Perhaps of all the creations of man language is the most astonishing.
- Giles Lytton Strachey (Taken from Omniglot proverbs)
Simon Ager is the founder of Omniglot. Omnilgot is the largest encyclopedia of languages on the web. Ager is able to speak “five languages – English, Mandarin, French, Welsh and Irish, he has basic conversations in five others – German, Japanese, Spanish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx and Esperanto. He can understand spoken and written Italian and Portuguese to some extent, and can get the gist of texts in other Romance languages. He also have basic knowledge of Cantonese, Taiwanese, Czech and British Sign Language, and have picked up bits and pieces of Arabic, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Korean, Latin, Russian, Turkish and Urdu. To read more about Simon Ager languages visit here and here.
Here are the main questions that I asked Ager
How long have you been learning languages?
For 31 years – I started learning languages formal at secondary school at the age of 11 in 1981. The first language I learnt was French, and I started with German the following year.
Which languages are you most familiar with?
Apart from English, my mother tongue, my strongest languages are French, Mandarin Chinese, Welsh and Irish. I spent most time studying French, lived in France for a few months and use it regularly, so it’s the one I feel most comfortable with. I also spent quite a long time studying Mandarin Chinese, and spent five years living in Taiwan, so I speak it fluently, though don’t speak it very often these days. I’m more or less fluent in Welsh and Irish, and I though don’t speak them very often, I listen to and read things in them regularly.
So, I want to know what your style of learning a language is?
I usually start with a course like Teach Yourself, Colloquial, Assimil or similar. I try to study a bit every day. I listen to the language as much as possible using online radio stations, podcasts, audiobooks and whatever other material is available. I have little conversations with myself, and sometimes with others, and might try to write things on my blog (http://www.omniglot.com/rywsut/) in the language. I also read blogs, online news and other sites, as well as books – translations of books I know well, like Harry Potter, and books written in the language I’m learning that I’ve read in translation. I tend to listen to a lot of music and songs in languages I’m learning, and if any of the songs really appeal to me, I will try to learn them.
What advice do you have for adults trying to learn languages?
First, and most importantly, it helps if you choose a language that you really want to learn, and that interests and excites you. Languages are also way to access a different cultures, so it might be aspects of another culture that interest you, and/or the countries where the languages are spoken, and/or the people who speak them. Having good reasons for learning a language can help to motivate you to continue studying, even when you are finding it challenging.
It’s a good idea to study every day, with maybe one day off each week. I find that it’s better to study for lots of short periods throughout the day rather doing it all in one block. I often study a bit while cooking meals, or when I need a break from my work.
If you feel the need for the structure of a class, see if one is available in your area. It is useful to have a teacher to guide you and correct you, and to have classmates to practise with. You can also learn a lot on your own using online and offline materials, finding conversation partners on Skype and on language exchange websites, as well as by getting to know people in your area who speak the language you’re learning.
You can immerse yourself in a language with online and satellite radio and TV stations. At first you won’t understand very much, but if you keep listening and watching you will understand more and more, and will be able to work out the meanings of unfamiliar words from the context.
Extensive reading is also a good way to improve your language skills. You pick up lots of vocabulary and grammar in context, and if you read aloud, you can practise your speaking as well. It’s a good idea to choose written material that really interests you. If you like reading crime fiction in your native language, for example, look for something similar in the language you’re learning.
So I get this a lot that learning simultaneous languages at a time can confuse your brain or you can’t do it, what’s your take on that?
Learning several language simultaneously can confuse you at times, especially if the languages are closely related, e.g. Spanish and Portuguese, but if they are completely different there seems to be less chance of confusion. I think you probably make quicker progress in a language if you just learn one at a time, but I often learn several simultaneously, while maintaining and improving my knowledge of others.
I have a question about the name website, where did the word Omniglot came from?
I coined the term in 1998 intending to use it as the name of a website design and translation agency I was planning to establish. The agency never really took off and I decided to use the name for my website instead.
Omniglot (‘ɒmnɪˌglɒt) noun
- having a command of all langauges
- written in, composed of, or containing all languages
- a person with a command of all languages
- a book containing several versions of the same text written in all languages
- a mixture or confusion of languages
[from Latin omnis (all) + Greek γλωσσα (glossa) - tongue/language]
Adapted from the definition of polyglot in Collins English Dictionary.
Ok, now can you give me an advice or tip for people out there who are learning languages such as Mandarin but feels it’s impossible.
If you’re learning Mandarin, other Sinitic languages, or Japanese, I think it helps to focus on spoken language first. Learn to speak and understand it, and to write it using Roman letters, and then learn the hanzi/kanji gradually. In the case of Japanese the kana syllabaries are not too difficult to learn, so it’s worth learning them as well as romaji at first. There are many books, websites and apps that help you to learn hanzi and kanji – see if you can find some that appeal to you. I learned hanzi with printed character cards and by writing them many times. I also made mental pictures incorporating the parts of the characters and their meanings.
This song was taken from The Elephant in the room