completely lost and waste time searching for interesting things to see, rather than making the most out of it!
  • ...arrive early. You don’t want to miss your favorite language courses or workshops due to being lost or looking for the right room.
  • …bring cash. There will probably be many opportunities to buy unique books and manuals!
  • …bring a backpack. You’ll receive lots of gifts, such as pens, stickers, flyers and business cards. You’ll also be speaking a lot: bring water.
  • …bring a notebook or a language journal. This will be practical when you want to take notes during workshops.
  • …still come, even if nobody wants to come along. I visited Expolingua alone the first day, and then with a friend the second day. I’ve had incredible fun either way. Don’t miss out on this opportunity just because you feel it might be awkward to show up without a partner. You’ll have dozens of opportunities to make new friends!

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