Simon Ager from omniglot.com interview

Interview with Simon Ager of Omniglot.com

I conducted an interview with Simon Ager of the very successful omniglot.com by e-mail. Let’s get right in to the interview!

Robbie: What is your experience with languages? Why did you get into them?

Simon: I grew up in Lancashire in the northwest of England speaking only English, though I was aware of other languages, particularly Welsh, which my mother has tried to learn a number of times, so there were Welsh language materials around the house, and German, which some of my neighbours spoke.

The first foreign language I learnt formally was French, which I started at secondary school at the age of 11. The following year I started studying German, and learnt both languages until the age of 18. During that time I went to France, Germany and Austria a number of times to improve my languages.

I seemed to be quite good at languages, found them interesting, and I was interested in other countries and cultures. I had a vague idea that I’d like to work abroad, though didn’t know what I might end up doing.

After finishing school I worked for a year in various parts of England, France and the Channel Islands, and my time in France really helped to improve my French. I also dabbled briefly with other languages, such as Japanese and Icelandic, but didn’t get very far with them.

I studied Chinese and Japanese at university for a total of five years, including a year and a half studying Chinese in Taiwan and a semester studying Japanese in Japan, and a couple of months travelling in China. During this time I became fluent in Mandarin and also learnt a bit of Cantonese, Taiwanese and Korean.

After finishing my studies I got a job with the British Council in Taipei in which I used my Mandarin everyday, and used a bit of Taiwanese as well. I also taught myself some Spanish and Scottish Gaelic.

Since returning to the UK in 1998 I have taught myself quite a few more languages, with varying degrees of success. I currently speak English, French, Mandarin Chinese, Welsh and Irish more or less fluently, can have a least basic conversations in German, Spanish, Japanese, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Russian and Cantonese, and know bits and pieces of several other languages.

Robbie: What languages are you currently studying and how do you go about studying them?

Simon: I am currently studying Breton and Russian. I try to listen to a lesson or part of a lesson for each every day – I’m using Oxford Take off in Russian and Assimil Le Breton sans Peine (in French). I listen to Breton and Russian language radio stations online every day, and occasionally try to read things in each language. When I meet speakers of these languages, I try to chat with them in their languages, though this doesn’t happen very often.

Robbie: What drove you to bring your experiences and knowledge online for others to use?

Simon: I wanted to share what I was learning and had learnt about writing systems and languages with others online. A site which compared the major scripts used in India was one thing that sparked my interest – I hadn’t known that there were so many and that they looked so interesting. I added a section about the languages I was working with to a site promoting a web design and translation business I was trying to set up after returning to the UK from Taiwan. The business didn’t take off, but the language part of it grew into Omniglot.

Robbie: I know you were in Taiwan for 5 years, what were your experiences like there?

Simon: Taiwan was a fascinating and frustrating place. The people I met there were friendly and hospitable; I made some good friends there; the food is pretty good, the place is lively; and the scenery outside the cities is beautiful. On the other hand, Taipei is a noisy, crowded and chaotic place with very polluted air and rivers, and the climate is sub-tropical – hot and humid in the summer and cool and damp in the winter. I enjoyed my time there, but eventually decided that I’d had enough of the pollution, the heat, the humidity and the noise.

Robbie: Omniglot is absolutely a phenomenal collection of hundreds of languages and writing systems, how did you start something as monumental as this?

Simon: It started small with just a few alphabets and other writing systems back in 1998, and has been growing steadily ever since. When I started it I had no idea what it might become. I initially planned to include information about all writing systems, and then started adding pages about languages, some phrases, and so on.

Robbie: As a business, how does your site stay afloat? You have very few ads, and they are neither obtrusive nor annoying. I think a lot of people appreciate that aspect and it’s respectful towards the user. Have you ever intended to increase the business aspect of your site or is it fulfilling your lifestyle currently?

Simon: There are more ads than you realize, but I keep them deliberately discreet so as not to irritate visitors. i don’t like pop-ups and similarly intrusive ads so I don’t inflict them on visitors. More or less every page has Google AdSense ads at the bottom and/or on the right hand side. These generate a few cents every time they’re clicked on, and currently provide a third to a half of my income. There are ads for a hotel site in the footer of every page on the blog and forum, and these provide another significant chunk of income. The find a language tutor section (http://www.omniglot.com/Language_tutors.htm) is also a good money spinner. The rest of my income comes for affiliate commissions from Amazon and other retailers, paid links and  donations. This all adds up to more than enough to live on and enables me to travel, pursue my musical and other interests, and to save a fair bit. The main expenses involved with running the site are the web server and accountancy fees – as Omniglot is a limited company I need help to prepare my accounts at the end of each financial year.

Robbie: What is your goal for the site? Where do you see your site heading?

Simon: My aim is to add information about every writing system and every language with a written form. Apart from that, I plan to continue adding to the phrases, multilingual texts and other sections.  I’d like to make parts of the site mobile/small screen-friendly, especially the phrases section, and maybe put together some more apps like the Chinese character one (http://www.leafcutterstudios.com/xproject/omniglot-chinese).

Robbie: For first time users of your site, what would you suggest they look at and read?

Simon: It depends what they’re looking for. If they’re interested in writing systems, then the introductory pages are a good place to start:
http://www.omniglot.com/writing/definition.htm
http://www.omniglot.com/writing/writingvspeech.htm
http://www.omniglot.com/writing/types.htm

For those interested in learning a specific language, the main page for that language might be a good place to start.

If they’re interested in conlangs and con-scripts, then that section is the obvious place to go to: http://www.omniglot.com/conscripts/index.htm

Robbie: If you had to pick from all of your experiences and knowledge one idea to help others trying to learn a new language, what would that be?

Simon: I think the key is to study regularly – every day if possible – and to put what you’re learning into practice, i.e. to find people to talk to and to write stuff in the language as often as you can. The more you do this, the better your command of the language will become, as long as you notice your major mistakes and try and correct them.

Robbie: Your writing style on your blog is very instructive and easy to read, have you considered writing a book? If you were to write a book, what would it be about?

Simon: I have considered writing books – novels, short stories, travel stories, or books about languages, writing systems and/or language learning. In fact one of my animations (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tdv5ftDPhSs) is a sort of short story. I like making things up and have lots of vague ideas for stories, but haven’t written much down yet. There’s enough material on Omniglot for several books, perhaps.

Robbie: To check out Simon’s incredible online encyclopedia of languages and writing systems, check out his website at http://www.omniglot.com. Thank you for your time Simon!

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