Today we have a guest on our blog: Olly Richards. We met Olly at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin and we had an interesting conversation about learning languages.
Olly runs the website IWillTeachYouALanguage.com. Check out his story.
Who are you and where have you lived in the last 12 months
I’m Olly, 33, from the UK. I’m living in Doha, Qatar at the moment, where I’ve been for 18 months. However, I’m getting ready to move to Cairo in September, which is really exciting. I’m getting ready to start learning Arabic next month, which will certainly be a big challenge!
Can you tell us something about your First Time.
My first time was in Paris, the city of love! ☺ I was 19 years old, and I had just taken a year out of university. I couldn’t speak any other languages besides English, but I had the travel bug. My ex-girlfriend had told me all about the gap-year she’d spent in Paris, so I thought I’d go there too and see what happened.
I bought a one-way ticket on the Eurostar and turned up in Paris one rainy November morning. I remember it was cold and wet. I found a place to stay, but needed to find a job. The owner of the place I was staying put me in touch with the owner of a youth hostel in the Montmartre, saying that they needed a receptionist.
I jumped at the chance, went for an interview, and only when I got there realised that the interview was probably going to be in French.
Believe it or not, I fudged my way through it by nodding a lot and occasionally saying “oui, je comprend!” For some reason unknown to me, the guy gave me the job. I was now settled in Paris.
I was working the night shift in the hostel, which was nice and quiet. I used the time to study French as much as possible. Customers would come in and ask things, the phone would ring, sometimes the boss would drop in.
My French began to improve quite rapidly.
What I learnt from that experience was that if you can create the right situation for yourself, you can learn a language very quickly indeed. Our brains are capable of great things – we just have to provide the conditions for learning to happen.
Do you have any terrible experience? Like a language you could not
learn and you gave up?
My biggest regret in language learning is that I’ve let my Italian slip. I used to speak it very well, and spent some time in Italy, but these days can’t say very much at all.
There are two reasons that this happened.
Firstly, after leaving Italy and going back to London I didn’t make any effort to keep up my Italian.
Secondly, and this is related to the first point, I began learning Spanish at the same time as I arrived in London. As you know, Spanish and Italian are so similar, that unless you really try hard to use both languages on an ongoing basis, it’s inevitable that you will lose one of them.
And that’s what happened to me.
Lesson learnt – you have to keep it up!
Tell us about an “easy” experience
Spanish, after having already learnt French and Italian, was comparatively easy. There are so many similarities between the languages that you don’t have to learn a whole lot from scratch (as I later did with Asian languages, for example). Once you learn things like common noun and verb endings in Spanish, it’s quite easy to transfer knowledge over from other romance languages.
Why languages and not…..
At the root of it all, I think, is that I’m a people-person. I love connecting with people and learning about other cultures. Language learning has simply been the logical consequence of that. That’s not to say it just happens easily, but that passion has led me to seek out people to spend time with and be around, and in those conditions languages are much easier to learn.
Can you tell us your secret weapon to learn languages.
I really can’t point to one thing, but rather a set of principles that combine well together to make language learning easier.
Those, in short are:
- Be clear about what makes you passionate about the language – cinema, people, books, music… whatever. This is what will keep you going when motivation slips.
- Speak with native speakers regularly, ideally in a language exchange or with an informal tutor. You don’t need a teacher. People often overlook this step, but I think it’s a crucial step in developing your own persona in the language, as I mentioned in this Japanese video:
- Read and listen to texts at the same time, ideally texts which are slightly above your current level
- Have a system for capturing vocabulary and revising it (spaced-repetition flashcards work for me). Don’t just nod your head and smile when you learn a new word – capture it somehow or it will be lost.
- Have a simple routine that you keep to everyday, however small
Do these things well, and I defy you not to improve!
Is there anything you do, maybe not so effective but kinda unique,
your sort of talisman.
No. I’m kind of middle-of-the-road. I spend a lot of time speaking with people and using my SRS app (Spaced Repetition System)
Do you try to read/watch content? Is it easy to find?
It depends on the language. I often lose patience looking for content that both appeals to me and is also at the right level. Good content is easier to find in certain languages than others, often because of script problems. Cantonese, for example, is a spoken language, so finding written content is extremely hard. Japanese kanji is very difficult to read without the phonetic script (furigana) to help you, but hardly any authentic content has that, except for the occasional word that even native speakers don’t know. Technology is advancing all the time, though, and I think the landscape will look very different 5 years from now. Exciting times!
Did you ever try to use Bliu Bliu?
Bliu Bliu is one of the most exciting websites I’ve seen for a long time. Right now, because of the languages I’m studying (Cantonese and Egyptian Arabic), it’s not a great match for me (nothing is!!), but when I come to work on my other languages I will certainly be stopping by!
Your final words – anything you want to share with our passionate
community of language lovers.
I mentioned earlier that I’m starting to learn Egyptian Arabic. On my website I will be documenting the entire process with videos and blog posts, showing you exactly how I go about learning, right from the start. If you think this would be useful for you, I’d love to have you follow along! Just head over to the site at IWillTeachYouALanguage.com and sign up – I’ll send you all the updates.
Where to find Olly Richards