Interview with the Omniglot.

Jun 13, 2016 3:30:00 PM / by Melanie Moore

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Have you ever wanted to brush up on basic phrases, decipher spelling systems, master pronunciations, and study etymologies? Look no further than Omniglot.com.

It is a helpful site with a wealth of information in over 600 languages — and it’s always being updated. It also contains information about writing systems (both natural and invented), information about language families, and plenty of articles on languages and language learning methods. The site receives around 70,000 views a day and it’s most popular feature is the list of useful phrases in each language. In essence, Omniglot is a great resource for getting started in a language, as well as diving deeper into a language that you already know.

In this interview, we're talking with the creator of this site, Simon Ager. He created the Omniglot website back in 1998 and originally created it to advertise a web design and translation services site. It didn’t end up working out for him at first, so he started adding alphabets and writing systems to the website. Over time, people started sending him more content for the site, including phrases and information about languages and writing systems. Whenever he receives words or phrases from someone, he asks them to make a recording, so that he can build up that section of the site. In addition, he’s received over 500 invented alphabets from aspiring conlangers that he can add to the site.

Becoming Omniglot.

At age 11, Ager began learning French and then German the year after. He continued to study both languages until he was 18, when he took a break to spend a month in France. When he began attending university, he had initially wanted to continue with French, German, and/or another language, but he thought, “everybody does that, let’s do something different.” Next thing you know, he began studying Japanese and Chinese at university. After university, he received a scholarship to study Chinese in Taiwan for a year. He then accepted a position at the British Council in Taipei, where he worked for five years. During his time there, he studied Taiwanese and Cantonese as well as Spanish and Korean.

After he came back, he spent nine years working as a web developer. During this time, he was able to teach himself several languages, including Welsh, Irish, and Spanish at a conversational level and then dabbled in several others. For example, he spent two months learning Italian before visiting Sicily and still has conversational knowledge of the language to some extent.

Simon currently lives in Bangor, Wales, where he has plenty of practice with Welsh. It was interesting to hear that much of the country speaks Welsh and that many events are held in both English and Welsh. In addition, some events are also held exclusively in Welsh. He has an interest in the language mainly because of his family connection (his mother's family was from Wales).

Celtic languages (pronounced [KEL-tic]) seem to be Simon’s main language love. He often writes in Irish Gaelic, or Gaelige on his language-learning blog about the events of his day. It was actually St. Patrick’s Day when we conducted the interview, so he showed off his Irish and Welsh-speaking chops (see below for full interview).

What’s interesting about Bangor is that about 50% of the population is fluent in Welsh. In addition to the native Welsh population, there are many students and professionals who move there and end up learning Welsh. In fact, Simon said that many events are held in Welsh. Most include English translations, but if the majority of the population is Welsh-speaking, they would conduct the event in the Welsh language.

Language acrobatics.

Before he moved to Bangor, however, Ager pondered several different career paths — including the circus. He is a skilled juggler and it is one of his many passions. He also thought about becoming a speech pathologist or language therapist. He talked to several people about their experiences in this field and realized that he would need at least a background in Linguistics. Therefore, he started studying Linguistics at Bangor University.

In addition to his juggling skills, Simon is also a skilled musician. Music is the way in which he was first introduced to Celtic languages. He plays tin whistle and even writes his own music. At the Polyglot Gathering, for example, he performed a couple of original compositions: A song in French, called La Plume de Ma Tante, and a song in both English and an ancient Celtic tongue.

Over the years, Simon Ager has continued his language-learning abilities and has studied Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Turkish, Hungarian, and Arabic. Because of his work with omniglot.com, he usually knows at least one or two phrases from each of the languages on the site. For example, he recently met someone from Estonia and was able to use his knowledge of basic words, such as tere, which means “hello” in Estonian. Whenever he is able to use his language abilities, he always surprises those whose native language is his target language.  When asked why he is learning their language, he may even give his reasoning in the language!

His current language projects have him brushing up on his Manx Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic and trying to improve Russian and Czech. He attends a French conversation group once a week, which helps him to maintain his knowledge of the language. In addition, because he lives in Wales, he has many opportunities to practice his Welsh.

Simon’s motivation for learning languages comes from what he can do with each language. For example, if he goes to the Polyglot Conference in Greece, he will just learn the basics of Greek in order to speak to some of the locals and to have a good time in the country. As with other language learners, even though he can understand a lot, “creating my own sentences can be quite difficult [...] each language has its own idiosyncrasies, its own challenges.” One of the lovely gems of advice that Simon suggested was to “practice using your language and get feedback. That’s the key to becoming an active user of the language.” In addition, you need to practice your speaking and writing skills in order to become proficient in your target language.

Because Simon is a native English speaker, we asked him why he thinks native English speakers should learn another language. “If you want to do more than just visit tourist sites, then you need to speak the language. It gives your trip more depth, more interest, you can meet people who don’t speak English and get to know them, you can learn about different cultures, and it’s fascinating. I don’t know why anybody would not want to learn.” The sentiment of monolingualism seems to be prevalent in both the UK and US, and probably other English-speaking countries, like Australia. As polyglots, we all know that learning languages is our lifeblood — no one has to prove to us the benefits of learning a language.

Simon would like to continue learning multiple languages throughout his life and would like to increase the variety available on Omniglot. “As the number of languages increases, it becomes more and more difficult to find new material.” Simon has resources and phrases and such in most of the world’s major languages already. He wishes to improve what’s already there in a language, to expand the description of each language, to add more phrases, and expand the grammar and culture section.

At the moment, he has a list of about 50 basic phrases in various languages, but would like to add more. There is actually a Facebook group that he often references for information and directs those with questions about certain languages or writing systems to it. “It’s amazing how quickly people can usually help.” Occasionally, he’ll receive questions about an abstract symbol, which no one can decipher.

Check out the full interview for more language-learning advice from this polyglot, errr should we say, Omniglot.

 Would you like to build on these basic phrases and start speaking the language? Click the button below to find out if Mango Languages is available for free through your local library!

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Photo Credit: Trout Monroe 

Topics: Language Learning and Culture

Melanie Moore

Written by Melanie Moore

Melanie speaks German, Lithuanian, and Japanese and has dabbled in several others. She is an aspiring polyglot and enjoys sharing her passions for language learning and music with anyone she meets.

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