Multiple languages, new worldviews

Darren practising Hindi

Arabic, Danish, Hindi, Russian, Turkish…these are only a subset of the languages which Year 3 NUS Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) student Darren Mak comprehends. Darren currently understands some 14 languages and he is not stopping in his quest to pick up even more.

An English Language major, Darren is fascinated by languages. He sees it as a common thread that binds humanity. “When we learn languages, we not only learn the way they are used but also cultures and, subtly, worldviews as well,” he said. 

Expressing his thoughts in a different language allows him to appreciate a different culture and background. This is particularly important, he feels, in light of global issues and the misunderstandings that have both led to and resulted from them. “Now, more than ever, we as a species need to truly understand each other, and I believe language is a key part of this,” he added. Racial harmony in a globalised world, he believed, would require foreign language acquisition, and not only English.

When we learn languages, we not only learn the way they are used but also cultures and, subtly, worldviews as well.

Along with many of his peers, Darren learnt English and Mandarin in school. It was in junior college where his interest in languages took off, sparked by a fondness for foreign music accompanied by a keen curiosity to know the meaning of the lyrics. He also began learning different scripts as he was captivated by their form. He learnt the Arabic, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew and Korean alphabets, and even designed his own alphabet for note-taking. Upon joining the Malay Cultural Society in junior college and external Malay dance group Ayunda Lestari Group of Cultural Arts, he started acquiring Malay to better communicate with his Malay friends.

It was at this time that he came across Duolingo, an application for learning languages via self-study, which he used to study German. “After the German course, I looked at other courses it offered, and before I knew it, I was hooked,” he shared. Using the application, he has since completed courses in Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, Swedish and Turkish.

Arabic and Hindi, Darren decided, were challenging to self-study as online resources were more difficult to find, so he opted to pursue courses at the Centre for Language Studies (CLS) at NUS. He plans to take the Tamil course at CLS as well, to enable him to converse in all four of the nation’s official languages.


Darren attends advanced Arabic classes at CLS, facilitated by Dr Omar Salawdeh (standing)

Multilinguist Darren is fairly proficient in Cantonese and Hokkien too, and uses these Chinese dialects to communicate with members of his extended family.

Darren hopes to learn Japanese in the near future for an upcoming trip. He also has his sights set on more European languages and different Arabic dialects. “I hope to work as a translator in the future and would therefore need knowledge of how these languages work, as they tend to occupy a larger proportion of the world’s speaker base,” he said.

Through the process of learning myriad languages, Darren said, “I think a major eye opener for me was realising how much mother tongues meant to many people outside Singapore. Having English as our main language has great advantages, but I have never felt any particular emotional attachment to it.” He spoke of the pride which his guide in Cambodia exuded when teaching him Khmer. “It was an interesting experience in understanding identity from a different angle,” he added.

Practice is key when acquiring a new language, particularly for oral communication, Darren shared. “Stepping up and not being afraid of making mistakes is also important.” Recalling his initial attempts at Malay, he said that although his friends laughed at his “many silly errors”, it was important to learn from them and not become too shy to try. “I had to step out of my comfort zone and realise that if I wanted to improve on my languages, I would have to trip many times along the way,” he said.