The Polyglot Pope: Interview with Richard Simcott

The Polyglot Pope: Interview with Richard Simcott

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Most times it is a good idea to open a post with an anecdote, especially if it originates from such a fantastic event as Polyglot Gathering Berlin 2015.

We were very lucky. We had just scheduled an interview with Richard Simcott and were headed for the nearby park where we could sit and talk. But first we had to take the lift to the ground floor. With us were other participants of the Polyglot Gathering 2015. We jokingly said that Richard was as popular among the polyglots who had come to Berlin as the Pope was among catholics. Suddenly, one of the men seized his hand screaming “Papa!”(Italian for “Pope”) and kissed it.

Even though the reaction was just a situational joke (a very good one, to be honest 🙂 ), the respect and esteem Richard enjoys is totally warranted and well-deserved. Hardly ever can you meet a person of such talent and experience, yet so kind and modest. We hope that the 20-minute talk we had will be as enjoyable for our readers as it was for us.

How to preserve a language once you’ve learned it? What constitutes the skeleton of a language? How many languages does Richard use in his daily routine? Watch our interview with the man who has studied over 40 languages and knows most of them inside out!

VocApp.com: All right. Thank you very much for giving your precious time to talk to me…

Richard Simcott: Thank you very much for having me.

VocApp.com: …to tell our audience, our students, how to learn. Basically, we’ll just start with introduction, who you are, what you do, and why I’m so happy that you found time to talk to us.

Richard Simcott: My name’s Richard Simcott and I’m from the United Kingdom, but I live in Skopje in the Republic of Macedonia and I really like languages. I suppose that’s probably the most diplomatic way of saying that they’re my passion in life. I organize conferences about languages. One called the Polyglot Conference, which people can sign up to. We’re having the next one in New York, but we’ve also had one in Budapest and one in Novi Sad. We’re having the next one in New York in October.

I also run workshops, Polyglot Workshops, for people interested in language learning and learning from people who have been through the process several times. Also, there’s a website, polyglotworkshops.com. It’s somewhere where anyone who’s learning languages, they don’t need to be a polyglot, that’s not the idea, the word polyglot in the title is not to put people off, it’s to really show that the people speaking have been through this many times and can identify with the people in the audience who are going through the process. We’ve already been to Poland twice for these workshops. We did a workshop in Poznan and also in Warsaw, as well as Berlin in Germany on a couple of occasions. We’re going to Budapest at the end of May, but we’ll be back in Poland for sure because it’s a beautiful country and the people are very welcoming.

VocApp.com: Yes, and you can speak Polish quite well as well.

Richard Simcott: I can speak a little bit of Polish, yes.

VocApp.com: How many languages can you speak?

Richard Simcott: That’s a very difficult question to answer. It’s one that I’m asked very often. I always say that I studied over 40 languages because speaking really depends on the person listening to you. Before this interview, we walked to this lovely park in Berlin and we spoke in Polish. Would you say I speak Polish?

VocApp.com: Yeah, of course. Your Polish is very good.

Richard Simcott: Thank you. Then I speak Polish. For me, the important thing is the communication and the human interaction. I actually really like that. That’s one of my main motivations for learning languages, it’s getting to know people in their language. I learned Polish because I liked Poland and I liked the Polish people I met, so I wanted to be able to communicate with them in their language and join in their conversations.

VocApp.com: How to learn a language. What advice would you give?

Richard Simcott: I think people can get carried away with buying too many things. I think what I’d say is go to a bookshop, or go to a library, and look at several courses, and pick the one that identify most with, the one that interests you most. Look at the quality of the dialogues or the texts. Are they things that you can find interesting? Are they things that maybe you think will help you stay motivated to learn the language? Are they things that are appropriate for your level? Are there things in there that you know a little bit about so you don’t feel discouraged? Are there enough things to help to move you beyond into the next levels of the language?

Then I think once you’ve found that course that works well for you, and maybe a teacher as well, you can use online teachers or you can use teachers within the country. Then if you combine those two things and do a little bit every day, I think that’s probably the best advice I can give anyone. I think that it’s really that constant studying on a daily basis, whether it’s revising something one day because you feel tired, or you don’t feel you’ve understood the concept fully or you’ve learned the vocabulary, or whether you’re moving on to the next lesson. There’s no rush. You don’t need to feel stressed or pressured.

