Linguist Interview with Olly Richards

Introduction: Olly is an ardent language learner with a strong desire to teach you another language. With his website and new eBook, he teaches people his insight on learning a foreign language quickly and efficiently. With 7 languages under his belt and more to come, Olly currently resides in the Middle East where he is learning a new language, but not the one you might expect. You may enjoy reading more about Olly on his website here. Additionally, check out more linguist interviews here or stay tuned for future interviews with language lovers and localization professionals


1.)  Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about you.

I’m Olly, 32, from the UK. My passions are music, languages and travel. I run a blog called where I give honest advice and practical tips for learning foreign languages. I live and work abroad, currently in Doha, Qatar


2.)  What languages do you speak and to what capacity?

Fluent/high level: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese

Learning: Cantonese, Arabic

Learnt but very very rusty: Italian


3.)    Define communication. How do you think it applies?

Communication is the ability to get your message across by whatever means necessary. The quicker, more accurately and more idiomatically you can do this in a language, the better your communication is (i.e. the more fluent you are).


4.)    How would you define language?

I’ve never thought about this. I suppose it’s the means that a certain group of people use to communicate with each other – audio or visual.


5.)    What is your approach to linguistics?

I actually have a master’s degree in it! Linguistics is the technical study of how language is used – everything from grammar, to discourse (how people use specific language to interact with each other) to prosidy (patterns of stress and intonation in a language). It’s fascinating, if you like that sort of thing, but says nothing about how to learn languages. So, for your average person just trying to learn a language, linguistics is largely irrelevant.Oliver22


6.)    Per our last interview together regarding teaching English abroad, I am curious to know how you believe that your experience teaching English has influenced your comprehension of language learning or the process of it. Would you say that the impact has been significant or irrelevant, perhaps something in the middle?

It’s a really interesting question and one that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I would say that my own language learning has influenced my teaching far more than my teaching has influenced my language learning. The techniques that teachers learn are primarily intended to manage learning in large classes – something which is of little relevance to an independent, motivated learner. What I’ve brought from my language learning experience into the classroom is a sense of perspective. I used to teach according to how I’d been taught to teach, but once I started reflecting on how I’d learnt languages myself I started to change things. Knowing from experience how much new vocabulary you can realistically learn at once, or how many times you need to read a text for it to really sink in (and the different stages involved in that), I started to adjust my teaching approach accordingly.

I have read a lot about language learning and teaching theory, and there are many useful concepts that have helped me reflect on my own learning. As I said before, nothing particularly practical or actionable, but useful for me to conceptualise things as someone who writes about language learning. One thing I’ve been particularly influenced by has been The Lexical Approach – an approach to teaching popularized by Michael Lewis. The main idea is that words in a language don’t exist in isolation, but come in combinations of words or even whole phrases. You can see, for example, how the words underlined in the last sentence work together in a “frame” to convey a certain message. When I learn languages now, I make sure not to work with single words; I write down new words in full sentences for example.


7.)    As you mentioned in that interview you learnt Japanese whilst in Japan. How do you compare learning a language at home to learning a language in a country that speaks it?

I’m experiencing that at the moment, as I’m learning Cantonese in Doha! The most important message to give here is that people mustn’t be put off learning a language because they’re not living in a country where the language is spoken. It is true that living abroad gives you more opportunities to learn, but that’s it. The work you have to do to get the language learnt – the “heads down” time – is the same wherever you happen to live. For proof of this, look no further than the thousands of foreigners living in Japan for years who never learn more than the basics in Japanese. These people are often shocked at the fact that just living in Japan is not enough – they didn’t expect to have to also sit at home and study in the evenings!


8.)    Do you think that there is such a thing as a hard language to learn?

Yes, although it’s relative to your language background. English speakers, for example, will find Spanish easier to learn than Japanese, due to all the similarities between the two languages (and not least because the writing system is the same). Korean speakers, however, will find Japanese far easier than Spanish for exactly the same reasons.

If the question is “is there a language that’s too hard to learn?” – no. It’s just different degrees of familiarity. Less familiar languages will take longer to get used to, that’s all. I’m finding that at the moment with Cantonese for example – I’ve never really been exposed to it before and I’m having to give it time to become accustomed to the sounds and patterns of the language.


9.)    Is having the ability to speak other languages a hobby for you or is it something that you use professionally? Maybe both?

It’s a hobby, which transfers into my work. I don’t need languages for my work, but they come in handy. Just in the last couple of weeks, for example, I’ve spoken Spanish, Japanese, Arabic and French with customers!


10.) How has being able to communicate in other languages influenced your life?

Since November 2000, when I bought a one-way ticket to Paris and had to fend for myself! My experience in Paris opened my eyes to what being able to speak languages can mean for your life.


11.) Which language would you really like to speak, but do not currently? If you were to begin learning that language today, how would you start?

Probably Mandarin Chinese or Korean, because there are a lot of Korean and Chinese here in Doha and it’d be cool to be able to talk with them!

To start, I’d buy a text book and work through it at home for a couple of months, reading and listening every day. After a couple of months I’d find a language exchange partner (or pay someone for their time) and meet them 2-3 times per week to start speaking. I’d basically carry that on for as long as possible, giving it time and being patient.


12.) Is there a topic in linguistics that fascinates you most? If so, which is it?

Not particularly – I’m interested in it all!  On my blog I find myself increasingly talking about time and routine, as this is what most people struggle with.


13.) What advice do you have for people who want to learn a second language?

Don’t look for shortcuts – there aren’t any. Be patient. It’s not going to happen overnight. Buy a good textbook and study it every day. Don’t wait – start today. Start speaking as soon as possible and do it regularly, using an online service such as if you can’t find people locally. After you’ve started, you need to focus on one thing – not stopping. If you’re thinking this is quite simple, you’re right. I focus on the simple stuff because it’s what most people fail to get right. For more specific guides, advice and strategies, check out the Getting Started menu on my blog.


14.) Closing remarks; feel free to add anything you feel is necessary.

You need to enjoy the process of learning a language – it’s vital to your success. I suggest being proactive in finding things that interest you in the language you’re learning and trying as hard as possible to integrate these things into your daily routine. Educating yourself about the language learning process is the next step. Blog like mine, or any of the other polyglots who write about language learning, can help to reduce uncertainty about the learning process, which in turn can help you avoid getting overwhelmed or confused.

Good luck!

Read a former interview with Olly on Teaching English Abroad here


Previous Interviews with Linguists

Aryn from Driftwood and Daydreams, learn about how she defines communication and its impact on her life. 

Kieran Mayard shares his passion for East Asian culture


See other interviews by me!

More interviews on Backpacking Diplomacy:

Interview with The Guy on his new ebook Frequent Flyer miles

Ed Wu from Where the hell is that Taiwan guy? Traveling around in a funny suit.

Dave, who biked from Alaska to Argentina

Charles Richard, leading director of In the Mind of the Maker documentary

Savannah Grace, the girl who grew her boobs in China

Richard Arthur, writer of I of the Sun

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