Choking under pressure and how to overcome it

As my weekly Spanish lesson drew to a close, there was suddenly a loud buzz I’d not heard before. Someone was at my teacher’s door.

Because of the way she scheduled her classes, I’d never seen any of her other students. This buzz was a stark reminder that there were others. It wasn’t just the two of us taking on the world.

After a slightly awkward handshake, my teacher introduced us.


Teacher: Marie, Colin va a ir a Argentina…y Colin, Marie va a ir a España!

Me: Oh, bien. Cuando?

Marie: En el septiembre.

Me: Bien.


A really awkward pause followed, as neither of us could think of anything else to say. I then left without really saying goodbye, because I couldn’t remember how to say goodbye.

As soon as I was outside, I was kicking myself for the role I’d played in such an embarrassing exchange. Could I not even muster up a simple “Que tengas buena suerte!” to round that off?

At this point, I was six months deep into my studies of Spanish. I’d also been speaking Spanish well for the past two hours and was more than warmed up. In fact, we’d just been going over the subjunctive and how it can be used in sendoffs and well-wishes.

But I choked. So did Marie. And the reason I’m telling this extremely lame story is that I know you’ve choked too.

So why does this happen? And is there anything we can actually do about it? How much of this is just social anxiety and indeed nothing at all to do with our language studies?

The first thing I want to make clear is that choking is a good sign. It shows that you really want this. You want it so much, in fact, that you’re piling pressure on yourself to perform and thus driving yourself to failure. The answer is not to take your eye off the prize – after all, that’s what’s motivating you to get better. The key is to embrace these failures, think about the expectations you’re setting yourself and then – most important of all – continue to practice in these high-pressure environments.


Choking under pressure

The biggest situational evil that contributes to this kind of choking is pressure.

Even the most accomplished performers in sports or business screw up when it matters. In fact, the top performers are arguably more prone to buckling under pressure because they have the most to live up to. It doesn’t matter how much time we’ve had to prepare. When performing well really matters to us, our brains turn to critical thoughts driven by anxiety and fear. This overload of self-scrutiny makes us focus so much on what we’re doing that we can’t just relax and let it happen.

But wait, how does this relate to the story I wrote above? I wasn’t delivering a speech to 1,000 people or taking a last-minute penalty in the World Cup Final. My one job was to make some smalltalk with someone in Spanish. Granted, my teacher’s presence added some pressure to the situation, but this shouldn’t have been such a big deal. Almost all of this pressure came from me. In making it a big deal, I set myself up for failure. In yearning for perfection I delivered almost nothing of any value whatsoever.

Here’s one of the most important things you need to be comfortable with in order to get better at Spanish: you are going to make mistakes in front of other people.

You simply have to speak and feel embarrassed sometimes. If you hold back in order to protect yourself from this embarrassment, you are not going to get any better. Just drop the pressure and realise that it doesn’t matter how well you do in these situations. You’re going to suck for a while, but that’s OK. Keep speaking. Keep practising with real people in real situations.

You cannot learn Spanish in your bedroom and then one day majestically reveal to society how amazing you’ve become at it. If you can’t deal with that, you might as well just quit and go home.


The element of surprise

In the story I shared above, I was taken by surprise. And surprise can cripple our ability in social situations like nothing else. Ever run into someone you’ve known for 10 years in the supermarket and still not known what to say to them?

“So, how are things? Getting your groceries, I see?” “Yeah.”

Of course you have.

When you throw a second language into the mix, trying to dig up the “right” thing to say from those brain vaults can be even more challenging. But the difference between surprise and pressure is that surprise is just an initial mind-blank that usually subsides quickly. Pressure, on the other hand, can remain throughout your exchange.

In light of that, I believe surprise to be a bit easier to work around. The key is to take your time. When I was starting to learn French in Quebec, I found myself screwing up a lot when strangers took me by surprise and asked me stuff. I either rattled out a mangled response too quickly and then fled the scene, or just apologized for not being able to help and then fled the scene. If I’d just stayed around for five seconds longer, I could have found the words and corrected any mistakes I’d previously made.

Fleeing these situations because you feel they aren’t going very well, before giving yourself a chance to accomplish something, damages your confidence. It just makes you more likely to flee again the next time it happens. If you stick around and weigh up what’s actually going on, you’ll reach a happy ending more often and not. And as these situations continue to present themselves your responses will become faster and faster. Then you’ll start to see that coveted land we call fluency on the horizon.


Prepare some ‘recovery’ lines

You can’t possibly prepare for every scenario, and trying to do so would just make the problem worse.

However, it’s good to have a few well-prepared lines up your sleeve to call upon in when these mind blanks arise. Study salutations and pleasantries until you know them very well. You want to be able to rattle off lines like “good luck”, “have a nice day” and “sorry I couldn’t help” without thinking much about it.

Hell, just be straight up about what’s happening if it buys you some time to get over the freak-out you’re putting yourself through for absolutely no reason. “Sorry, my mind just went blank for a second,” with a little giggle for good measure. (“Disculpame, mi mente se ha quedado en blanco.”)

Anything so that you’re not just staring at the person or, worse, running away from the opportunity they’ve presented to you.



So here’s what you should have learned about choking under pressure when you’re faced with speaking Spanish.

  • Choking is normal and it proves you’re motivated to succeed
  • Lower your expectations – you can’t expect to perform perfectly all the time
  • Give yourself a chance to turn your failings around
  • Arm yourself with useful ‘recovery’ lines
  • Realize that you can’t learn Spanish without making mistakes and feeling embarrassed sometimes

Try not to get frustrated by these moments in which the cat’s got your tongue.  It’s a normal part of learning a language, and you will overcome it.  The most important bit of advice I can give is simply to continue to practice in high-pressure environments.  And whatever you do, do not switch to English in these cases.  You will learn the most when you’re taken by surprise, when emotions are high, or when there’s otherwise some pressure on you to speak Spanish.

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