The semester before I came to Spain, I attended multiple crash courses and trainings on studying abroad that were mandatory from my university. I am also lucky to have already been abroad for an internship in Panama this summer. Granted it was only a month, but I still feel like it prepared me for my life abroad here in so many ways. If there was anything I learned from these trainings and experiences, there are many different emotional, psychological, and physical waves that come over you when living abroad for an extended period of time. For example, in one of the crash courses I attended in Tulsa, they explained the basic phases of studying abroad.
First, there is the vacation/honeymoon phase of your time abroad. You love everything, and I mean everything about your new city and country. Nothing feels permanent yet, and you are doing and seeing everything you possibly can. You are constantly in awe that you are in fact living and going to school in a different country. Next, when the newness wears off and you get into a scheduled routine with classes and daily life, you become a little disillusioned by your experience. Things start to feel a little more permanent and it's easy to get a little homesick. Finally, as your time comes to an end and even when you are back in the United States, you wish you could stay forever and even become frustrated by norms in your own home country. You wish that your study abroad experience was longer and that you could stay eating papas bravas and churros con chocolate forever.
I was aware of all of these phases before coming to Barcelona, and because of this I think it helped me properly deal with my emotions. I was conscious of being in each phase, and knew what I was feeling and going through for each one was normal (I would say I am in the third one now, as I only have three more weeks left here).
However, what I feel like I was not prepared for and what I wish someone had told me, was the difficulties that come with such an intense language exchange. This of course will vary depending on which program you choose through CIEE. I am in the Liberal Arts program, which means all of my classes and my internship are in Spanish. So for me, that means I am thinking, reading, listening, and speaking in another language from 9 to 5 Monday through Thursday. Then, I go home to my host family, where I was placed in a home in which no one speaks any English whatsoever. I must say I am grateful for living in a host family and for having such an intense language experience here. It was my goal to become fluent while I was here, and I feel like I have made amazing progress towards that goal. However, studies show that it is actually so exhausting for your brain to be in this constant state of translation for so many hours for an extended period of time. You feel tired because your brain is trying to think and conjugate and do all of these things at such a normal conversational pace. You also feel frustrated and even irriatble whenever you feel like you’re plateuing, unable to communicate, or feel like you sound dumb while trying to communicate, which in turn contributes to the tiredness.
I definitely had many moments of this language exhaustion and frustration, but I didn’t know that that is what it was. I would think to myself, “I just slept for ten hours, why do I feel so exhausted??” after a day of classes. Or “Am I even getting better?” after completely butchering a sentence that I KNOW I know how to say. However, after doing some research and talking to people here, I realized what I was going through was completely normal. Any person who chooses to immerse themselves in a language that is not their native tongue goes through the exact same thing. Now don’t get me wrong, as I mentioned before, I am extremely grateful for this intense immersion I experienced this semester, I would not change any part of it in any capacity. It grew and stretched my Spanish brain way farther than I could have ever hoped. I just wish I knew about the language exhaustion beforehand, I would have been way less hard on myself and confused about what I was feeling. It’s very comforting to know that what you are going through is shared by many that are in similar positions. So I hope by writing this post, I can help potential study abroad students become even more self aware when they are living outside of the U.S.