I graduated from English-speaking schools all my life. English was my lingua franca (and cause of some of my fracas, too). In kindergarten (5 years old), I spent a year learning both English and some Mandarin. I learnt Malay as a third language until I was in primary 3, and my geography and history was Mandarin until primary 4. Strange, but true; however, it was very useful. Unfortunately, I spoke not a word of Portuguese although my ethnicity was half-Portuguese. My Chinese mother exposed us to Malay and Hokkien (a Chinese dialect) since we were young. Thus, my sibling and I developed confidence in verbal communication.
I studied English as my first language, and Mandarin as my second. When I was in secondary 1, I was offered the choice of French, German or Japanese as my third language. As much as I adored the French language – and as much as a teenager undergoing puberty with grand plans about meeting French-speaking girls would – I dropped out of the program after two years. I could not find a single student in my immediate community to practice with.
I could mimic well – and I was a darn good imitator of phonetics – however, failed to convert these foreign sounds into palatable conversation when I was interviewed. Comprehension became my Achilles Heel, which encouraged me to become a journalist and become a competent interviewer.
I focused on my Mandarin instead; a good decision on my part, but a far greater decision on my Mom’s part as she was a visionary in our education. Her decision to have both her children study Mandarin, and do reasonably well in this language was a major turning point in my life. My versatility with this language (and English, too) led me to involve myself in work assignments in The People’s Republic of China in 1994. Since then, I have delivered my leadership workshops bilingually in several countries where my confidence in four Chinese dialects mattered. My biggest pride was to teach classes of 40 students in Mandarin (or, more correctly, PutongHua)!
I only learnt the term ‘polyglot’ last year. I mistook it for a part of the voice-box, mainly the epiglottis and glottis. I always fancied my ability as a multi-lingual speaker, and put these languages to extensive use. I suspect and believe that my career would have turned out much differently if I did not pay heed to my linguistic intelligence – one of my most developed in the Multiple Intelligences model (by Howard Gardner).
Like all abilities and skills, without constant practice the skills can deteriorate. Before you can develop competency as a translator or interpreter, you would need to study at least two languages deeply. By regularly using these languages, you can then develop the fluidity and ease to use them at your will and pleasure.
I would urge you to practice your arsenal of languages regularly, receive honest feedback, and make corrections. Expand your vocabulary by speaking, reading and writing these unique languages.
My learning tips for supporting languages are:
1) Listen to the radio and imitate the pronunciation.
2) Watch the news on television and appreciate how foreign countries and names are read.
3) Read publications or online posts with such languages.
4) Use www.dictionary.com as a resource for word definition and pronunciation.
5) Write when you can, as often as you can. Use it for texting of messages, e-mails and on social media platforms.
6) Speak the language with a native speaker of that language.
7) Elect mentors or coaches who can correct you and provide invaluable feedback on grammar, and structure of language.
8) Travel to these countries or localities where you can apply it in daily situations.