Introducing Simon “Omniglot” Ager, a man who is fluent in English, Mandarin, French, Welsh and Irish; can get by in Scottish Gaelic, Manx, German, Spanish and Japanese, and has a basic knowledge of Taiwanese, Cantonese, Esperanto, Italian, Portuguese, Czech, Russian, Breton, Dutch, and British Sign Language (BSL). He studied Chinese and Japanese at universities in the UK, Taiwan and Japan; worked in Taiwan for 5 years; then returned to the UK and spent time working as a web developer; and now makes a living from his own website, Omniglot.com.
So Simon, would you consider maintaining so many languages equivalent to a full-time job?
It does take a lot of time to maintain my languages. I have a full-time job running Omniglot, my website about languages and writing systems, though I can choose when to work on that, and what to do, so have a lot of flexibility in how I use my time. Recently I’ve been concentrating on two languages a day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I listen to online radio, podcasts and language lessons. I also listen to Welsh language radio while preparing meals, and go to a French conversation group once a week. In this way I can keep 16 of my languages ticking over and improving each week. I’m doing this mainly because I’m going to a gathering of polyglots in Berlin from 15-19 June 2014, but also as an experiment to see if it’s possible to keep all these languages going. So far it’s working quite well, though so days I feel like taking a break.
When and why did you start learning Chinese?
My Chinese learning adventures started in 1989 when I began a degree in Chinese and Japanese at the University of Leeds in England. I studied French and German at high school and was planning to continue studying one or the other of them, perhaps with another European language at university. I was all set to study German and Swedish at the University of Wales, Lampeter, but then thought that maybe it would be better to choose a less commonly-studied language as so many people study European languages. I considered Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Arabic, and eventually chose Chinese, because I thought it would be an interesting language to learn, and because I thought China would be an interesting country to spend time in. I got a place to study Chinese at the University of Leeds, and was offered the chance to do a new degree in Chinese and Japanese, which I thought sounded ideal.
Do you have any anecdotes to share on the ups and downs of practicing Chinese while traveling in China?
I spent nearly two months travelling in China during the second year of my degree course (1990/1991), after a semester in Taiwan and a semester in Japan. By the time I got to China I could communicate reasonably well in Mandarin and could understand, read and write the language to some extent. I also had a smattering of Cantonese. In some of the places I went to, and on some of the trains, boats, buses and planes I travelled on, I was the only non-Chinese person, and many people stared at me, and those who could speak English were keen to practise with me. I let some of them do this, and once their English was exhausted, we switched to Mandarin. So I was doubly a novelty – a foreigner, and a Mandarin speaker.
I set off from Hong Koing and took a boat up river to Guangzhou, with the intention of continuing up the coast as far as possible from there, then travelling inland in a big circle via Beijing and Xi’an. I ended up going to Hainan Island first, as the boats going north didn’t go a the time I wanted to travel. This was a common problem throughout my time in China – public transport was not all that good at the time, and you had to be flexible with your plans.
I stayed in Sanya in the south of Hainan for a while. On the boat I shared a cabin with some guys from the north of China, who helped me find a hotel and were keen to explore Sanya with me – I had some trouble understanding their Mandarin accents, but we managed to communicate. Unfortunately I got food poisoning while I was there and spent a few days in bed eating only the occasional banana. I recovered from that, and headed back to Guangzhou, where I helped people in the hostel where I was staying in with their travel plans – one guy thought he’d bought a ticket to one place, but when he asked me to check I saw that it was to somewhere else, so I went with him to the travel agent to sort it out.
From Guangzhou I took a boat to Xiamen – I was planning to continue to Fuzhou and Shanghai, but met a really nice family from Guangzhou on the boat and decided to spend some time with them. They spoke Cantonese among themselves and Mandarin to me, and I spoke mainly Mandarin to them with odd bits of Cantonese thrown in now and then. We stayed on Gulangyu, an island off Xiamen, then travelled by bus back to Guangzhou via Quanzhou. After an over-night bus trip I could barely walk because my ankles were all swelled up. The family I was with got me to hospital and made sure I saw a doctor, and after a day of rest I was fine.
I then flew to Kunming and then traveled by bus to Dali and Lijiang. While waiting for the bus in Kunming I got talking with a small group of people from Taiwan who were travelling together. They invited me to join them and we spent the next few days together. After returning to Kunming I traveled via Liuzhou and Yangshuo back to Guangzhou and then Hong Kong by train, bus and boat.
Although Chinese cities I visited were very crowded, noisy, dirty and not very attractive, the towns and villages, and the countryside, particularly in Yunnan and Guizhou were more attractive and interesting. The Chinese people I met were generally very friendly and helpful, and curious about a stray Mandarin-speaking foreigner. I enjoyed my adventures in China, but it was a relief to get back to Hong Kong.
What does the Chinese language reveal about its people? Is its structure a reflection of social or behavioural habits in China?
The fact that Chinese is written with characters rather than an alphabetic script suggests that there is a strong conservative streak within Chinese culture. There have been attempts to replace the characters with the Latin alphabet, but they did not have sufficient support. I suspect that many Chinese people are secretly proud that foreigners find written Chinese so difficult to learn.
The structure of Chinese characters and words can reveal things about the way Chinese people think, at least the way they thought when the characters were devised. For example the character for man (男 nán) consists of a field and a plough; and peace/safe (安 ān) is a woman under a roof. Only a small proportion of characters are structured like this, however – the majority combine a phonetic component, which gives you a clue to the pronunciation, and a semantic component, which gives you a hint about the meaning.
It’s hard to say whether the structure of Chinese languages is a reflection of Chinese social and behavioural habits.
Tell us about your blog and what you do.
My blog, www.omniglot.com/blog/, is a place where I write about language, linguistics, interesting words and phrases I come across, language learning, and other language-related topics. I post two or three times a week, and on Sundays I post a recording in a mystery language which readers are invited to identify.
Give our readers 3 essential tips for learning Mandarin
1. Spend as much time as you can listening to the language – online radio, podcasts, audio books, language lessons, etc- and try to get your pronunciation as close as possible to that of native speakers. The tones are important, but so the pronunciation of words and sentences. The better your pronunciation, the easier it will be for Chinese speakers to understand you, and for you to understand them.
2. Learn the vocabulary you need to talk about things that are important to you and that interest you.
3. Practise speaking whenever you can.
Which other language would you like to learn in the future?
I’d like to learn one or more Scandinavian languages – Swedish, Norwegian and/or Danish, and maybe Swahili.