Interview with Olly Richards, Polyglot and Creator of Language Learning Readers

This post is a transcript of a video on my YouTube channel.

Studying English? Here’s the transcript as a lesson to study on LingQ.



Steve: Okay. Today, I have with me one of the leading members of the world international mafia of polyglots —


Olly: Good Lord!


Steve: Yeah — who meet from time to time and put out videos and produce various things for language learning and a fellow that I respect tremendously for his language skills and his entrepreneurship around language learning, Olly Richards, who joins us from somewhere in England I believe.


Olly: Yes, locked down in London coming to you.


Steve: Locked down in London.


Olly: Yeah.


Steve: Okay. The other day I saw you had put out a new series of books or a book in your series of readers. I can’t remember which language. Tell us a little bit about you and about your graded readers and the other areas…


Olly: And the other stuff. Yeah, okay.


Steve: Yeah, yeah. What are you up to? A lot of my viewers will know you, but bring us up to date.


Olly: Yeah. Thanks for the nice little intro. I’ll see if I can live up to that. 


My name is Olly Richards and I blog at a website called I Will Teach You a Language dot com. That’s where I kind of started this whole journey. Over the years, I have kind of shifted into teaching languages and creating books and courses to teach people. I have an approach that centers around stories. I call this method Story Learning. That’s how I’m kind of branding it these days. So to help people do that, I create books and courses which all have a story of the heart of it. So we’re giving people lots of nice, fun input at a good level, along with different kinds of instruction to help them learn.

I’ve released a series of graded readers with Teach Yourself, which I’m sure some of you guys are going to be familiar with.


Steve: Show us. Yes, absolutely.


Olly: I’ve got lots of new languages in there. I’ve got Turkish and things like that.


Steve: Ooh, Turkish! I’m going to get Turkish. All right.


Olly: I’ve also got Swedish and Dutch. Teach Yourself are great because they are all for creating stuff in less common languages. So I’m currently working on Welch. How about that? Japanese.


Steve: Right.


Olly: I see my career a bit differently these days. I used to just spend all my time learning languages. Now I don’t do so much of that in recent years. I haven’t been doing so much of that in recent years. I’m kind of becoming more and more interested in how I can kind of create stuff to help other people learn and that’s pretty much what I’m focusing on these days.


Steve: Well, you know, this is the problem. I have been working on my Persian and Arabic, but it’s hard to find the time because we’re doing these other things now and then we can’t find enough time to work on languages. I do enjoy exploring new languages and I hope you come up with some graded readers in Turkish. Well, Turkish I’ve put on the back burner because I want to get better at reading in the Arabic script, so I’m focusing in on Persian and Arabic. But there is a lack of content in those languages, a lack of content in the sort of intermediate level, which is kind of what you’re focusing on.

Olly: Yeah.


Steve: You do your beginner book and then the next thing you go to is a podcast, which I have transcribed. But those are very difficult for me, so to have something in the middle is very, very good.


Olly: It’s interesting to think that someone with your level of experience says to jump up to that kind of 03:25.1 level is very, very difficult for you. For someone who’s doing it for the first time it’s nigh on impossible because they just don’t have that level of experience and belief that it’s actually possible. That’s why I think the stuff that I’m doing and the stuff that you guys do at LingQ is so important because it just kind of provides that bridge from your beginner’s textbook to the more interesting content.


Steve: One thing you said there was I think really interesting. First of all, that they haven’t done it before so they don’t have the experience, obviously, but they don’t believe they can do it. I think that’s a big part of why experienced language learners like we are, we may not be very good, but we’re experienced, we know we’re going to get there. We’re going to get somewhere and whatever we get to we’re happy with it. We never question ourselves. But I think your typical person that goes to the library and studies Spanish and has been doing it for 10 years and has never gotten anywhere, basically, they’re convinced they never will. They will never get fluent. They will get a little bit better at ordering things in a restaurant, but they have a very low level it seems of ambition and they have no confidence.


Olly: Yeah, it’s an extremely important part of the psyche of the language learner. I think people express it in different ways. If you kind of confronted them with that and said look. You don’t believe you can do this, can you? I’m not sure how they’d react to that. They’d probably think no, wait. I can. I do think for a lot of people there is this sort of what if I fail. What if I can’t do it? That is there lingering in the back of their mind.