I think that’s one thing, people sometimes compare themselves to other people. It’s a natural human instinct. Everybody’s guilty of it to a degree, but I think that you’ve got to take a deep breath. It takes time to learn a language. Just do a little bit every day and you’ll soon find that over the months, and over a year’s time, how much progress that you make when you look back is incredible. If you set yourself goals from the start and say, “Okay, by this time in three months, I want to be able to say things about the weather. I want to be able to talk about my family and where I’m from.” If you set that as a goal, you can then look back when that time arrives and say, “Okay, I’ve done that. I’ve achieved my goal.” You feel confident and motivated, then, to move on.

VocApp.com: You said that you should choose a course. Is it a coursebook or is it a program, software?

Richard Simcott: It could be a mixture. You could use something that actually uses all features. Some courses nowadays, especially big languages like English, or German, or French, some of these languages have a mixture of approaches. They’ll have a coursebook, they may have a video course that accompanies it, they may have interactive elements to them online. Whatever works for you, I’d say use that because you know how you learn best. I think it’s really important to play to your strengths and to what makes you tick.

I talked a little bit about finding a good teacher to help you in the process. You can use that teacher in different ways. It’s not always good to go to the teacher and look at the teacher to tell you everything. You’ve got to be proactive in the language learning. If you don’t know what to do, or you’re stuck for something, take a lesson that you’ve been doing and give the teacher one of the roles, and you take the other role, and then swap them. Then look at taking the vocabulary from those dialogues and changing it. If in one dialogue you’re talking about the lovely, sunny weather, talk about the horrible, rainy weather. Talk about what you’re going to do in your summer holidays, then talk about what you’re going to do in your winter holidays. Change the roles around so that you’re using vocabulary from all parts of the book in the different dialogues. That’s a way that you don’t feel the pressure of having to speak perfectly, but you’ve got some sort of guide to take you through the lesson in a structure.

VocApp.com: What’s the most important thing when you learn a language? Is it vocabulary, is it grammar, pronunciation?

Richard Simcott: For me, the grammar is the skeleton of the language. Without any grammar, the language body can’t stand up. The vocabulary is the meat, is the flesh of the language. Without the vocabulary, your grammar can’t really do very much except explain the grammar. You need a certain foundation in the vocabulary to be able to express yourself, to walk around town, to understand what’s going on. Think about the things that you want to do.

This is why I say focus on something you want to talk about first and build on the vocabulary from that point because then you can expand outwards. Learn the colors, but maybe you don’t need colors like indigo in the beginning. You can start with blue, green, red, yellow, colors that are very obvious. Then build it up. Because if you do them all at once and you do that for every single topic that you could possibly manage in a language, it will soon become overwhelming.

You talked earlier about the idea of an Everest, building a mountain. It looks like a mountain of information. If you’re learning about the weather for the first time in a new language, learn about rain, learn about snow, learn about the wind, learn about the sun. Don’t worry about hail, sleet, or fog in the beginning because it may be something that would just aim to confuse you in the short term, but you can add those in later when you get to new lessons and talk more.

VocApp.com: Alright! And what about mistakes? A lot of people are afraid of mistakes.

Richard Simcott: I think mistakes are good. You’ve got to become an active listener in a language. Listen to what people are saying and repeating. One of the things I do with people who are speaking to me in my language, or in a language I speak very well and they’re learning it, is I’ll repeat back with the correct grammar. Because stopping them in mid-flow sometimes is not helpful. If I hear somebody make, say, five mistakes, sometimes then I may make a point and say, “Okay, I hear that you’re saying this. I just want to let you know this is how we’d normally say it,” but I don’t want to do it in an intrusive way that would stop the conversation or make it feel awkward for the person speaking to me because I’m really grateful that they’ve taken the time to learn the language. That’s important to me too.

