Learn a language through stories Olly Richards

Learn French with stories with Olly Richards

Olly Richards

If you’re learning French, Spanish, English, Japanese, German, Italian for example, you’ve probably come across his great resources for learners, for example his books short stories in French conversations and also online courses. He’s the founder of storylearning and you can find him on youtube, and on Instagram he is @iwillteachyoualanguage.

This is the automatic transcript of the interview available on YouTube.


Olly thanks for being with me today and to start with would you like to add something about yourself?

Thanks for having me it’s a pleasure to be here and um no that’s a very good summary really. I’m from the UK, I grew up without speaking any languages and then you know when i was about 19 years old i discovered this big wide world out there with lots of languages and so you know that’s my background. It’s always been in discovering languages as an adult and so hopefully the various things that i make and books that i write and stuff like that are helpful for people because what i try to do is make the resources that i wish that i had when i was first getting started. Because 19… well you’re probably younger than me… but there was not that much on internet! Right now we can find a lot of things but at the time not so much. There really wasn’t i mean the internet existed but nothing useful. It was like hotmail and and that was about it and um so i yeah back then you know your only options i remember when i first started learning languages i had to go down to the european bookshop in soho in central london and there were like five books on french and like three books on italian and one book of portuguese and it was the wrong kind of portuguese and and then that was it you couldn’t get anything else.

I think a lot about the value of that experience sometimes though because i think these days yes you can get anything you want but that often leads to a kind of paralysis. You know where you have too much stuff but back then you had to make do with what was available and that leads you to focus to a certain extent i think. So yeah i think i find that a very interesting topic. You had to be very independent self-motivated and just go get what you needed and you started quite late i mean it’s… 19 as you mentioned… you learn as an adult and it’s not the same as when you learn your first language as a kid and i meet lots of people these days who do languages at university and college, i’m so jealous of them because you know i think about my… you know my friend alex for example that did russian and german at cambridge and i think wow you know like that’s that it’s very difficult later on in your life to have so many years with that much uh quality in-depth study. And so it’s a really great opportunity to be able to do that at university but yeah i started with no knowledge, nothing, and just had to figure it out. Great!

How many languages have you learned and what does it mean to you to “speak a language”?

I appreciate the phrasing of that question that way because one of my least favorite question is “how many languages do you speak” because what happens inevitably over time is that there are languages that you learn that you really don’t actually speak very often and so it’s kind of difficult (to answer). I’ve learned in chronological order english obviously french spanish portuguese japanese arabic cantonese italian thai and german but all to very different levels. Some to very basic levels some to higher levels some of them i speak regularly these days, others i haven’t spoken for years and i’m close to forgetting. So it’s a really kind of big mix of different languages. That makes you a real polyglot, speaking many languages, knowing many languages! It’s interesting, what makes it… what makes a polyglot… I don’t… You know i have a lot of polyglot friends and i think i’m a little bit different to many of them in that i’m not the kind of person that puts a lot of work into maintaining my languages at all. I’m quite happy to go for years without using languages that i’ve learned and that’s because like for me languages always serve a purpose so for example when i lived in japan i learned japanese, when i lived in egypt i learned arabic, but then when i left japan, i left egypt, i didn’t really need them anymore. And so i use them from time to time but not all that much. Whereas other people, other polyglots i know, work very very hard at maintaining their languages and they put hours hours of work in every day to maintaining languages that’s not me at all. Yeah i sometimes have a little bit of resistance to calling myself a polyglot. Like, you know, i don’t always feel that i am but yeah it’s an interesting interesting question. We could spend hours discussing what it is to be a polyglot and how do you feel legitimate to call yourself a polyglot or if you feel good calling yourself that or not! And i see what you mean with not maintaining languages i learned german to a quite high level at university and now i almost forgot everything about it and i’m thinking

“I put so much time into this and now i can barely speak that’s such a waste of time and effort” and yet i don’t feel any connection to the language so i never go back to it to maintain or study it, because that would be even more wasting my time!

Well there’s something i’m sure you’re familiar with called the sunk cost fallacy which is the idea that something that you put a lot of time into, that we believe that we have to keep doing those things, because we’ve put the time into it but that actually really doesn’t make sense and you know we have to live life based on where we are right now because life always changes. You know one of the big events in anyone’s life is having kids for example and when you have kids your life changes so so drastically that it’s like your life before and after is unrecognizable. And so the idea that you have to keep doing something from your previous life… it just doesn’t make any sense so i think it’s something that i spend a lot of time thinking about. Also in business as well, you know with the the company that i’ve built, so much of what we do relies on not being too attached to things that we’ve spent time or money on in the past so i think it’s it’s kind of a superpower to be able to say “you know i spent time on this but that’s okay i’m gonna move on”. You know life is for living now not for living in the past. I love that! I’m gonna frame that above my desk because yeah it’s a very valuable lesson in everything we do… to live in the moment, in the present and focus on what you need now not just because you think you should do this or you should maintain this or that language. And i have a question regarding the languages you pursue to a more advanced level, because a lot of my clients they already have an advanced level but they want to get even better, and by advanced i mean you have an overall fluency with a wide range of vocabulary and the ability to express nuances…

What motivated you to pursue those languages and not the other ones?

