Talking About Talking

Talking About Talking: Simon Ager of Omniglot

Learning a language is a way to make connections with others. Even a few words can open doors, hearts and minds, and the more you know, the deeper and more meaningful those connections can become.

Simon Ager

At Pai Language Learning, we want to approach the language learning process in a methodical and open way. We strongly believe that although everyone has their own way of learning, there is a lot to be learnt from people further down that path than ourselves, especially for people only just starting out.

To that end, we are going to be publishing a set of interviews with well-known or skilled polyglots and language teachers who have devoted a lot of their time to language learning, with the aim of collecting up a body of advice for people who want to teach themselves languages and presenting this information in a clear set of guidelines for learners.

For our first interview in our ‘Talking About Talking’ series, we have had the pleasure of talking to Simon Ager, the creator of the website Omniglot. Simon first built the site in 1998, and since then it has grown into one of the biggest language learning resources online, containing information on nearly all of the world’s writing systems. Many a self-taught polyglot will be deeply familiar with his site. Simon moved to Bangor, in North Wales after studying for an MA in Linguistics in Bangor University, and as a Welsh business, we figured talking to him would be a great place to start.

Let’s see what he has to say about languages, language learning and what is the best way to start out.

What’s your favourite word in any language, and why?

A favourite word that I learnt recently is ‘klompen’, which is what you call clogs in Dutch. Others include the Swedish words ‘snö’ (snow) and ‘snigelhus’ (shell, lit. “snail house”). There’s a collection of some of my favourite words here.

Do you also have a favourite saying or phrase in any language?

One of my favourite phrases is “my hovercraft is full of eels” – it’s just such a useful phrase suitable for many occasions. You can find a list of translations for this phrase that I have collected here.

A saying I came up with which I quite like is “Learning a language is a way to make connections with others. Even a few words can open doors, hearts and minds, and the more you know, the deeper and more meaningful those connections can become.”

What’s your favourite resource to use when learning a language and why?

I’ve tried quite a few different language courses – books, apps, online lessons, audio courses and so on. Each one has good and bad points. None of them are enough on their own to teach you all you need to know of a language. At the moment I’m enjoying using Duolingo. It’s not perfect, but it does teach a lot, including quite a few rather silly phrases, and encourages you to study regularly – I’m currently on a 1049 day streak.

Once I have at least a basic grasp of a language, I might look for other material in the language, such as books, videos, podcasts, TV programmes, films, songs, etc. I find YouTube an excellent resource for many languages.

What’s the last thing you discovered that has positively changed or affected your approach to learning languages?

Before I started to use apps like Duolingo, my language learning tended to be quite haphazard and sporadic. I would start off all enthusiastic and study regularly, but before long I would lose motivation and stop studying very often. Eventually, I would give up. With these apps, I have got into the habit of studying every day, and plan to continue doing so for as long as possible. This helps me to remember more of what I’m learning, and I’m actually enjoying my studies more.

Is there a favourite mistake or awkward situation in your language learning journey that you remember?

I’m sure I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I am not always aware of doing so at the time. I can’t think of any particular mistake of an awkward situation at the moment.

What did you learn from that moment?

When I’m aware of my mistakes, and if someone corrects me, I usually remember the corrections and try not to make the same mistakes again.

What’s the most worthwhile investment you ever made during your language learning journey?

I think the most important investment for me is time – all the language courses, dictionaries, e.t.c. that I’ve bought are useful, but you need time to get anything out of them. I have quite a few language courses that I haven’t got round to studying yet, and unfortunately, you cannot just absorb a language by osmosis from an unopened book on your shelves.

What is an unusual thing related to languages, or a specific language, that you love?

I like the different ways languages express the same meanings. For example, in some languages, such as Welsh, Irish and Russian, you don’t have something, but rather something is ‘with you‘ or ‘at you‘.