I’d say learn to listen for those kinds of repetitions back. Some people use that method. Some people will interrupt you. I think what you can do is say, “I really appreciate these constant corrections, maybe if you hear me make the mistake five times, then tell me. Then we can see,” so that you learn to get the flow of the conversation as well. You can always feedback as a learner to your teacher to show them what you like and what works well for you.

I think as a learner, listen, and listen to how people express themselves as well. You hear people say, if they’re not a native speaker of English, “to do a mistake”. A native speaker would never say that, they would have said “to make a mistake”. Listen to how the native speaker says it, visualize that in your mind, and when you’re speaking, repeat it in that way.

VocApp.com: What about pronunciation? Because, especially in Poland, people are obsessed with a near native-like pronunciation. They like to be not distinguished from native speakers.

Richard Simcott: Pronunciation is important. I think it’s important to be clear so that you’re easily understandable to the widest audience possible. Of course, it plays a role. However, you’ve got to consider what the advantages and disadvantages are of sounding like a native. Sometimes if you sound too native-like, people have very high expectations of you, maybe before you’re at that level with the language; therefore, they don’t make allowances for how you speak. If you make a mistake that is a genuine mistake and you offend somebody, if you don’t have a bit of an accent that they realize that you’re foreign immediately, then people might feel more offended than if you have a foreign accent. Sometimes a foreign accent is charming and endearing. People like that you’re speaking it in that way.

And also you want to represent… we’re at the Polyglot gathering in Berlin right now and I heard a talk yesterday about this, in fact, sounding like a native. One other issue is that if you sound too native-like as well, you may misrepresent yourself. If you’re an educated speaker of Polish, and you learn English, and you don’t sound the same educated level in English, people might not think that you understand certain concepts that for you, or certain things that you’ve read and you know, that transfer nicely into English, but actually because of your level of English and you sound maybe at a higher level than you are because of your accent, people then maybe think that you’re not as intelligent. That can happen. These kinds of misconceptions occur whether we like them or not, but it’s part of life. I think sometimes that’s where it can be a problem to have too native a sounding accent.

VocApp.com: What do you think is the good moment to go abroad to the country of the language you want to study? Do you think there’s any reason to go there when you are already not even A1, or later?

Richard Simcott: It can be dangerous. It depends on your native language a lot. If you only speak Polish and then you go to live in Thailand, for example, you’re highly unlikely to come across many Poles living in Thailand. They may try and speak to you in English because they see you as a white person from Europe. Their perception is, “Okay, they don’t speak my language, they speak English.” If you don’t speak English, and you’re Polish and you just speak Polish, or you’re trying to learn Thai, there will come a point where they can only speak to you in Thai.

This is an issue for native English speakers though, or people who speak English already, because English can very easily become the lingua franca. Instead of them speaking to you and taking the time to speak slowly, they will turn to English and you will feel that you need to turn to English. The relationships will be built on English. If you go to the country and that’s what you do before you’ve learned any of the language, it’s very difficult to then break out of those circles.

We call them expat bubbles, typically. You live in this expat bubble that’s very difficult to penetrate. The only people, then, that tend to be natives of that place, and of that language that you want to learn in that bubble, are people who are very good at English, or really want to practice their English. You’re not getting to speak to the people on the street who maybe are not motivated by learning the language. Maybe they have other interests that you share as well.

What I’d say is it’s probably best to learn a good chunk of the language before you go out. The basic grammar, for sure, and a good basic vocabulary so that you can communicate on everyday topics before you go out. We’re talking about maybe a B1 level, if the listeners understand what that means. If not, then I can explain a little bit more.

It’s where you’ve maybe dominated all of the basic things. Talking about the weather, talking about what you want to eat, drink, likes, dislikes, maybe going to the doctor’s, doing basic things around the town that you do in your language. Then taking it a little bit further and joining them up to make a conversation out of it, so you can have an interactive experience with somebody talking about all those things as a whole. It’s not just blocks of language. When you get to that kind of level where it’s starting to all gel together to form one language level in your head, that’s probably when the time is right to go.

VocApp.com: On the other hand, is it possible to learn a foreign language without traveling, without going to the native country?

