Second Languages and Studying Abroad

Growing up in Oklahoma, Spanish has always been “the second language of choice” at every school I’ve attended and visited through my public education. I took nine semesters of Spanish through middle and high school, and I had something of a knack for it. That being said, I am well aware that being able to make ‘A’s on most conjugation worksheets in a high school Spanish IV class and actually talking to a native speaker are two totally different issues.
The first real encounter I ever had where I actually had to use my Spanish went about as awkwardly as possible. My sophomore year of high school I was walking down the beach on South Padre Island with my little sister Emily and younger cousin Ruby, both of whom were freshmen. At some point, an older, shirtless man approached us speaking in Spanish. “Sacan un foto?” he asked, making a “clicking a camera” gesture with his hands. Having had barely two years of Spanish at this point – but still two more years than either Emily or Ruby – I kind of panicked. My brain saw a fifty-something man in swim trunks approaching my sister and my cousin (both of whom were showing a lot of skin in the south Texas heat) and saying “take a picture.” I froze. Every conjugation worksheet I’d ever done had not prepared me for on-the-fly translation by ear, and I failed to remember “sacan” meant “you all take.” He wanted us to take his picture; I thought he wanted a picture of us.
Emily and Ruby looked at me; I stared at the guy for a second and stepped forward to put myself between him and my family. He repeated himself, and this time I actually thought all the way through what he was saying. After that it was fine: I understood this time, and I happily (and a bit apologetically) took the picture for him. I took two things away from that experience: verbs are crucial to understanding, and I really needed to get out and use my Spanish if I wanted to get anywhere with it.
I could barely handle translating three words of kindergarten-level Spanish outside the classroom my first time around, and while I’ve improved since then I still can’t maintain any real conversation for long. I mix up words, fail at grammar, and use the wrong conjugation all the time. I can only imagine what it is like to have to speak in a second (or third, or fourth…) language all the time. Even with several more years of experience than I have, going to school in another country, taking classes in a foreign language… I can hardly wrap my mind around how difficult and terrifying that must be. But it must also be amazing.
Last Christmas I got to spend some time with a high school exchange student from Germany. I met Johanna when we went to see my cousin for the holidays, and I got to talk to her about what her experience was like up to that point. Much of her description was as I expected. She had around six years of classroom English, but it still took her several weeks to stop translating English and to adjust to hearing, speaking, and eventually thinking English. But what I didn’t anticipate was that she missed hearing German. She said that adjusting to using English wasn’t as hard as adjusting to a complete absence of her native language.
Speaking only through others’ experience and my own guesses, I imagine that is what a lot of OU international students go through. Along with the culture shock, having to use a second language constantly, and everything else that makes studying abroad scary comes an absence of the little things that you never miss until they aren’t around, like the rhythm of your native language. Buying food, shampoo, and toilet paper, taking classes, and ordering pizza in a different language seem terrifying and exciting at the same time, but I don’t think I can do much other than speculate until I go abroad myself.