Olly Richards has a funny story to share about the one time he went to get a haircut in London last year. The person cutting his hair was Japanese. Having lived in Japan for three and a half years, they began a conversation in Japanese. At the end of the haircut when he went to pay, the hairdresser remarked to the woman on the till: ‘Olly speaks very good Japanese’. She was from Spain and asked Richards if he spoke Spanish? He replied Claro que sí! (Of course I do!)
Another hairdresser then joined the conversation. She was from Brazil and wanted to know if Richards spoke Portuguese. He said Falo português também! (I speak Portuguese too!) He was able to speak to each of them in their language. “They were pretty much speechless,” he recalls.
Richards is a famous polyglot, author and language consultant. As the founder of the ‘I Will Teach You a Language’ app, he helps people around the world learn new languages. He speaks eight language himself — English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Cantonese, Arabic — although he has studied 10 (he has learned a bit of Japanese and Thai.)
Richards’ journey into the world of languages began when he was 19 years old. After his girlfriend suddenly broke up with him, he tried to pull himself together but found it quite hard. He wanted to get away from it all.
“I decided to go and live in Paris, he says. “So I bought a one way ticket on the Eurostar [and] I went to France. I tried to create a life for me there. I realised, when I got there, that I needed to learn some French. So I started to learn. It was as simple as that.”
After learning French, he also mastered Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. Later he moved onto Japanese, Arabic, Thai and Cantonese. Part of the reason he learned to speak Cantonese was that his wife, who grew up in the UK, is originally from Hong Kong. “I felt I should learn her mother tongue,” he says.
Richards discovered that learning different languages opened doors for him. He studied music at university where he was part of a Brazilian Samba band and used to go play in music festivals. Once, he travelled to Spain to perform as part of a large group. On the first day of the festival, the organiser called Richards into a room with some of the other band leaders in the festival. There were about 50 journalists waiting. He was told to do a press conference to promote the festival.
The journalists all spoke Spanish. “With about five minutes warning, I had to getup on the stage with a panel of four or five other band leaders, he says. “I had to give the press conference in Spanish about our group... who we were and what we did. The kind of music that we played.”
It was quite high pressure. “I was very nervous,” he says. “But afterwards, he sent me a copy of the article that appeared in the newspaper. I remember seeing that and thinking that is quite cool. I am quite proud of myself.”
In 2003, he went to Brazil to visit friends. He was invited to a Pagode de Mesa, a type of party where people sit round a table playing samba. “Everyone is singing and playing and drinking. It is a fantastic atmosphere,” he says.
He met some famous musicians. “They were fascinated that an English guy could speak Portuguese and was interested in Brazilian music,” he says. They invited him to go to special music events all around Rio de Janeiro. He recalls going to many parties at the house of famous singer-songwriter and guitarist Milton Nascimento. There, he met popular singer, Beth Carvalho, who invited him to her home for a Pagode de Mesa, a type of party where people sit around a table playing Samba. Later Nascimento invited Richards to watch him record an album with another well known singer, Lenine, and then go to see the Mangueira Samba School, where he met the directors of the school.
He credits his language skills with helping to break barriers with locals. “I was in Rio hanging out with some of the most famous Brazillian pop stars because I had learnt the language,” he says.
It is difficult not to envy the life Richards lives. When I met him at a central London cafe, he came with his luggage. He was off to the airport after the interview for a trip to Spain.
Learning different languages and globe-trotting can widen perspectives about foreign news and events. “When I was living in Egypt, we were talking to local people about the various problems in the Middle East.” He says. “With ISIS (Daesh), Syria, Libya. When you listen to the BBC, you get one perspective, but speaking to a local Egyptian person you get a very different perspective indeed. So this just broadens your view of the world.”
He recalls being in Japan in 2011 when the massive earthquake and tsunami hit. “I was in Tokyo on the 10th floor of an office building when the earthquake hit,” he says. “The building was shaking back and forth for five minutes. I thought I was going to die. It was absolutely terrifying.”
The earthquake was followed by the problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
“In Japan, things were very calm,” he says. “The local people were very stoic. They are very rational. So actually being in Japan the weeks following the earthquake and tsunami, things weren’t normal, but it was very calm and controlled. If you read the foreign media, you would think the place was a war zone.”
He says some of the foreign media were sensationalist. “I was there and people were just walking around the street drinking coffee and shopping. So it gives you this perspective that you shouldn’t always take one version of events.”
According to Richards, learning languages and travelling makes a person question and become more aware. “At the moment we have a big tension between the west and Russia,” he says. “It is dominating the news. The fact that I have travelled a lot means that I am not so quick to believe the entire western media in their version of event. I don’t know what the truth is, I am not qualified to know, but I do know that if I went to Russia or if I went to other parts of the world, and I asked people there, they would have a very different perspective on events.”
His travels to places like Japan have also made him question some of the customs and habits he thought were normal. “You go out for dinner, and rather then ordering your own plate of food, you order lots of things and everybody shares. These things, at first they seem strange. But very quicky you realise that actually this is normal and the way that we did things in the UK was strange. So you start to question everything that you thought was normal,” he says.
Richards worked with the British Council for five years in Japan, Qatar and Egypt. Last year he gave a speech for the Council of Europe on becoming multilingual and learning new languages as an adult. He works with a story-based method of teaching languages and has beginner-level books available for Spanish, Italian, French, German and Russian. He also actively runs a podcast and YouTube channel for language learning.
Of all the countries Richards has visited, he found the Egyptian people the most humble and welcoming. Richards was learning Arabic and lived in Mohandassin, a very local part of Cairo. “It is not a place where many foreigners live,” he tells me. “Most foreigners live in Zamalek which is this island in the middle, or Maadi. I would often go into local shops to buy fruit or buy groceries and I would speak to the people there. The look in their eyes or the look on their face when they see a guy like me — blonde hair, blue eyes — walking into these shops and speaking to them in Arabic, and the conversations they would have afterwards. It is a kind of human connection that most people would never experience in their lives and it is very special. For me it is the best thing about learning a language is going to remote places of the world and being able to communicate with ordinary people.”
Knowing the language also helped him deal with unscrupulous taxi drivers. “You would get in the taxi and they would say the meter is not working,” he says. “You get to your destination and they try to charge you more. But I would learn the word for meter which is abed. And sometimes they would charge me extra, and I would say, ana Ayish henna, ana arif kwayis el mishwar biytkalif kam — I live around here, I know how much the taxi fare should be!”
“Sometimes, it would help you get out of the situation.”
He describes Arabic as a very different language with a sound he came to appreciate over time. “You hear the call to prayer, you hear people speaking, certain words just stick in my mind. There is a word called (medalia) which means key chain in Egyptian Arabic. I don’t know why I remember that word but I just find it really beautiful.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.