Learn to Speak English Without Panicking

March 5th, 2010

Don’t Panic

Sudden panic.  I am unable to think.  I am unable to understand.  I am unable to respond, even though I know I know what to say.  This is one of the most prevalent problems our clients at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English have.

Most of our clients come to us with a fairly good understanding of the structure of the English language.  They have good vocabularies.  When listening to a conversation from outside the conversation, they have a pretty good understanding of what is being said.

But, put them in a one-to-one conversation with someone speaking English, put them on a telephone call in English, and everything they have ever learned flies from their head.  They stutter, they stammer, they immediately try to decipher what was said, they try to formulate a response, but come up with a total blank.

So, what is happening?  And how do you fix it?

Responding to a “Crisis”

Recently I stumbled on an interesting article on the More Than Sound website, in which Dan Goleman discusses emotional intelligence and emergency response.  As I was reading, I thought how similar to an emergency or a crisis trying to speak and understand another language is.

According to Wikipedia, there are 3 elements common to most definitions of a crisis:  a) there is a threat to the organization  b) there is an element of surprise, and c) there is a short decision time.

Think about this.  When learning another language, our brain perceives a “threat to the organization” when we are put on the spot and have to immediately understand and respond in a language that is not familiar to us.

Then there is the element of surprise.  What is being said?  This is another language.  This is not what I’m used to hearing.  Can I understand this?  Oh my gosh, I’m going to have to respond.  Help!

Finally, we also realize that we have to respond in a short amount of time.  We have a short decision time.  We have to listen, understand what is being said, and then formulate a quick and appropriate response in order to not appear totally stupid and inept.  Total panic!

Goleman describes how, when in crisis, our brain’s decision making center shifts from the left pre-frontal cortex, which governs logical and analytical thinking, to the amygdala, , the brain’s emergency response center, which produces the fight-or-flight response.  He says that in order remain logical and analytical in a crisis, we must learn to resist the amygdala hijack, as he calls it, and remain calm and focused.


Of course, the big question is how you do this.  Well, repetitive practice and rehearsal is the key.  When we rehearse an event and reaction over and over, we strengthen the neural connections in our brain.  The stronger we make the underlying circuitry of appropriate response in our brain, the more likely we will be able to resist panic.

Gary Player, the famous South-African golfer, says “the more I practice, the luckier I get.”  We can do that, too, when learning a language.  We need to continually rehearse in our minds the common situations we find ourselves in.  As a learner of English, what you can do is rehearse in your mind how you will ask a particular question, how you will respond to a particular question.

When listening to radio, TV, or other people’s conversations, try to put their words and conversations into English.  Imagine yourself in situations and imagine what you will ask and how you will respond in English.  Do this over and over and over again.  The more you rehearse, the luckier you will get.  The more you rehearse, the less likely you will be to panic.

The less you panic, the more you will be able to draw on the knowledge and understanding of English that you have, and participate appropriately in conversations.  The more appropriate conversations you have, the less likely you’ll panic when confronted with new, and more difficult conversations.

So, as with anything, practice, practice, practice, and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

Calm down, you can do it.  You already know how.  Good luck!

One Response to “Learn to Speak English Without Panicking”

  1. OaklEy DiSpatcH SunglaSSES…

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