I find idioms and sayings very interesting as they give insights into different cultures and ways of thinking about and describing the world. For example, to say that something is unlikely to happen in English you say when pigs fly or when hell freezes over, in French you say quand les poules auront des dents (when chicken have teeth), in Spanish you say cuando las ranas críen pelo (when frogs grow hair), and in Ukrainian you say коли рак на горі свисне (when the crayfish on the hill whistles).

In the last 5 years, what new belief or behaviour has improved your ability to learn languages?

I’ve got into the habit of studying every single day. Even when I’m very busy, I can always find time for a few language lessons. This helps me maintain my motivation, and to retain more of what I learn.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to teach themselves a language?

Find a language that really interests you and that you want to learn. This will help motivate you.

Find courses, apps and other material that work for you and keep you interested.

Try to study regularly – it’s better to study a little every day than a few hours once a week. Even in the busiest of days, you can usually find a few spare minutes here and there when you can fit in some studies.

If there are things you don’t understand or are not sure about, there are plenty of people out there who can help. There are online tutors, teachers, lessons, and other resources.

Try to find people to practise speaking and writing your language with. You could take part in online discussions, forums, etc. Comment on videos, blogs and other social media. Find language exchange partners. You can also practise by talking to yourself, describing what you’re doing and seeing, and what you’re planning to do. You could try writing a diary or blog in the language you’re learning, or even vlogging (video blogging).

Look for material and resources in the language you’re learning – books, TV shows, films, podcasts, etc. You may not understand much at first, but if you watch/listen regularly, you will eventually understand more.

What bad advice, opinion, recommendation or idea about languages or language learning do you often hear?

Some people will say that you shouldn’t bother to learn grammar because you can pick it up through immersion. Or that you should only study grammar once you have learnt the language to some extent.

This might true if you’re in an environment where only that language is spoken, so you have to learn it and use it. That is how you acquire your mother tongue(s), however, it’s rare to find yourself in such an environment as an adult. You can pick up quite a lot from extensive exposure to spoken and written language – your brain is very good at noticing patterns and connections and filling in gaps, but that takes a lot of time. It can actually be quicker if you explicitly learn how a language works (i.e. it’s grammar). The challenge is to become proficient in using language without having to stop and think about word order, inflexions and other aspects of grammar all the time. Practice can help you with this – a lot of it.

I tried to learn Romanian just using Duolingo. I didn’t study the grammar at all, and tried to work it out from the examples. While I did complete the course, it was a struggle, and there were many aspects of the grammar which I couldn’t work out. If I had studied the grammar as well, I would perhaps be able to speak Romanian now.

Many believe that it’s impossible to speak a new language with a native-like accent if you start studying it after a certain age (the exact age varies in different sources).

It is true that children seem to find it easier to acquire a native accent in a language than adults do, but it is possible for adults to do so too. It takes a lot of careful listening and imitating of native speakers, paying close attention to the pronunciation of individual sounds, combinations of sounds, words and sentences. Learning about how the sounds are produced and how the change in different positions (phonetics and phonology) can help a lot.

When teaching yourself a language, how do/would you approach it?

I usually start by learning some useful basic phrases, like greetings. I look for a good course, app or other material for learning it, and try to study regularly. I use online radio, podcasts and other recorded material to tune my ears to the songs of the language. When I can read the language, at least to some extent, I look for interesting things to read – books for learners, bilingual books, blogs, and so on. I also like learning songs, and find reading the comments on songs, and other things on YouTube, quite useful if they’re in a language I’m learning.

How do you maintain motivation when learning a new language

If I find my motivation flagging, I try to find some aspect of the language, or the culture(s) associated with it, that interests me. This may be songs, stories, poems, words, TV series, etc.

Finally, if you could send a message or a piece of advice to everyone learning a language right now, what would it be?

Keep at it. Don’t give up when it gets difficult or when you feel like you’re not making progress. Find things about the language that interest and excite you. Try to make it part of your everyday life.

Great advice? Got any comments? Who do you want us to interview next? Let us know in our Facebook group or on our Facebook page. If you’ve been using Omniglot, why not check out Simon’s patreon here too.


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