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The Shocking Transition Of Returning To Your Native Tongue

I am not sure what I expected when I returned home… I had heard stories about being back in an English-speaking country for the first time after being abroad. But even then, hearing other people’s stories couldn’t really prepare me for what I was going to experience.

I am convinced it’s because that moment of transitioning back to your mother tongue is a universal moment among students abroad, while at the same time, being such a unique and personal experience. As exchange students and travelers, we will all have this same moment at some point; and yet it can’t really be explained or truly understood until we have experienced it for ourselves.

For everyone, it looks a little bit different, just like everybody’s experience abroad is different. For a lot of people that I have talked with, it looks like tears – just an embarrassingly large amount of tears that come without warning, like a flash flood.

For me, it looked a whole heck of a lot like a panic attack. Actually, I am pretty sure it was an actual panic attack.

Let me paint this not-so-pretty picture for you real quick. I was eight months into my year abroad in Germany, submerged in the language and culture as much as a person can be without going nuts.  Speaking, reading, writing, eating, drinking and breathing German!

Between semesters, I decided to take a short trip to London and I couldn’t have been more excited to see such an iconic city. It was going to be great! Fast forward a short flight and a not-so-short customs line later, and I was walking out of the airport doors and getting onto a bus to head to my hostel.

As fast and unexpected as the flash flood response my friend described, a panic attack hit me out of nowhere. BAM! I was sitting alone on a crowded double-decker bus full of loud people speaking English, with loud announcements over the speakers calling the next stop.

I was having trouble breathing, focusing, and I couldn’t hear myself think no matter how hard I tried to focus!  I was experiencing an information overload and it felt absolutely crippling. Driving on the wrong side of the road probably didn’t help either…

It was one of the most complex feelings that I have ever experienced.  A situation that logically should be easier and require less thought became one of the most difficult.  

Trying to navigate a new country is never going to be the easiest task, I think that’s obvious. However, I did go to London expecting it to be easier because I spoke English. Logical right? Oh, no, no… Apparently, logic didn’t take into account my body and mind throwing it out the bus window into the rainy London streets.

So, this complex feeling, this illogical response to hearing your native tongue again, this is what I want to attempt to unpack if possible. To share with you my experience and perhaps sympathize with those who, like me, feel a little insane in these moments.

For eight months, I had been in a constant state of translating. Hearing German conversations on the bus, ordering my coffee in German, checking out at the grocery store in German, everything. I had become accustomed to this sort of survival mode every time I would walk out of my flat.

I knew that I had to be on my toes and stay extra aware of my surroundings because they were foreign becoming familiar. It was as if a “stay focused” switch was flipped on in my brain after moving to Germany that only switched off when my dorm room door was closed.  It became normal, it became expected.

For how focused I had grown accustomed to being, I also grew accustomed to hearing myself think. Probably more than I had ever been used to before coming to Germany. I didn’t have to translate on the bus or train if I didn’t want to, I could just think, with what became a German backdrop of sorts. Like white noise. This became my new normal.

However, in this becoming my new normal I didn’t realize that I was losing the ability to “tune out” English.  

Every time I would hear someone speaking English my radar would immediately go up! And what I thought was just pure interest in eavesdropping (like every normal human being), it was actually proof of my swiftly diminishing ability to tune it out. But English wasn’t such a common occurrence, so I didn’t think much of it.

It wasn’t until that bus ride in London that I realized something had drastically changed. There was a deeper impact from living in a foreign country and growing accustomed to it and it’s language. I couldn’t ignore it anymore, I couldn’t stop hearing every single word around me and my brain went into absolute hyper-drive.

So what was my plan of action? Ha, well… ear plugs and sleep.  At least for the first night in London. Okay, maybe there were a few tears too… I was on information overload, with too much familiar yet foreign stimulation and I felt like I was trapped inside my head, unable to process anything and everything that was happening around me.

I needed to shut off, I needed to escape the flood of familiarly foreign.  

The days following became easier and easier and eventually, I transitioned into a comfortability of functioning in an English atmosphere.

About a month-and-a-half later, I find myself sitting in a coffee shop in Southern California while visiting friends and family, writing this article. I have been here for two days, panic attack free!

Aaaannnd then I went to the grocery store about an hour ago in the middle of the afternoon… Unbeknownst to me, that wasn’t a good idea… like an airplane suddenly shot in the wing I started going down and going down fast. I felt it’s sudden oncoming: my heartbeat getting faster, my brain was getting foggy and I felt like I had a golf ball stuck in my throat.

I felt the sudden need to grip something tight in my hands, but also lay in the fetal position?  Not really socially acceptable behavior in a busy grocery store… Finally, I had to walk out and escape this overwhelming environment.

It was after this moment had passed and I came down from this panic high and swallowed that golf ball that I realized something. Transitioning back to my home country was going to be a lot tougher than I thought it would be.

That these moments of tension and struggle are not singular, but ongoing. And they are probably going to come out of nowhere, like a flash flood.  They will come in different forms and always at the worst time. But I also know that each time they come it will be with a little less power, and a little more time in between.

And the most important thing I can remember is that they will pass… These moments of being totally overwhelmed won’t last.  In these moments when I feel paralyzed and unable to process all that is going on, I remember that I can breathe, that I am still a functioning human being, and then I start counting to myself in German.

I can’t exactly explain it, but for some reason, counting in German (the foreign that became familiar) helps me tune out English (the familiar that has become foreign).

So whether you have to count to yourself in another language, hide out in your car for a moment of silence or go home and take a nap in the fetal position, remember that it’s OK.  It’s so important to find your own style of coping.

Transitioning back to your mother tongue won’t be easy. I am nervous about my full transition home in a few short months. But I know that just like learning how to function in a foreign country became my normal and my familiar, so will transitioning back to my mother tongue. And learning the art of tuning it out again.

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Hallie

Hallie is a young wanderer who loves coffee, photography, and all things travel. Follow her adventures at @roamcatalinaroam


4 comments

  1. I feel you 100% and I never even realized it. It’s like you gain an annoying super power to be distracted by every conversation around you haha. Great piece

  2. I completely get where you are coming from! I went home to visit family during my year abroad and it just hit me like a train. It was so weird that everything familiar could feel so strange. Hmmmm, could you call it reverse culture shock?

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