Steve: Sure and just simply the fact that they’ve never done it.


Olly: Yeah.


Steve: They have trouble visualizing themselves as someone speaking another language fluently. They’ve never done it. That’s understandable. That’s the vast majority of language learners and that’s why I think your series is so good.


One thing I did, for example, in Persian, which I would like to see by the way, here’s a suggestion to you. I’m not a big fan of stories. I like history. So I found this young lady in Iran who creates content for me in Persian and one of the things she did she created 26 episodes of the history of Iran in very simple language read slowly. Every episode is about five-six minutes long and then it’s followed by five-six minutes of these circling questions. So, you know, whatever, Persia went to war with Greece. Did Persia go to war with Turkey? No, Persia went to war with Greece. 


So you have these circling questions where the answer is more or less given. You don’t have to try to remember what was in the lesson. You just have to hear the statement, hear the question and hear the answer and that reinforces some of the vocabulary. The more vocabulary you have a better grasp on, when you listen to the main episode again you’ll understand a little bit more. 


I remember when I was learning Chinese we had a book called 20 Lectures on Chinese Culture, which was at a 1,000 character level. I know you like stories and I like stories, but for those of us who like nonfiction if you could ever develop a series.


Olly: It’s funny you should say that. We’ve actually got a few things in development right now. The thing I like about your Persian example is it’s specific to Persian. From a kind of production point of view that kind of thing is fantastic, but it’s a bit limiting because if you’re going to make unique resources for each language there’s the scalability of what you lose, right?


Steve: Right.


Olly: So that’s the particular challenge. When I actually spend time learning myself I’m also partial to nonfiction. I like history. I like biographies. I like business books and things like that. So we’re actually developing at the moment a quite exciting series, which is the history of World War II in simple Spanish, French, German, 07:19.9.


Steve: Okay.


Olly: I’m also doing climate change in a simple book.


Steve: Right. Good idea.


Olly: We’re working our way through different hot topics, if you like.


Steve: That’s excellent. That has the advantage, too, that those are subjects that are familiar to people. If you’re learning a language and the subject matter is familiar to you, already you have an advantage.


Olly: Yeah, for sure. There’s that and there’s also the kind of practical point that if we create content like that in Spanish it can fairly easily be repurposed into other languages.


Steve: Oh, sure. I understand that, but I’m saying from the point of view of the learner.


Olly: Yeah. 


Steve: That’s very good because whatever is familiar is easier.


Olly: Yeah, exactly.


Steve: I always get mad at these language courses which start out with the most exotic aspects of the local culture. So you’re going to learn Korean and they give you three or four different ways of saying my sister, festivals. All kinds of stuff that you have no relationship to at all, so it adds to the difficulty it doesn’t make it easier.


Olly: Yeah. I love the example of the history of the Persian culture, though. Although it might be unfamiliar to someone who’s just learning the language at the start, it is also often the reason that you’re learning the language. So to be able to do a deep-dive in that kind of topic area is extremely useful.


Steve: Yeah. We don’t really get into the sort of Persian festivals or stuff like that, although she does have a series where she talks about different things Persian. But in the history, in a sense it’s familiar. You hear about the Greek-Persian wars from the Persian perspective. You read about Persians going into India and stuff. So you are dealing with world history and not sort of very specific cultural things, but it’s good. She’s very good. She’s got a clear voice and it’s really good. I’d love to have that in other languages. Many of the languages I’m learning these days are not ones that you’re producing books for, although I see Turkish, so that’s good.


Olly: Yeah. I mean, there’s always this balance, isn’t there? Ultimately, this stuff costs a lot of money to make, right, so you’ve got to be able to make your money back on it.


Steve: Yeah, you’ve got to recover your costs.


Olly: We’re kind of dipping our toes in the water with different languages for sure, but it has to be a gradual thing. I’d love to make all the stuff in the world for Persian, but then little things like Amazon Kindle don’t support Persian and you’re screwed from the start. 


Steve: Right.


Olly: I’m working on it, but it’s going to be some time coming.


Steve: All right, so let me ask you now. We’ve been in this sort of language learning, teaching, polyglot environment for quite a few years and, of course, we were learning languages long before the internet and mp3. At least I was. I don’t know, maybe you were. 


