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