how to become a polyglot

I am on my third language.
My mother tongue is English. In high school I started studying Japanese and eventually went to Japan for university where I took intensive and advanced Japanese courses. I also took some of my regular course work in Japanese and graduated with a degree in International Business. (which, by the way, was not very useful)

So many would say I am fluent in Japanese. I am what I would call “proficient” in Japanese. I don’t know what “fluent” is. A lot of people talk about fluent and they all have different ideas of what it means. There are test of fluency like the JLPT but like most tests it is a poor judge of the various abilities (speaking, reading, writing, listening) needed to function – and incapable of judging communication abilities such as empathy, sympathy, personality, etc. that are so vital to both learning and making use of a language.

Three years after my last formal Japanese class (eight formal years in total), I ended up taking on Chinese. This happened out of circumstances that I would not have predicted, but it has been a great ride. Now with five years of Chinese study under my belt I might be considered advanced in the language.

It is at this stage that have a whole new set of problems as the three languages play games in my head. Here is my dilemma.

I speak to Chinese people formally and informally on a near daily basis. For the last few years I let my Japanese practice sit on the backburner. Then I started teaching Japanese part-time and finding myself trying to polish up my rusty Japanese without mingling the two languages.

So far it has been a battle. I have said things in Japanese to Chinese people, spoken to my Japanese friends in Chinese, and let a few Chinese words slip when teaching my Japanese class.

The two languages have many shared two-character words and these really mix me up too, especially when the reading is similar. So, while I know the meaning of the word perfectly, I have to second guess myself if I am remembering the Japanese reading or the Chinese reading of the characters.

Getting to polyglot is not an easy road.

But I do think I am doing the right things to press forward down the path.

It seems to me that at some point the more you use each language the more the brain divides them and resists the tendency to mix.

Here are the things I am doing and what I believe are keys to reaching a level of polyglot:

Reading, reading out loud, listening, listening while reading, speaking both languages.

Where possible I listen to the same information in Japanese and Chinese. Before I was listening in English and Chinese. But now I have substituted Japanese for English because who cares about being fluent in English anyway, right? 🙂

My Japanese friends (they speak Chinese too) refuse to let me speak to them in English/Chinese now that I am teaching a Japanese class. I am thankful for their tough love.

I think the key is to use the language all the time.  Japanese all the time. Chinese all the time. Instead of reading something in English I read it in Japanese. I force myself to do it. And I find people who will force me to do it.

This is how you become a polyglot.

There is a Japanse game called “Go” or “igo” – the game that looks like a chess board but with the black and white pebbles.

I learnt to play it in Japan. Only old men play it now which is a shame because it teaches some great lessons.

They say the only way to learn to play Go is to lose your first fifty games as quickly as possible.

I think this is a great simile for language learning. You have to make mistakes to learn.

There are some polyglots who say they try to make 20 mistakes a day in a language.

That means they are using the language. And they are not hesitating.