Overcoming personal struggles and reaching new heights in language acquisition is at the heart of your journey to fluency. In a series of interviews with italki partners and polyglots, you will learn about personal stories from these language learning experts and be able to access novel and insightful language learning tips from those who have ventured on this journey.
In today’s feature, italki sits down with Olly Richards from I Will Teach You A Language! Read on to find out what Olly has to say about learning languages.
Tell us about yourself, what do you do?
I am an educator and foreign language specialist, who helps people around the world improve their lives, relationships, and potential by learning new languages.
I speak eight languages. Through my website and podcast - I Will Teach You A Language - I reach an audience of over 100,000 people each month.
My activities include regular blog articles, videos, and podcasts, together with best-selling short story books, digital training products, workshops, talks at international language conferences, and partnerships with organisations like the Open University.
What languages do you speak? What language(s) are you actively learning now?
I speak French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Cantonese, Arabic, and Thai. I’ve studied German and Italian too, but I’m not very good at them! I’ve been actively working on Cantonese for a few years.
How do you motivate yourself when learning a language, and what do you expect to achieve?
My motivation is always to be able to communicate (speak) with native speakers of the language. I don’t aim to reach the highest language level (C2), but I do aim to get to a point where I can comfortably speak the language in social situations, and enjoy the company of native speakers. That’s the definition of fluency for me. I motivate myself by focusing on the people I want to speak with, and what it will be like once I can.
How has language learning changed your life?
I have lived in six foreign countries, and travelled to many more; and along the way, I have met many speakers of other languages. When you communicate with foreigners in English, they are accommodating you. You never get to speak to the real person in their language. When you know the other person’s language, not only do you get to speak to them in their own language, but the goodwill you demonstrate means you develop deeper friendships and make more out of the time you spend with them. My life would have been very different If I were not able to do this.
On a different note, I now make a living working with languages, on platforms I have created myself. I love being able to spend my time doing what I care about the most.
What are your favorite ways of improving your speaking abilities?
Rule #1 is to speak regularly with people you enjoy spending time with. By doing this, your speaking improves naturally. I also spend a lot of time learning new vocabulary, as I find that quickly takes you to new heights in your speaking. Increasingly, I am spending more time listening and reading in the language, and I find that this has a big impact on my speaking ability.
How do you feel people can use their language skills to benefit their community or those around them?
If you have an interest in the language of your local community, I would encourage you to learn it. The main reason is that you will have ample opportunity to use it, which is not always the case when you learn a foreign language. Learning a new language and integrating it into your life with people around you is the dream!
What is an important learning activity that you absolutely do (daily) to keep yourself going even when times are busy or the willpower to learn is low?
I have what I call “Core Study Time”. This is a chunk of time (around 45-60 minutes) that I set aside every day, usually in the morning, in which I sit down and do focused language study. Once I’ve done that, the day is a “win” whatever else happens. I don’t do it every single day, but it’s the main part of my routine. The way I think about it is: If I can’t devote 45 minutes a day to the language, should I really expect to be able to learn it?
What tips do you have for learning languages that don't have very many learning materials available in English?
For example, Chinese dialects such as Shanghainese and Hokkien, languages that not many English speakers learn. Another example is Serbian (one that I would personally very much like to learn for heritage reasons), and more obscure lingua francas such as Lingala.
With minority languages, the community of learners is often very strong. Seek out people learning that language on Facebook, or other forums, approach them directly and ask for advice about materials. Often, though, you will have to make your own. Hire native speakers on UpWork or similar freelancing sites to transcribe YouTube videos, radio programmes, or anything else you can find. It’s often very affordable!
Could you discuss what is easy and what is challenging about studying languages from the same language family? From different language families?
The easy aspect of learning languages from the same family is that they are very familiar. You’ll feel like you already know new vocabulary, and the grammar won’t scare you. The difficulty is that you’ll start to mix up the two languages. The trick to avoid this is to get one language to a high level (B2, upper-intermediate) before starting the new one.
With different language families, the situation is the opposite! They’re harder to learn, but you won’t mix them up so much.
Do you recommend learning multiple languages at the same time? Is it preferable to study languages from the same language family or different language families?
I don’t recommend learning multiple languages at the same time. Learning even one language requires you to learn in as much depth and with as much focus as possible, and you simply can’t do this well if you’re dividing your attention.
How does culture factor into your learning of languages?
My main interest is learning to interact with the people from the country of the language I’m learning. To that extent, learning everyday culture is an integral part of learning the language.
A lot of language learners ask about the importance of pronunciation or accent. What would you say to them?
Pronunciation refers to producing the individual sounds (phonemes) of the language. Accent refers to the local identity, e.g. Glaswegian, Texan, or Welsh English. Pronunciation is vital. Accent doesn’t matter. You can have a Japanese accent speaking English with perfect pronunciation…it’s part of your identity, and you shouldn’t worry about it.
After every learning session, what do you do to retain the information / knowledge you’ve gained so that you’re able to recall it long-term?
I record useful new vocabulary in my flashcard deck, so I can easily find it again later. I don’t do much more than that, other than to come back to the same material many, many times – that’s the best way to make stuff stick.
For you, what is the difference between maintaining a language and making progress in a language? How do you know when you are doing either?
I don’t really draw much of a distinction. I’m learning a language if I’m actively studying it on a regular basis. If I’m not actively studying a language, then I either do nothing with it (to be revived at a later date), or I practise it as often as possible with friends.
What final inspiration would you like to share to our readers?
When I meet impressive polyglots and attend language conferences, one thing always strikes me: Everyone there is learning languages for their own gratification and fulfilment. The only way to learn languages (and not hate it) is to cultivate a love for the language you’re learning, and approach it with dedication and an open heart. Don’t let yourself be swayed or put off by other people’s experience, goals, or opinions with languages.