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Master of many tongues

WHILE many Chinese struggle to learn English, Bai Gang pores over ancient Hittite, Sanskrit and Tocharian, an extinct Indo-European language.

"You can learn a language after you have worn out three dictionaries," said Bai, a 34-year-old professor of comparative literature in the Chinese Department at Fudan University.

He is fluent in German and English and says he can read around 30 modern languages, from French to Russian, as well as ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew and other tongues. He needs a dictionary.

Since he joined Fudan in 2009, he has launched courses in ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew.

Bai insists that he is not particularly gifted and attributes his fluency in many tongues to hard work and perseverance.

"You don't need to have any special gift to learn 10 languages," he said in his office piled high with dog-eared dictionaries.

Bai, a native of Hangzhou, capital city of Zhejiang Province, said he was not born with a good memory and that his language talent developed relatively late in life.

He majored in finance, enrolling in the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics in 1995. He later became interested in classical literature and attended humanities courses at Fudan University in his spare time.

Bai became interested in German philosophy, studied German at Tongji University and in 2005 undertook post-graduate studies in Germany.

There he earned masters' degrees in ancient Greek, Latin and philosophy. And he delved into arcane languages of Sumeria, such as Hittite, as well as Tocharian, which is extinct, and Sanskrit.

Studying a foreign language is not easy and he encountered memory problems, Bai said.

"When I began reading Latin poems, I needed to refer to dictionary for each word," he said. After three years' effort, he was able to read around 200 sentences in an hour.

He pushed on. "If I stopped there, I would make no progress," he said.

Moreover, he found it helpful to learn different related languages at the same time. Latin helped with romance languages and Sanskrit helped with Indo-European languages.

Bai was hired by Fudan after returning from overseas study in 2009 and he was sought after by history, philosophy and other departments. He chose the department of Chinese language and literature to teach comparative literature.


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