My being back in the States means my mom and I can now sit down together to view one of our favorite types of television programming: true-crime episodes of Dateline. Last night, I felt exhaustion began to sink in as we watched a report on the murder of a former professional athlete. Just as an investigator was beginning to express doubts about police's conclusions about the culprit, I sank into a syrupy fog of semi-consciousness that didn't end until the show did and my mom wondered aloud, "What did they conclude?"
"Que no sabían nada," I murmured through the haze. After a few seconds, I sat bolt upright. "What did I just say?"
"I don't know," my mom replied.
"Was it in Spanish?"
"I just know that I didn't understand it."
It's not the first time my mom has had to put up with episodes of linguistic disorientation. After arriving home after my junior year abroad in Chile, I promptly fell asleep on the couch. My mom told me that when she tried to wake me up, I started babbling in Spanish with a terrified expression on my face. Over the next few weeks, she occasionally had to ask me to clarify what I was trying to say because I was unknowingly importing grammatical structures from Spanish.
Of all my returns from South America, the one I made after study abroad was probably the rockiest in terms of language readjustment. I had lived with Chileans all year and had had relatively limited interaction with other English speakers during my second semester. Since I had been one of the last of my exchange group to leave Chile, I had spoken hardly any English at all during my last two weeks in the country. The result was that when another passenger offered to help me with my (grossly overweight) suitcase at the baggage carousel in Minneapolis, no words came out when I opened my mouth to thank him. My brain knew that I had to speak English now but hadn’t yet unearthed the necessary vocabulary.
The language transition wasn’t too difficult when I returned after fourteen months in Quito; I’d been working as an English teacher and living with an English-speaking roommate. And aside from last night’s Dateline stumble, things haven’t been so rough this time around. I lived with Chileans in Santiago and worked a job that required me to speak Spanish about 95 percent of the time, but I hung out with English-speaking friends from time to time and had home internet access – which I hadn’t had in Quito or while studying abroad in Chile – that allowed me to consume a fair amount of English-language media. Who knows? Maybe writing this blog even helped ward off English atrophy.
I suppose the real test of the health of my English will be when I start grad school in the fall. I’m actually a bit concerned about this because nearly all of my recent academic work – both at college, where I majored in Spanish, and in the diploma program I completed last year at a Chilean university – has been in Spanish. Let’s hope I show enough dexterity in my native language to produce written work that doesn’t resemble a high school essay. And that I stop scaring my mom.