Author & Polyglot Olly Richards on Why You Should Learn Languages Through Stories

Mar 09, 2020

Author, polyglot, and “langpreneur” Olly Richards from StoryLearning® (formerly I Will Teach You a Language) returns to the podcast six years after our first chat to share what new lessons he’s learned and how a high-altitude near death experience led him to the power of stories in language learning!

Olly has been quite the busy bee since we last spoke, going on to build one of the most popular language blogs on the planet, launching a series of in-depth language courses, and publishing 16 short story books with Teach Yourself!

⚠️ Note: This interview is broken up into two parts. The conversations contain some adult language.

Part 1

Topics Discussed

In part one of our wide-ranging, in-depth conversation, we get into:

  • How Olly went on to learn 10 languages despite being a “late bloomer.”
  • How and why he built I Will Teach You a Language (now StoryLearning).
  • Why Olly finds story-based language learning so effective.
  • The importance of doing what you like and why enjoyment leads to more time on task.
  • The difficulty of finding stories and readers ideal for beginning to intermediate learners.
  • The challenge of proving whether a particular language learning method works or not, especially when studied in less-than-ideal classroom environments.
  • The few essential ingredients necessary for effective language learning.
  • The primary struggles faced by independent language learners and how best to overcome them.
  • How Olly’s approach to―and attitudes about―language learning have shifted in the past few decades.
  • The tyranny of perfectionism and the beauty of becoming a “disciplined half-asser.”
  • “Rigging the game to win” vs. “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
  • Why the imperfect method you stick to is better than the perfect method you quit.
  • The tension between setting realistic expectations about how much time and effort it takes to learn a language, and encouraging new learners to get started and build momentum.
  • How I learned kanji in college and whether I would use the same method if starting from scratch today.
  • Why mnemonics are so much more effective than rote memorization and muscle memory.
  • The law of diminishing returns for the last five perfect of approaching native-like fluency and the euphoria of starting a new language.
  • Which languages we are learning now and hope to learn next.
  • The critical importance of having a strong, meaty WHY when learning a language.
  • The role of identity in language learning and the challenge of feeling like “a stupid kid” again.
  • Why I argue that languages like Japanese are “different,” not necessarily “difficult,” and why the language itself is not what’s difficult, but rather the need to endure uncertainty and ambiguity.
  • How cognitive distortions (e.g. “all-or-nothing” thinking) sabotage our efforts to learn a language, build a business, or anything in between.
  • Why enthusiasm, confidence, and the eagerness to communicate matter so much more than language ability or linguistic accuracy.

Concepts, Events, People & Resources Mentioned

Part 2

In part two of our wide-ranging conversation, we get into his language learning routines and habits, how he tackles reading (especially in Japanese), the importance of getting a wide range of high-quality exposure to your target language, the power of following your interest and curiosity, and Olly’s top tips for launching a successful online language learning empire or just a profitable side hustle to help pay the bills.

Topics Discussed

  • What a typical, ideal, and less than ideal day of language learning look like for Olly these days.
  • How Olly reads in a foreign language, especially one like Japanese that uses characters instead of a Latin alphabet.
  • Why you should learn in smaller, more frequent bursts instead of less frequent mammoth study sessions.
  • Why you should focus on important, high-frequency “unlocking” words and not get caught up in looking up every single unknown word, phrase, or kanji as you read.
  • The advantages of aiming for 80 to 90% comprehension and then moving to new content (i.e. maximizing exposure and avoiding the law of diminishing returns).
  • The advantages of “narrow reading” (reading a variety of articles on the same basic topic).
  • Olly’s top tips for launching a successful online language learning empire or just a profitable side hustle to help pay the bills.
  • The importance of defining a “niche within a niche” (e.g. not just “Japanese” but “teaching expat parents in Japan to read Japanese school reports”).
  • Why you don’t need a huge audience to make a living, but you do need the right audience.
  • Why you should launch a “minimum viable product” (MVP) and improve it based on customer feedback instead of spending years perfecting something nobody actually wants or is willing to pay for.
  • Why you should announce a public launch date for any product, course, service, etc. you’re building (especially my fellow perfectionists).
  • The balance between giving customers what they want and what you know they need (i.e. Henry Ford's quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”)
  • Faulty thinking and common misconceptions many people have about money, capitalism, inequality, etc., and why reality is much more nuanced than basic ideologies will argue.
  • My contrarian view on nutrition and sustainability (Hint: veganism is NOT the answer to save the health of humans or the planet).
  • The importance of always asking, “What if the opposite were true?” whether in business, nutrition, or language learning.
  • The pros and cons of memory enhancing techniques and mnemonics such as the “Major System.”
  • Why mnemonics, flashcards, etc. can be useful “nutritional supplements” but are NOT a replacement for real “immersion meals.”
  • The critical importance of focus and the need for regular “reality checks” with a coach, mastermind, etc. when you find yourself overwhelmed with too many ideas, projects, etc.

Concepts, Events, People & Resources Mentioned

Learn More

Olly’s Books

Beginner Short Story Books from Teach Yourself

Intermediate Short Story Books from Teach Yourself

Olly’s Courses