Nine languages self-taught, 87-year-old man pursuing master's degree

By An Binh   June 12, 2024 | 10:57 pm PT
An 87-year-old man in the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho is pursuing a master's degree, and can now tutor students and translate documents in English, Chinese, French, Korean, and other languages.

Late last month, Nguyen Tan Thanh caught attention when he joined nearly 600 other candidates in the English language proficiency entrance exam for a master's program at Can Tho University.

The university is the top institution in Can Tho City, commercial and cultural capital of southern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region.

He said the test, which assesses listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills, was "manageable" for him.

"I am confident that I’ll pass the exam to enroll in the master's course for Vietnamese Literature," he said.

Besides English, Thanh mentioned that he can speak eight other languages: French, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Italian, and German.

Thanh started learning English in first grade and has always been a good student. But he switched to French later in his studies. By his 12th grade, he had begun learning Chinese.

After high school, his family encouraged him to apply to the Mathematics department, but his passion told him to also apply in Literature, and was accepted to both programs. Eventually, he chose to study Literature at Can Tho University and graduated in 1972.

Initially, Thanh became a teacher in both Hau Giang Province and neighboring Can Tho City.

While teaching, he also pursued a master's in Vietnamese Literature at Saigon University of Arts.

"But in 1975, when my thesis was nearly complete, incidents occurred. My advisor suddenly passed away, and then my wife fell ill and died at the age of 27," he sadly recalled.

Due to compounded difficulties and the financial burden of raising four young children, he was unable to complete the program.

Totally taught, totally teaching

After April 30, 1975 when the Vietnam War ended, Thanh taught Literature at a high school in Can Tho, and then at Chau Van Liem High School, until he retired.

Since then, he’s spent his free time visiting bookstores and libraries in Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho to find books and materials to help him learn additional foreign languages. He taught himself Russian, Japanese, then Korean, Italian, German, and Spanish.

Nguyen Tan Thanh during a teaching session at his own language center in Can Tho City, May 2024. Photo by VnExpress/An Binh

Nguyen Tan Thanh during a teaching session at his own language center in Can Tho City, May 2024. Photo by VnExpress/An Binh

Later, with the spread of the internet and widespread advanced technology, learning foreign languages became even more convenient for him.

"If you are proficient in French, it’s easier to learn Italian and Spanish, and similarly, if you are good at English, then learning German becomes easier," Thanh said.

Since retiring, he has collaborated with the Can Tho Department of Justice, working to translate various documents related to nationality and birth "with foreign elements," and he even opened his own foreign language and translation center.

Success stories

Thanks to such work, he can financially support his four children, who all now have their own careers as civil servants or teachers.

He has also been invited to lecture in English, French, and Chinese at many schools and teaching centers.

According to Professor Ha Thanh Toan, former president of Can Tho University, the private language center Thanh owns and operates has remained popular among students of the university’s Foreign Languages Faculty for many years.

"Thanh is a talented person and is very passionate and dedicated to helping students," said Toan, who is a former high-school student of Thanh’s.

Tu Vien Nghi, 32, came to study at Thanh’s center when she was still a college student.

Later, she worked as an intern at the center and then became a professional translator.

Nghi said she is most impressed by Thanh’s motivation and commitment to learning and acquiring knowledge independently.

"Thanh is a model of enthusiasm for education. He’s very friendly and approachable to students," she said.

The 87-year-old teacher said he always tries to help students grasp and visualize their future work so they are not bewildered later. He believes that learning must be accompanied by action, and one must be self-taught and humble to learn well.

‘The noble human spirit’

Over the years, Thanh has also spent a lot of time researching Vietnamese literature.

"Vietnamese culture and literature are very rich. Each era has its own characteristics but still shows the deepest essence of patriotism and the noble human spirit," he said.

He also writes poetry, paints, and has written hundreds of articles on culture and arts for various magazines.

Nguyen Tan Thanh at his own language center in Can Tho City, May 2024. Photo by VnExpress/An Binh

The desire to gain more knowledge for research, creation, and translation has motivated him to pursue a master's degree at his age.

He said that at his age, it is more challenging for him to catch up with younger students, but he believes that learning is a lifelong pursuit, and with determination, one can overcome any obstacle.

If admitted to his master’s program, he will try to complete his degree soon.

He also wishes to stay healthy and stable in order to study towards a PhD in which he can learn Malaysian and Finnish as well.

"Currently, income from the center helps me cover my living expenses, my studies, pay salaries to four employees, and save a little to give to my children and grandchildren."

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