Olly: Yeah.


Steve: What do you think have been the major changes, what do you think are the things that are changing now and where is that going to take us as far as language learning?


Olly: In the last few years it seems that there have been some pretty seismic shifts. I think there’s a few different ways to look at it. I think the big shift with the internet on the whole is just the availability of content. You know, the fact that you can just access the daily newspaper from any given country from anywhere in the world. That, from a language-learning perspective, I think is the most important change. That, plus video chat obviously is a huge thing. But I think it’s interesting how that hasn’t necessarily made things easier or better. I guess that’s a different topic, but I mean certainly the availability of resources and the access to video chat is the big thing.


Steve: Right.


Olly: Of course, the apps and things like that have been exploding. There are all kinds of new technology out there, from my perspective, 99% of which is effectively useless or adds nothing to the experience. Although, there are some particular tech resources that have been developed by language learners that are genuinely helpful. I count LingQ among the outliers with that.


Steve: Thank you.


Olly: One of the interesting things I’m seeing now is that there’s a group of people who are coming up and they’re most visible on YouTube because YouTube seems to have kind of replaced everything as the go-to content place. I started off through blogging. That’s what I did and now YouTube is so big and so visible. 


I’m fascinated by this new generation of people who are learning languages, documenting what they’re doing, but also kind of marrying that up with all the latest technology. I see people like Ari Shamash and Ken 12:29.2. These guys are all very young and they’re really embracing new technology. I saw you on VR chat the other day with Ari, which was fantastic.


Certainly, how I feel is they’re kind of digital natives in a way that I’m not. I had to learn this stuff, same as you I imagine. I had to kind of learn the ins and outs, learn YouTube and learn blogging whereas these guys have actually kind of grown up with it and they’re so adept with the different platforms that are out there. That seems to me to be the genesis of a really big change. I don’t know what that change is going to be, but the fact that they’ve grown up with this technology is important.


Steve: Right.


Olly: For all of this, I don’t see any evidence that people are any better at language learning than they used to be. I remember talking to Luca about this a few years back. One of the big advantages we felt was that we remember what language learning used to be like before the internet. We remember what it used to be like to go, in my case, to the European bookshop in Soho in central London. I’d go down to the French section and there would be like two or three French books to choose from and that’s your lot. So you take one or two and that’s all you’ve got. You want to learn French? You’d better use these books. So you just go through them cover to cover and you focus and you concentrate. The day that you find another book in the library it’s like you’ve found a gem. You take it home and you focus.


My big question mark over the growth of technology, smart phones in particular, is that I just see people distracted to a level which makes language learning so difficult. Language learning for me is all about focus and depth and the ability to concentrate on things and that’s the precise thing that smart phones, social media and things are taking away from people. And so I just wonder about the people who are growing up with this. How do they navigate these basic study skills of focus and concentration? I don’t know the answer to that, but those are some of the big topics that I think I’ve seen.


Steve: Yeah, that’s very interesting and certainly I can relate to when I was learning Chinese in Hong Kong going to the bookstore and finding readers.


Olly: I remember this story.


Steve: In those days, there were no online dictionaries and I certainly didn’t want to go through a Chinese dictionary to look up every word where there were readers. There were so many readers, you know, history Chinese politics, whatever, literature and they would have these word lists. So if I found a new reader with a new word list I was delighted. I’d go home and work on it. I did the same in Japanese. Nowadays you don’t really need to do that because you can grab anything and look up the word online. To me, that’s an improvement.


You have to agree, though, at least it’s my impression that for everyone that goes into a bookstore to pick up a book on Spanish or French maybe a lot of them leave without buying a book. Some of them buy the book, take it home and never open it or they open the book and do five chapters and never get any further. So I’m not convinced that those people then were more successful than people now.


Olly: Yeah, yeah.


Steve: I mean, I’m on my iPad and I’m going through whatever it is in Persian and Arabic and every 20 minutes or so I check my Twitter feed, so I’m distracted. I happen to enjoy following events on Twitter, but that’s a negative. Nothing is 100% better. You always gain something and lose something; however, the fact that I can have my phone. If I go and I’m waiting in line somewhere I can be going through my lesson in Persian on LingQ on my iPhone. If I’m standing I’ll be doing that or if I’m driving I’ll be listening. I have my language with me all the time.


