"If you believe in a theory, then test it to the point of destruction"
As a teen who admired JK Rowling’s works, Mr Illyas Lim Effandi could imagine why the author of the Harry Potter books chose Oxford as her inspiration for Hogwarts.
Illyas once sat at a cafe in the medieval city centre and felt that he had stepped out of a time machine.
This interview was at a cafe with a British theme. Illyas looked up slightly as if to recall something and rubbed his temples. His voice trailed off when asked to name his favourite spots in Oxford.
“My most favourite place would be my college’s courtyard, St Cross College. Although it was the largest postgraduate college, it is relatively a small college. There are like four hundred of us,” said the former undergraduate from the part-time English Language and Literature programme.
“I think being part of the football team and hanging out at the (St Cross) College, I made friends from other departments and other courses. Whenever I go back to College, I would see a lot of familiar faces to say ‘hi’ to and we sit down for a chat and coffee. It’s nice to take a break and learn about different cultures from my college mates.”
In June 2016, Illyas graduated from SUSS (formerly UniSIM) with Honours and started his M(Sc) in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition at the University of Oxford in October 2016.
Originally trained as a mechanical engineer at a polytechnic, Illyas – who hails from a multi-racial family background – decided to pursue his interest in language at SUSS in January 2012. Ilyas’ father is half-Arab, half-Pakistani. His mother, a Chinese, had a Thai grandmother.
The ice in his glass of Coke clicked as Illyas stirred it. “I like to observe and form my analysis of languages around my family and friends. Probably stems from my family’s multilingualism. Because on my Mum’s side, everyone speaks English, Malay and Mandarin and also four, five other Chinese dialects. It’s quite a family Creole.”
He let out a soft chuckle. “So I guess…that is where I use it (knowledge in language and linguistics) the most. I use it to analyze my family members’ speech.”
Unforgettable University Days
Illyas went through three trials before he represented St Cross College as a centre-forward/striker at age thirty-three alongside with younger players. It was at Oxford where the die-hard fan of A.C. Milan also became a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur and later on Oxford United because the latter was his home team.
Describing his experience of playing football in the snow, Illyas crossed his hands on the table. “The training was during the first semester which was effectively winter…I was the only one who was wearing three layers of winter clothes for every match. And I got a nickname for it,” Illyas tittered. “But the training helped. We post-grad students were busy.”
Despite his packed schedule throughout his one-year postgraduate programme, Illyas managed to visit The Three Sisters pub in Edinburgh, about an hour away from Oxford via train. He visited the pub with his course mates after he submitted his papers and came back just a day before the next term started.
Illyas had to write a twenty-thousand word dissertation during his postgraduate programme on top of three or four modules for each trimester. On the last day of the semester, the students would get the graded essay assignments for the modules and finish by the Friday before the start of each term.
“There were weeks I just would not cook because I didn’t have the time…I remembered meeting my course mates at nine o’clock in the morning at the library and we worked till late at night. We would then have dinner outside. There were nights when we continued until 2 a.m. and then started again the next day.”
When asked how his course mates supported him, Illyas recalled that knowing his classmates were going through the same rigours helped him.
A lot of jokes, banter, and pranks from his classmates kept him sane. “Once, when we had a potluck, I made Chicken Alfredo and I got an earful from an Italian classmate. Everyone, including her, found it funny and I think she has forgiven me for that”. Illyas later learnt that Italians never eat their pasta with chicken.
Looking back at his days as an undergraduate here, Illyas recalled having supper with his two close friends-turned-course mates at the petrol station along Bukit Timah Road after lectures ended at 10 p.m. The McDonald’s opposite the petrol station has since been demolished.
The petrol station along Bukit Timah Road became their regular study area outside the university campus as they spent time discussing assignments, revising what they had just learnt in class or even just taking the time to encourage each other.
“We would sit down for instant noodles or Big Gulp. I don’t know why we didn’t go to McDonald’s. Because we also needed gas.” When asked to clarify, Illyas chuckled, “For our bikes. I used to ride a scooter to SUSS”. Illyas will also never forget the SUSS lecturers who supported him in his applications to universities.
Dr Chang Qi Zhong, who was his supervisor during the Capstone project, advised Illyas on his research proposal in tandem with his applications for a postgraduate programme.
Dr Priscilla Pang, who was then head of the undergraduate programme, wrote a recommendation letter for Illyas. Other faculty members such as Associate Professor Ludwig Tan (Vice Dean, School of Arts and Social Sciences), Associate Professor Benny Lee (Head, Undergraduate and Graduate English Programmes) and Ms Khoo Sim Eng (Head, Film Studies Minor) also encouraged him in his applications.
Illyas also expressed his gratitude to Ms Chan Hsiao Yun, who inspired him to explore Second Language Acquisition and for visiting him during his Postgraduate Programme at Oxford.
Life After Oxford
“For me, the objective would be to move into higher education. Probably teaching at a higher education institution. And hopefully, be involved in research in the realms of linguistics,” Illyas said as he poured Coke into a transparent tumbler.
Linguistics looks into how people learn languages. He hopes in future to specialise in bilingualism in Singapore and code-switching, which is how bilinguals use two languages at the same time.
When asked if he had any plans to visit Oxford again, Illyas said he would like to, and hopes to obtain a PhD before he turns forty. He shared a quote from University of Oxford’s Professor Paul Meara: “If you believe in a theory, then test it to the point of destruction.”
We wish Illyas well in his quest to push academic boundaries!