Tai Yu Hsiang from Reading Attic has been listing his Latin and Ancient Greek courses with us for a while. Time to get to know him better. We met up for a cup of coffee at Parkway Parade.
As I was on my way to our meeting, I realized that I had no idea how this Latin / Ancient Greek teacher would look like. Since he has studied ancient languages, would he look very ancient himself? Grey hair, and small, round, Ghandi type of glasses?
It turned out quite differently. He is in his early thirties and when he is not teaching Latin or Greek, he is an entrepreneur developing a new kind of household device. A worldly guy. While he wears glasses, they are 21st century proof.
Tai Yu Hsiang graduated with a Master of Arts in Greek and Latin (First Class Honours) from the University of Glasgow.
Why go halfway around the world to study Latin and Ancient Greek?
A science person by default, he started out studying electrical engineering in NUS but found it not suitable for himself. It was as if his “brain was not balanced”, as there was too much emphasis on calculus and analysis, and not enough language and creativity.
Before even starting at NUS, he had been so captivated by the Ancient Greek author Herodotus that he had tried learning Ancient Greek on his own.
That enterprise failed miserably, as the language structure is very complex and instruction books assume that the learner already has a strong foundation in the grammar of languages beyond English. The guidance of a teacher is a pure necessity.
So he took his chance and decided to try doing the most difficult thing he could imagine, mastering the classical languages Latin and Greek in Glasgow. The fact that returning home half way was simply not an option has surely helped him to make it through.
Now that he is back, does his knowledge of these languages help him in everyday life?
In Tai Yu Hsiang’s eyes, knowledge is power. He illustrates it with an example:
“My wife and I were addicted to a particular Japanese cartoon series. Not knowing any Japanese, we relied on the English subtitles. But after a while, the guys who were adding the subtitles simply stopped providing them. The series goes on, but we have no idea what is being said. Sometimes we joke that we should learn Japanese simply to continue watching the series.
It is the same with classical languages. A wealth of information is there that gives us precious insight into Western civilization. Wherever you are in the world, in this day and age, much of modern civilization is based on Western values and thinking.
Not everything has been translated, and even if it is, you are at the hands of the translator’s interpretation. But I am independent and can read the original of influential texts from writers as the Greek Homer and Roman Virgil, which till today shape Western thinking. And did you know that the Bible’s New Testament is written in Ancient Greek? That is power.”
Ok, but does it get you employed?
The link isn’t that direct. It’s common for Singaporeans to want to see a directly associated benefit before doing something, but unfortunately it’s not true that you become a master trader in the stock market when you know a classical language, or that employers are lining up for you. Since so few people have studied classical languages in Singapore, the value is often not recognised.
But nevertheless, there are clear benefits. Yu Hsiang sees the brain as akin to a muscle. And learning a complex language totally new to you means giving that brain muscle a hell of an exercise. The effects of the exercise go well beyond the ability to comprehend ancient texts. To be successful in a classical language, you have to apply a structured mode of problem solving, and this skill can be carried over to other areas in life, be it science, business or creative writing.
What kind of people are you teaching in Singapore?
My students have often have touched on a classical language from some angle or another. For example:
- Christians who want to be able to read the Bible’s New Testament in its original language;
- An archeology student who wants to understand the language used in the time period she is studying;
- A Classics Ph. D. who wanted to learn some Ancient Greek on top of the Latin he already spoke.
But that is not to say that there aren’t any people who come to Latin and Ancient Greek as newbies and get drawn into it.
“I have also tutored two friends who had just completed NS and had another 2 months to spare before continuing their education. They wanted to use the period to do something totally different and decided to spend the period for intensive study of Latin. It clearly awakened an interest in them. One of them is now considering to take up Latin.”
If you want to know more about learning classical languages, feel free to get in touch with Tai Yu Hsiang through his page on the Yago website.