I find with learning languages like Arabic, Persian and Greek I learned it up in no time and I don’t think I would have done that 50 years ago. My situation with Chinese was I was paid by the Canadian government to be a language student, so I was full time seven hours a day learning Chinese. Now I have an hour or two a day mixed in with other activities. So I think I’m pretty efficient at taking advantage.


I agree with you with YouTube. I don’t even take advantage of it because there’s no Persian. I’m learning Persian and Arabic, the worst languages. I haven’t found any Persian. We can import movies from YouTube into LingQ as lessons. The audio, the video and the text is there, but I haven’t come across any Standard Arabic movies. They all are spoken in a dialect of some kind, maybe with Arabic subtitles and similarly with Persian. Maybe I just haven’t found them. 


I agree with you in theory that there are people who have trouble focusing and there are distractions, but I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.


Olly: I think it depends on the perspective of the person, right? Absolutely, I’m kind of looking at this through my perspective of having kind of seen all of this stuff develop. In your case, you were able to bring these memories of different ways of language learning even to this new world. That 18:37.7 and form how you go about stuff now.


Steve: Right.


Olly: I mean, people still have to study. They still go to college. They have to figure out how to pass exams and things like that. At the end of the day, you’ve got the resources that are available and it’s down to how you use them. It’s the extent to which you’re able to use these resources in a smart way that’s going to determine your success.


Well, it’s all marketing, isn’t it? But there’s a big tendency with the evolution of technology to portray things as being quick and easy.


Steve: Right.


Olly: I guess it 19:31.8. You always had the textbooks, the old self-study textbooks. Become fluent in Spanish by the time you finish this textbook, which obviously is nonsense.


Steve: Not true.


Olly: It was always that way, but I think particularly with the development of language apps and things like that there is this tendency to say let’s 19:53.4 for five minutes a day and you’ll be off to the races.


Steve: But even Assimil, which has almost a cult following amongst the sort of sophisticated language learners, they say you’ll be at B2 when you finish this book, which is of course not the case because you need so much content, so much listening and reading. One little book is not going to get you to B2, but they say that right there on the little corner. We’ll get you to B2.


Olly: I’m sure if we went back and found the earliest examples of language textbooks it would be the same kind of thing. 


Steve: Oh yeah, master the language. You finish this you’ll be able to speak with confidence and you’ll be able to understand. That’s simply not true. It still comes back to your motivation, right?


Olly: I was going to ask you that, Steve. 


Steve: Yes.


Olly: You’re talking about you’ve been learning Persian and Arabic. Is it the love of the process? Is it the exploration of the culture? What is it that motivates you to keep adding these new languages?


Steve: It’s fun. 


Olly: You enjoy the process.


Steve: I enjoy discovering those cultures. So I have a lot of Romance languages, a lot in my Asian languages, Slavic languages. Then I was going to visit Crete, so I thought I can’t go to Greece if I can’t speak the language, so work on Greek. Now I’m in the Middle East and it’s fascinating. I’m learning about Persian, so then I buy a book. In fact, my son gave me a book called The Persianate Period in Indian History. I hadn’t realized the tremendous influence that Persia had on India, for example. I read a book about the Indian Ocean and the context with 21:41.4 and the African coast and India and the Portuguese.


To me, I like history and when you explore it through the language you get a much better sense. The people come alive. Even the little bit that I did in Turkish and then my wife is watching a Turkish series on Netflix. It just brings those people alive. Otherwise, you end up with these very sort of limited perspectives on the Arabic world or Persian.


Olly: With a language like Persian, how long does it take you before you’re able to kind of comfortably read and extract meaning from a history textbook like that? That’s not easy, is it?


Steve: No, I can’t read a history textbook. I can read simplified history where I can look up words and then I listen to it. Everything I do I listen and read. I use LingQ. I learn exclusively on LingQ. 


Learning the Arabic script, which is the same as the Persian script, takes a long time. You start out and it’s just a bunch of squiggles, which is quite intimidating actually. You don’t get worse, you only get better. So you have to stay with it, stay with it and now I read with difficulty. That’s one of the reasons why I dropped Turkish because I want to totally focus on getting better and better and better at reading that script. It takes time, but I enjoy it.