What motivated you to pursue those languages and not the other ones for example?

It was simply my surroundings and the people around me. So you know the languages that i’ve got to the highest level would probably be in spanish and portuguese and that was simply because i was with friends, i was spending all day every day with people that spoke those languages. You know there’s a concept that Stephen Krashen talks about called community membership. Membership to a community. And really one of the biggest predictors of being able to get to a high level in a language is not how much you study it, it’s actually: do you become part of this community? 

Because once you become part of the community it brings your entire life into focus with the language and you learn the language not for the sake of the language but to become a deeper part of that community and so for those languages that i speak really well, i haven’t studied them to that level, i’ve just spoken them a lot with people and as a consequence i’ve reached those higher levels. Invariably the languages that i struggle more with, i don’t have that community membership. And you know my japanese is a good example. Japanese is actually probably my favorite language. I love japanese, it means the most to me. I can’t really explain why but i’ve been studying kind of on and off for years and i make progress kind of slowly but there’s it’s really nothing compared to when i was learning spanish and portuguese mostly because i’m just not part of a japanese community, i have no japanese family, i have no japanese friends really anymore and so there’s nothing that’s pushing me to close the communication gap and try harder. So yeah i always feel that it’s almost a dangerous game to try to pursue perfection in a language and there are certain sections of the, you know, the polyglot community or the language learning community online who really advocate this pursuit of perfection and i think it’s a dangerous game because, with time, it’s going to take you to just to achieve perfection in a language. But you can do so much else with your life because it takes so long and it’s so much work. So yeah but when i’ve done it myself it’s just been because i’ve been in that community with the surroundings. So the need for communication and deeper communication, forming bonds with members of that community, feel like you belong and really get into the culture and how people really think and speak on a day-to-day basis, but without studying as much. Like you have a need, you know.

Somebody says… you know… you go to someone’s house for dinner for example and you need to be a gracious guest so you need to make sure that you you keep the conversation going that you offer to do the washing up or that you’re a good listener to people… All these things have nothing to do with the language, it’s a societal thing, a community thing and you have a deep desire to be a good actor within that community and so you need to study the language in order to achieve that thing, not for the sake of the language itself. And i think so much of the best language learning practice out there happens when you’re not studying the language so much as using the language to do something else. That makes sense.

One of the most powerful tools we have when we’re doing the language sessions is when we finally find that thing that people cannot stop talking about, their passion, and then they forget everything about the language they just want to communicate and get into an interaction and bring that passion to you and exchange about that and then the language comes in itself, like everything falls into place eventually with practice. And with the passion and the motivation, that’s it. And now that we’re getting a little bit more into language learning, can we talk about the principles behind the storylearning method because i’m a neurolanguage coach, many of my clients use your stories and your courses in various formats and i find they’re really great resources to work on the language itself. And because there are cultural elements weaved into your stories. Then this groundwork that they’re doing on their own, it makes our individual sessions a lot more productive because we can then focus on their mindset, on the communication, making adjustments to the method, answering specific questions about idioms, nuances, all that and practicing specific points… So that’s what i like about the storylearning and your courses and how they really give the power to the learner over the learning journey and i think you mentioned in one of your videos “how to learn a language with stories”… i think you mentioned that the immersion through the stories creates a stronger emotional involvement. It sparks the curiosity in the learner and creates the need to learn those things that you need at that moment, not because the teacher told you “you need to speak in the past” but because you do need to be able to speak in the past if you want to tell your story or the point you want to make and and that’s something that’s quite opposite to what schools do, what traditional curriculums do.

How did you decide to launch this whole story learning concept?

Yeah so the main principle behind storylearning is that it is… i like to think of it as an alternative to traditional learning and that’s the most important element of it, really, because most people in the world still, when they learn languages, they learn through traditional methods through an evening class or a textbook and that method is essentially one of learning and memorizing vocabulary and grammar And then the idea is if you do enough of that eventually you’ll have all the knowledge that you need to speak the language. Now that’s fine and lots of people learn languages like that, that’s great, but there are also lots of people who find that that method doesn’t work for them because it’s simply too much to hold that knowledge in your head and then deploy that knowledge word by word, grammar point by grammar point, as you’re trying to have a conversation in front of a real person, it’s just… it’s crazy, right?

