When I returned to the US after living in Taiwan, I was genuinely worried that I had lost my ability to sufficiently express myself in my native language. For a person who still aspired to become a writer, this was one of the worst consequences I could imagine. As a result, one of the first things I did when I got to the US was to pick up the closest big English novel on my sister's shelf - Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - and read it. Forget about the Chinese that I'd acquired in the past eighteen months. Nothing, I determined, was going to come between me and my ability to express myself.
(Looking back now, I should have been more concerned about my engineering - I was home for six months before I tried to get back into math and realized I'd forgotten even my trigonometry. I ended up cramming three college semesters of calculus in a week for my linear algebra class. Thermodynamics likewise required me to cram an entire semester's worth of material in a week.)
In the past nine years, I have come to realize a few things:
(1) Nothing will change the fact that English is my first and native language. As such, it holds a specific role in determining how I relate to the world, how I understand language in all its forms, and how I express myself. Even I reach my lifetime dream of becoming fluent in Chinese, English will always remain. Its place was decided long ago.
(2) I am madly in love with Chinese. I love how Chinese sounds (especially the Taiwan accent). I love speaking it and the way my mouth wraps around its sounds. It's one of those languages that, in hearing it, just leaves me giddy. I could go on about and on about this language and how beautiful it is. When I try to share this with others, they usually just stare back at me. Sometimes, I wonder if I'm in love with the best language there is to love or if everyone feels this way about their second language.
(3) It takes serious discipline to learn and maintain any language. Nothing really takes the place of just buckling down and putting real time and energy into memorization and repetition.
(4) Understanding goes much deeper than simply comprehension of vocabulary. Communication is layered and often very complicated. I can know the definition every word in a sentence (in English or otherwise) and still be at a loss as to meaning.
(5) I have yet to meet a language that is not beautiful to my ears. There is something stunning about hearing language spoken by natives and watching people interact in other languages.
(6) I hope that I can learn to be conversational in a third language one day.