Olly: Yeah. You’re enjoying the process, but you’re building towards the promise of being able to actually learn 23:04.3.


Steve: Yeah and I’ll be at it for quite a while. Someone said oh, we haven’t heard you speak Arabic in a while. Whatever, I might speak at some point, but right now I’m just gradually getting better. I have a person who provides transcripts from Tunisia. I say you just go to this Al Jazeera podcast called 23:28.1 and just pick out whatever you want and send me two a week. She sends me two transcribed podcasts and I go through them. Similarly with Persian, 23:38.7 sends me two transcripts a week from Radio Free Europe, actually, 23:44.8


That’s my schedule. I’ve got to get through these things. I understand more and more of them just by listening. But, of course, I’m still at only, whatever, 20-30%, so then I have to go through the transcripts and read them on LingQ. There are lots of white words now. There are more and more white words, actually, lots of yellow words, fewer and fewer blue words, so I’m slowly getting better. There will come a point where I’ll be comfortable just grabbing that podcast, listening to it and I’ll understand 80% of it.


Olly: Yeah. Maybe you need to write Steve’s history of Persian in the content that you own, which can then become the new 24:26.


Steve: As you say, there’s not a big market for that. We don’t get text to speech for Persian for some strange reason. We have it for Arabic. I find text to speech very helpful, especially with that writing system. So there are problems, but it would be great if we get people creating content in their own language and talk about the history of where they live. 


I found a guy in Sudan who started talking about Sudan and gave us four or five tremendous things about life in Sudan. He went to buy stuff and the dusty roads and waiting in line. It was just great stuff, but then he stopped doing it. The trouble is you can’t rely on volunteers. I pay people. I pay the person in Iran. I pay the person in Tunisia. You’ve got to pay. I mean, I happen to be in a position where I can do that. I can share the Radio Free Europe stuff. I looked up their terms of use and conform to their thing. I’d love to be able to share the Al Jazeera stuff, but they don’t let you. I sent them an email. Can we share this transcript in our library with our learners? And, of course, you never get an answer. So, anyway, I can’t use it.


Olly: You’ve been learning Arabic for a few years now. I certainly found during my time in the Middle East that the Arab world for me is just like endless fascination. For years now I’ve been wanting to just read a lot more than I’ve been able to, but it’s just one of these cultures where the more time you spend with it the more you find, the more you discover. 


Steve: Yeah. I mean, that’s true with everything. Persian is the same way.


Olly: But it’s so very vast, the Middle East and North Africa.


Steve: The Middle East, yeah. 


Olly: The more time I spend with that, maybe for me because I spent time living in 26:12.4 in Egypt, I feel like I have some kind of connection to their culture.


Steve: Oh yeah, you’ve got a big advantage.


Olly: Even though it’s sort of different from where I grew up and everything. But it has a magic and a charm to it, which I find endlessly fascinating. I find myself gravitating to TV programs and documentaries about the Middle East more and more and more, even though I spend more time away from it. It’s fantastic. How has Arabic influenced your…I was going to say world view, but not I’m sure. You already knew a lot about that part of the world before you started any Arabic. How has it changed things for you spending time with Arabic?


Steve: Well, I just have a better sense. I’ve been to Morocco and then we visited Jordan, Petra period. You know, I just have a better sense of that world. I’ve discovered that Egyptian Arabic and Levantine Arabic are closer to each other than they are to 27:15.5 it seems to me, that’s my impression, to Standard Arabic. 


On the other hand, Standard Arabic pops up all the time. You’ll be watching a Netflix series in Egyptian say from Lebanon and there’ll be something on TV in the background and they’re speaking Standard Arabic. We were watching this Lebanese series and they were rehearsing for a play. In fact, it was The Doll House by Ibsen for whatever reason. Talk about different cultures, right? So here you are in Lebanon and they’re rehearing for this play written by a Norwegian, but they’re speaking Standard Arabic in the play. 


What’s fascinating to me is the extent to which Standard Arabic is alive. Even in Morocco, I found people who would speak to me in Standard Arabic, a lady running a restaurant, a taxi driver. It’s just fun to discover. At LingQ now we have the mini stories in Egyptian Arabic and in Levantine Arabic and I’ve listened to them. I understand them, but I’m staying with Standard Arabic because most of the history and the political stuff that I like to listen to is in Standard Arabic.