It was simply my surroundings and the people around me

Exactly and so what i try to do with storylearning is to provide a kind of step-by-step framework for learning in the opposite way. So what is that opposite way? the opposite way to traditional learning is to say: rather than learning rules and building up from rules, we’re going to start at the top, which is the whole language stories. In the language we’re going to read and listen to those stories and then through doing that we’re going to decipher what’s happening and then learn from those stories and then the idea is that by doing this you spend so much time immersed in the language that your brain will pick up far more things naturally than you will through deliberate study in the traditional sense. So if you think of traditional study as bottom up, storylearning is top down. But there’s a broader goal here, which is going to give you these skills to actually be able to read and listen to things in the language yourself because if you imagine, as a teacher, and Cathy i’m sure you have this same philosophy, which is that you know the job of… like my job as a teacher, is done when you don’t need me anymore. Exactly! Right, yes so my job is to make… my ultimate job as a teacher is to make myself redundant, right?

And so the best way that i can do that is by giving you the skills to read books and listen to podcasts and things in the language because then you don’t need me anymore, because you will learn by yourself. And so by starting people off with stories i know that in the long term you’re going to be able to read these things by yourself, and then you’ll just keep learning and keep learning and keep learning and so that’s really the biggest gift and that’s why, i mean, a lot of people know me from my books i think, because they’re quite popular, but actually my storylearning as a method is actually… it kind of lives in my courses because those are teaching people from zero, from day one, using stories and that’s where the method is more explicit which we can talk about if you like but… That’s the online course you mean, Uncovered? Yeah they’re called Uncovered. Exactly so they’re called spanish uncovered, japanese uncovered, probably need to change the name of those, actually, to storylearning spanish, storylearning japanese but it’s close enough. And so that’s the main idea behind the courses and behind the method.

And what makes a good story to learn a language?

So the principles of stories never change like, it is amazing how you have certain story arcs. And you know i’ve got a book here actually, it’s called the seven basic plots. It’s a fantastic book, it’s massive so you know not for the faint of heart! But every story essentially can boil down to seven, more or less seven, basic plots from the most simple… From the simplest stories to the most complex stories they all have very similar plots. So you have something called the heroes journey, for example, which is where you have the hero who starts off on a mission, he runs into trouble, faces some obstacles, has to overcome those obstacles and then eventually learns his lesson and then becomes successful. And so really a good story has a very simple premise and then around that you can construct the different elements of that particular story.

And a good story is the one you just want to keep turning the pages and come back to every day and that’s how you get your immersion every day and your exposure to the language. I mean everyone likes different genres of stories, that’s what i mean, that it’s one of the things that we talk about quite a lot in our team is what genres of stories we should create.

Because all of our… it’s not just in the books. All of our different courses and things are all based on stories, so we have literally thousands of stories that we’ve had to write, and obviously i don’t write all of those myself anymore, and so we often talk about the fact that everyone likes slightly different stories. I remember when i when i first wrote my very first book of stories, which was a book of spanish short stories, I remember wondering… i wonder what stories people like because i know what i like to read but maybe you don’t like the same. Maybe people like different things so i did a lot of research and i discovered that people liked a very specific mix and people in my audience liked a very specific mix of different stories so some of the more popular ones were historical fiction, sci-fi, crime and romance, and you know many of those i would never have predicted. You know especially sci-fi, i had no idea sci-fi was so popular, but it turns out it’s really really popular. So one of the things we tried to do is create stories and lots of different genres so even if you don’t like the first story in the book well hopefully you’ll like the second or the third. It’s a collection of stories so you got a bit of for everybody. Everybody’s taste, for every profile of learner. The principle there though which i think you’re referring to is that whatever we choose to read when we’re learning a language, we always have to read around our interests because if you try to read something you’re not interested in then it’s… it could be like pulling teeth you know. The biggest, the easiest, the best way to help yourself is to choose material you’re really interested in. So for example i’m reading a book right now in japanese called “sensei no kaban” which actually translates as “the teacher’s face”. It’s actually bad translation. Kaban is bag but in this in this case it’s like a briefcase.Funnily enough the english title is totally different it’s called “strange weather in tokyo” and so anyway i read this book in english actually initially, i don’t remember why but i really liked it and so i thought you know what i’m going to read it in japanese. So when i got the japanese version on kindle and i’m so much more motivated to read it now that i enjoyed the english version and the fact that i really want to read it means that even when it gets hard i still persist and carry on. So choosing stories, input material, content that you really enjoy is such an important step. Yes i agree completely with that. Now we’ve talked about reading stories… In the learning process, especially at the intermediate level or higher, you usually understand way more complex things than what you’re able to talk about and it can feel very frustrating when you’ve read this great story and then your teacher asks so what is it about and you’re like struggling to get two words together.

