today we present you this interesting interview with Simon Ager, who runs this website about languages. As you all will see, he is very inspiring and his advices are absolutely valuable!
Hi Simon, welcome on 12speak! Can you introduce yourself to our users and briefly present your project omniglot.com?
My name is Simon Ager, I live in Bangor in North Wales and originally come from Lancashire in the northwest of England. I studied Chinese and Japanese at universities in England, Taiwan and Japan, and have done various jobs, including web developer, translator, IT manager, education counsellor and English teacher.
I currently earn my living from Omniglot.com, my website about writing systems and languages. This involves answering questions from visitors to the site (for free), adding new material and keeping the existing material up-to-date. As it’s something I enjoy doing, it doesn’t feel like work.
It started back in 1998 when I set up a site to promote my web design and translation services. I added information about the languages I was working with to that site, then started finding out about other writing systems and languages and got a bit carried away. Omniglot started generating a trickle of income from Amazon affiliate links about 4 years later, and since 2008 I’ve been able to live on the income from the site. The number of the visitors to the site has grown steadily over the years and has been over a million most months since the end of 2009, and that’s all without spending a penny on advertising or marketing.
How and when did you discover your passion for languages?
I’ve been interested in languages for as long as I can remember. I used to collect stamps and coins and was interested by the different languages and writing systems on them. I started learning other languages at secondary school at the age of 11 – first French, then German. I was quite good at them, found them interesting, and thought that I’d like to live and work abroad one day. After leaving school I worked for a year in various places in England, France and the Channel Islands and became fairly fluent in French, picked up a bit of Portuguese, and tried to learn a few other languages (Icelandic and Japanese), though without much success.
My original plan was to continue studying French and/or German, and maybe another language at university. I was offered a place on a course in German and Swedish at the University of Wales, Lampeter. Then I thought that maybe it would be more interesting to study a more exotic language, and ended up in Leeds studying Chinese and Japanese. After graduating I studied and worked in Taiwan for five years and learnt bits and pieces of other languages there – Cantonese, Taiwanese, Korean, Spanish and Scottish Gaelic.
Which are the most relevant advantages you got from studying so many languages?
My knowledge of languages helped me to get various jobs and has been essential or very useful for living abroad and working with people from many different countries. It has also given me access to literature, songs, poems, news and other material from many countries, and helped me to understand and appreciate different cultures. Whenever I meet someone whose language I speak, there’s an instant connection, even if I only know a little bit of their language. This is especially true for smaller languages like Irish and Welsh, and lesser studied languages like Chinese – this is changing as more and more people learn Chinese, but Chinese people I meet are always surprised that I speak their language.
Did you study any of these languages by yourself?
Apart from French and German, which I learnt at school, and Chinese and Japanese, which I learnt at university, I’ve studied all the languages I know on my own using books, tapes, CDs, DVDs and online lessons. I’ve taken three weeks of Welsh language classes, and spend a week every summer improving my Irish in Ireland, but haven’t taken courses in any other languages.
Many people claim that to learn a language it is necessary to live in the country where this language is spoken at least for one year. What is your opinion about that?
It is certainly very useful to spend time in a country where the language you’re learning is spoken. Exactly how long you need to spend depends on how intensively you study and how much you practice using the language. If you start from scratch, you study every day, you grab every opportunity to use the language, and you avoid using on your native language as much as possible – which can be challenging, especially for English speakers – you could became fluent in a foreign language in a year, or maybe even more quickly.
I studied Mandarin Chinese in the UK for a year before going to Taiwan for the first time. The course in the UK was very intensive and focused mainly on reading and writing. In Taiwan the focus was more on speaking and the classes were all in Mandarin. I also spoke Mandarin as much as possible outside class, and after four months I could communicate reasonably well in Mandarin. After graduating I returned to Taiwan and spent a year studying more Chinese, during which time I became fluent.
One of the most important part in studying a language is learning vocabulary. Do you agree with that? Which are your tips for built up a wide range vocabulary?
Learning vocabulary is an important part of language learning. It’s also important to learn how to put the words together into sentences and how to apply and necessary grammatical modifications.
Some types of words that come in sets, e.g. days of the week, months, colors, numbers, I tend to learn by repetition, perhaps giving them a rhythm to make them more memorable. I might also write or type them on pieces of paper and stick them up around the house so that I see them frequently.
I tend to learn other vocabulary through extensive reading and listening. I listen to a lot of online radio in languages I’m working on, and read novels, short stories, blogs, news and other material in them. When reading or listening I try to work out the meanings of unknown words from the context, and if any words that come up frequently that I can’t decipher, I look them up. Learning words in context makes them more memorable than learning them individually.
Associating new words with words or phrases you already know is another way to learn vocabulary. For example, the French word for hello is salut, which looks like salute in English – saluting someone is a bit like saying hello. It isn’t always possible to find connections like this, especially for languages with little or nothing in common with your mother tongue, but if you can find a way to do this, it does work.
Learning a language also implies to understand the culture of another country. How much to you think this can effect your language learning process?
For me learning about a difficult culture is an essential part of learning a new language. In many languages, for example, there are different ways to address people which might depend on whether you know them or not, how well you know them, whether they’re older or younger than you, and/or on their social position in relation to yours. In order to use the correct forms of address you need to understand these factors, which are connected to the culture. In languages like French and German it’s relatively straight forward – you use vous/Sie for people you don’t know or who are older than you, and tu/du for others. In other languages like Japanese and Korean it’s not just the personal pronouns and forms of verbs that change, but also the verbs themselves and other words in some cases.
The more you learn of a language, the more you’ll probably learn about the culture, which can help to keep you interested and motivated. For example, I started listening to and singing songs in Irish long before I started learning the language, and now that I know the language I can understand the songs, which makes them even more interesting, and have learnt all sorts of other interesting things about Irish culture.
What is your opinion about an online platform such as 12speak!, where members can chat, play, and improve their vocabulary? Would you recommend it?
I’ve used various online language learning sites and generally find them useful. I think that the key to becoming proficient in a language is using it as much as possible in speech and writing. Any site that helps you to do that is worth spending time on.
In conclusion, what do you think one who decides to study a language should always keep in his mind?
Embrace every opportunity to listen to, read, write and speak the language. Concentrate on communicating with people, if that’s your goal, and don’t worry about making mistakes. Try to imitate the pronunciation and intonation of native speakers as closely as you can – the better your pronunciation, the easier it will be for people to understand you. Above all, have fun!
Thank you very much for this interview and for the work you have done on your website.