Olly: It’s one of those cases where knowing Standard Arabic… It’s funny because for speaking it’s not particularly handy, but then if what you actually want to spend your time doing is reading, well, it’s the only choice.


Steve: Right. But I think going forward is the fact that there are so many resources. To me, the perspective is that it used to be that the teacher knows the language. You don’ know it. The teacher gives you the language. That’s gone because I can find the language anywhere. I can find explanations. I can find content everywhere. So the teacher is now more of a guide, more someone who encourages you. 


I think the teachers have to get better at helping people navigate all of the resources that are available, first of all, to stimulate them. I had a teacher who stimulated me when I was 17 years old. The teacher is a person who gets you going because motivation is so important, but is not the expert on Arabic grammar. I don’t need an expert on Arabic grammar. I’m not interested. There are seven types of verbs or something. You open these books and they’ve got this ridiculous stuff. I don’t need seven types of verbs.


Going forward, I think it’s a matter of getting you started and then sort of some graded reading material to bring you up to the next level and then helping you take advantage of Netflix, YouTube, books and stuff like that. But as you say, the danger when people are on their iPhone or their iPad is that they’re very easily distracted, so I don’t know what can be done.


Olly: Yeah. It makes you think about teacher education in general and how much teachers really think about that. There is always this dynamic between teachers and teacher and student where 30:15.2 is guided by student expectation. Students expect to be taught in a traditional way, but it’s very easy for teachers to kind of slip into this trap of justifying their hourly fee by actually having presented a certain quality of information. 


Steve: Right.


Olly: I know some of the more kind of enlightened teacher training courses around the world do sort of stress the importance of learner autonomy, that’s kind of a buzz word, and motivating your learners, but it’s always something of an after thought. Whereas I completely agree with you that it really should be the 80-20 of the whole exercise. You know, how can you guide your students towards finding material that’s going to interest them, light a spark and get them spending time with the language. To bring you back to the topic, with the internet it’s never been easier.


Steve: No, it’s never been easier.


Olly: But you do need someone to guide you to look for that stuff because it’s not immediately obvious for the student that that’s a sensible path forward.


Steve: Right. But I think what’s good, too, is that there are entrepreneurs like you, like me and like the people who created Duolingo and whatever. Some of the stuff is useful, some isn’t. Some people like certain things and other things. 


I should say that we do have some of Olly’s this material at LingQ. I think what you’re doing is very useful.


Olly: Thank you.


Steve: I think graded material, particularly with a script. Now, you’re doing Spanish, French and some of the more traditional, but you have Chinese, right?


Olly: I have Arabic, Steve. Have you seen the Arabic book?


Steve: We have Arabic! Ah, gees, we’ve got to get it. Where have you been? Where have you been? I’ve got to get this. Oh, listen, Arabic short stories.


Olly: It’s immediate.


Steve: Where do I buy it.


Olly: Fine bookstores everywhere.


Steve: All right, I’m going to get it.


Olly: I would choose Amazon, basically, right now.


Steve: Okay, I will get it. I will get it. And that’s in Standard Arabic?


Olly: It is, yeah.


Steve: Okay. So I think that’s what’s important.


Olly: 32:22.9 as well, by the way, just the way it should be.


Steve: Yeah. Well, of course, that’s a given.


Olly: Well, you say of course, but you find a lot of textbooks that are not. You know, they’re left to right.


Steve: And the other thing about books is, getting back to our being distracted, having a book in your hand is nice. I like it. I wish that for some of the material we had at LingQ that we also had a book because it’s always good to cover the same material using different sources. It’s also good to cover the same material using different technologies like a book versus doing it on the iPad. So I am going to get your Arabic thing and follow up on the Turkish.


So we’ve had a bit of a random ramble here.


Olly: That’s how I like it.


Steve: Good. We didn’t know what we were going to quite talk about, but any final thoughts to my viewers about language learning?


Olly: Keep listening to Steve and you’ll be all right. 


Steve: Ah, gees. And I’ll say keep listening to Olly and you’ll be all right. Okay, thank you very much.


Olly: Bye-bye everybody.


Steve: Okay. Be careful. Be safe.

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