Do you have any recommendations or tips on how to handle the frustration, or keep progressing, to be able to finally tell that story?

Yeah, so the bigger picture here is as follows, and this is the principle kind of behind not just storylearning but any kind of input-based learning. In theory here’s how it works: step one you read, listen, immerse yourself so much that you learn everything you need to know about the language, the vocabulary, the grammar etc, and then there comes a point where you know so much that speaking is natural and you can then say all those things. You know, that’s the theory. Now in practice what happens, as you’ve alluded to, is that it’s not quite that simple! Because when you first start speaking, you have to… there’s an extra step which is what some people call active recall, which means there’s something you want to say… I want to say the word briefcase but i know that i recognize it when i read it but i just can’t think of it right now. Let’s call this active recall, or just recall. I like to think of this as a separate step, as a separate part of language learning, because you have to really train yourself, not only to remember words when you need them, or to recall rather it’s a more accurate word, to recall words when you need them, but you’ve also got to train yourself to survive the froze of speaking. Because speaking is stressful and it’s high pressure and you’ve got to be able to… you’ve got to train yourself like an athlete to actually survive that you’ve got to talk with a real human being, and be a good conversation partner.

You’ve got to be able to… to have the stamina to keep going and you’ve got to be able to remember all that vocabulary and be able to think quickly enough to put all the grammar in place that you need. And so this takes practice and so what happens a lot in the… for example in the scenario that you gave here, what’s happening is the person just simply doesn’t spend enough time speaking so there comes a point where you have to speak. Let’s say that you know you’ve learned everything you need to learn, which of course that never happens, but you know… just broadly you learn enough and you’re ready to start speaking. There comes a point when you have to spend hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours just speaking, just being in a discomfort of speaking, pushing at the beginning. Yeah there’s no way you can shortcut this by studying or by doing any kind of like special tricks or anything. You know i remember when i was learning spanish and i was in the canary islands. I remember my friend Tomas would take me out to this bar… He was a spanish friend that i met in london and i went to visit him in the canary islands. And he took me out to this amazing bar by the by the sea one night in the canary islands, and we were surrounded… He brought like 10 of his friends along, and these were childhood friends. So they spoke in the way that school friends talk and it’s really fast, full of slang, incredibly difficult. And i was there, my spanish was quite good by that point, so i was speaking and i remember we got there about ten o’clock at night and then we stayed until four or five in the morning…

I remember halfway through that, about two or three in the morning, i remember my jaw aching physically, really painful, and i’ve never felt this before! “What’s going on?” And i realize it’s because i was there speaking spanish, which… you have to use slightly different muscles. The muscles are different muscles, so i’ve been speaking there for hours and hours and hours and i was in physical pain in my jaw from that much speaking. And i realized “hey this is a real thing, this is what’s required here”, you know.

And i think that people learning a language, especially from home, who are not in an immersion environment sometimes don’t appreciate the fact that you really do have to put a lot of work into speaking at some point, extra effort, and even just reading aloud at the beginning if you don’t have anyone to talk to, just reading aloud to build those muscles, it’s one extra step that you can take before you’re able to talk to a real human being! All right we’re coming to the end of this interview, that was super interesting and i’m looking forward to reading all the comments that people are gonna leave, because i’m sure there’s a lot to talk about following up this interview and i want to thank you again for being on this video and podcast. 

Do you want to remind people where they can find you online? 

Yeah sure, well if you’re listening to this on the podcast then you can come and listen to my podcast if you like, it’s called The I Will Teach You A Language podcast and if you’re watching this on Youtube, I have a youtube channel where i publish multiple videos every week, all about language learning, and you can just go to youtube and search for Olly Richards, we’re just about to pass a hundred thousand subscribers, which i’m really excited about so i need every single subscribe, i need every single person i can get and if you’d like to find out more about my storylearning courses, you can go to storylearning.com and that will take you to the right place.

Awesome! Well thank you very much Olly and we’ll see you again online very soon. Thanks so much

About Cathy

Cathy Intro is a certified Neurolanguage® coach helping aspiring French speakers improve their language skills to live their life and socialize in French with confidence. She has a strong focus on active listening, cultural awareness and self-understanding. She believes clear grammar foundations are key to reaching fluency in French but that it shouldn't be taught with a linear textbook-approach method. Her role as a coach is to empower the learner, ignite curiosity and provide support to reach the objectives with no waste of time and efforts, in a positive and fun environment.

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