Richard Simcott: Of course it is, yeah, of course it is. You can definitely do it, especially nowadays because we have wonderful technology that will allow us to watch television or clips, videos, films, read newspapers online. We couldn’t do that 20, 30, 40 years ago. People… and the world’s changed as well. You can actually travel a lot more easily than before.

If somebody left Poland, for example, or Hungary, before the Iron Curtain was lifted, basically they were saying goodbye to their language and their culture, potentially forever in their eyes. They’d emigrate to maybe the United States or to Canada, and then they would not have any contact with the language. That’s now no longer true because of the Internet. People can live in different countries and still have contact with home. Equally that works really well for people learning the language from abroad. It’s using the same techniques to keep people in contact with their native countries and you’re using their channels to actually develop your language learning.

Now we can do teaching online as well, right? You can even find a teacher from a country that normally … Your local school or college never offered Mongolian, but now you can speak to somebody in Ulaanbaatar and learn Mongolian language.

VocApp.com: Because these technologies are changing the way we are learning languages. What about you and technology? Do you use any technology?

Richard Simcott: For my language learning?

VocApp.com: Yes.

Richard Simcott: Yeah, I use all the mediums I discussed just now. TV, films, websites, newspapers online, online resources. There’s some really cool applications as well on smartphones. One that I always tell people about is … I can show you just briefly on this phone. I have Euronews.

Euronews has an application that you can basically change the news, it has it written and it has little video, and you can change it into, I think it’s 11 languages. You’ve got English, you’ve got German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Ukrainian, Arabic, Farsi, and Hungarian, and Greek. I think they’re all the languages that they have at the moment on the application. You can watch it in a language you speak well. Then the one you’re learning, you can then watch it again and you can learn the vocabulary that goes with it. It’s related to news stories, so maybe this is someone who’s already gone through the basics but wants to continue further. You can definitely push past the beginning phases without going to the language with these kinds of things.

VocApp.com: How do you maintain all of the 40 languages?

Richard Simcott: I studied 40 languages, so I don’t particularly maintain all of them. Some of them are just pure interest that I’ve studied because I was interested in knowing how the language worked.

My daily life consists of five home languages. My wife and I speak Macedonian. With my daughter I speak French. Then we do homework in English. Then we speak German and Spanish every day for about half an hour, an hour a day of play time and normal activities that we do in any other language, but we just happen to do it in Spanish or German.

Then where I live in the Republic of Macedonia, there are lots of foreigners, so I speak to a number of expats in their languages. I use Italian pretty much on a daily basis. Turkish. In the country itself, there are lots of official languages, it’s not just the Macedonian language. There’s also Albanian that’s spoken, Turkish that’s spoken. The Roma language is spoken there. You hear a lot of Serbian and Croatian because of the ties, the cultural ties, to these countries. Our films, and TV, and music, you’ve still got a lot of it from those countries. Bulgarian because it’s so close to Bulgaria. Greek because we’re so close to Greece. Going on holiday and learning a bit of Greek to go and talk to people is just an easy thing to do.

Of my work, I work for an online social media management agency called the Emoderation as the head of languages. That’s my day job. I have a team of polyglots and I actually give advice, consultation on multi-lingual projects and social media and how that would work in real terms. I come across a lot of my languages in that work as well, having to look at things, look at pages, read things in different languages.

VocApp.com: What’s the next language?

Richard Simcott: This summer I’m going to go to Riga. I’ll practice Russian because I think there’s quite a lot of Russian speakers still around Riga but I really want to learn some Latvian as well. At the moment, my Latvian is not so good, but I’ll learn a little bit before I go so that I can say basic things, then when I get there, try and speak some Latvian.

I like the reaction I get. I did this in Poland when I went to Poland. I learned very basic Polish and then went there. The reactions from Polish people was really positive. People were really happy to speak to me in Polish. I’m hoping it will repeat the same experience now in Riga.

VocApp.com: For sure. All the best. All the best speaking and learning more and more languages. Thank you very much for giving us your precious time.

Richard Simcott: You’re very welcome. Thank you very much and thank you for everyone that’s listening.

VocApp.com: Thank you.

Also, visit Richard’s website for more brilliant content on language learning: speakingfluently.com

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