Ex-ACS boy at Oxford speaks 11 languages, learnt Thai hanging out at Orchard Towers restaurant

Ashley Chin
The Straits Times
July 15, 2023

What started as a hobby turned him into an Internet sensation as “Oxford’s best linguist”.

In May, Oxford University undergraduate Jonas Fine Tan, 23, went viral following an interview with fellow Oxford student and TikToker Ollie, in which the Singaporean demonstrated his ability to speak 11 languages.

@oliversoxford I wonder how he ever got into Oxford #oxforduni #linguisticsmajor #linguistics #studentinterview #polyglotcheck #languagelearningapp ♬ Storytelling - Adriel

The psychology, philosophy and linguistics student speaks English, Mandarin, Hokkien, Thai, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Malay, Tamil, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.

Of the 11 languages, only English, Chinese, Malay and Portuguese were learnt at school – Malay when he was a student at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) and Portuguese during his first year at Oxford.

The other languages were picked up by conversing with people and consulting online resources such as textbooks, translated books and YouTube videos. 

The first foreign language Mr Tan picked up at the age of six was Tagalog, which he learnt from his Filipino domestic helper, who had been working for his family before he was born.

As his parents were busy with work – his father is a doctor and his mother is an occupational therapist – the only child developed a close bond with their helper.

He says: “It started with asking how to say simple things in Tagalog, and evolved into probing about grammar rules and making an effort to converse in Tagalog with her.”

Thai, his favourite language phonologically, was acquired after years of hanging out at a Thai restaurant, Thai Tantric, at Orchard Towers. His mother, who worked nearby, often took him there during her lunch breaks.

Over the past six years conversing with the owner, now in her 40s, Mr Tan has forged a strong friendship with her and will attend her wedding in Bangkok in December.

He says: “People love that you’ve put in effort to learn their language, no matter how broken your sentences are. They think ‘this person has bothered to think about us’.”

He estimates that it takes between two months of daily focus to a few years of sporadic learning to reach intermediate proficiency in a language. Next to English and Mandarin, he is most fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and Thai. 

@oliversoxford How can he be so smart, articulate and ALSO funny?! #linguistics #babel #towerofbabel #languagelearningapp #oxforduni #oxpops @Ollie - Student Comedy ♬ Storytelling - Adriel

Mr Tan is now more concerned with attaining language proficiency than adding new languages to his repertoire.

“It can be as simple as going about my day and wondering how I would have said something in a different language,” he says.

Another technique he employs is to have a notebook on hand to jot down new words or phrases while watching television shows or reading books. 

Mr Tan’s proficiency in Thai and Vietnamese comes in handy when volunteering at migrant worker organisations. 

Since 2019, he has been helping out weekly at Project X, a non-governmental organisation advocating for migrant sex workers, where he befriends beneficiaries and introduces them to the organisation’s services.

Within the field of linguistics, Mr Tan documents dying languages. He is working with 13 researchers under a research group at Oxford to preserve Enggano, an endangered indigenous language spoken in Indonesia’s Pulau Enggano by an estimated 1,600 people.

Being a polyglot has helped Mr Tan settle in at a cosmopolitan university, from befriending people from different countries to being the designated translator when travelling with friends.

After graduating, he hopes to pursue further studies in language documentation.

@oliversoxford I wasnt expecting the second job prospect but I see it working! #linguistics #babel #linguisticsmajor #oxforduni @Oliver’s Oxford ♬ Kawaii Aesthetic - LoES

The Straits Times

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.