I’m currently reading What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell is a writer for The New Yorker and the book consists of his favorite pieces he has written for the magazine. The latest one I finished reading was entitled, “The Art of Failure: Why some people choke and others panic.” In the writing he does an excellent job explaining the difference between the two.
When you are learning something new, whether it’s a language, sport, subject, etc., your brain processes information in a very mechanical, deliberate way. For example, if you are learning how to play soccer, one of the first things you learn is how to properly kick the ball. And, for maybe the first few weeks you are playing, the rules will be playing through your head like a CD on repeat as you struggle not to look down at the ball while you run. Eventually, with enough practice, you lose the mechanical, robotic sense and the kicks start to come naturally. This is when you can begin learning technique and skill.
After you get these basic techniques and skills down, they become natural instinct. As I type this post for instance, I don’t have to think about the placement of my fingers. My thoughts simply flow through my fingertips without the slightest glance toward the keyboard. Once the mechanical sense is overcome, you don’t really notice what you are doing anymore.
Now, say it’s your first soccer game and, despite playing very well in the last few practices leading up to the game, the pressures of the game have wiped away all confidence you once had. You can’t remember technique to save your life. You get pulled out of the game in the first half. You coach gives you another chance during the second half, and you bomb even worse. You can’t seem to remember any technique you have learned and practiced continuously for this night. This is panic. According to Gladwell, “Stress wipes out short-term memory.” Panic is thinking too little.
Now, if you’re a professional soccer player and you’ve mastered the sport, stress won’t make you freeze up and forget every technique you’ve acquired over the years. Your knowledge of the game is no longer a short-term memory. At this point, all of the movements you’ve repeated hundreds of thousands of times over the years have become muscle memory. Perhaps during the championship game you are under high stress and make a mistake, which leads to a continuation of mistake after mistake throughout the remainder of the game. Each time you pick yourself back up, you begin to think too much about your motions, step-by-step. Your muscle memory and fluidity have vanished and you’ve reverted back to the rookie days when you processed your actions like a robot. This is choking. If panic is thinking too little, choking is thinking too much.
Lately I’ve been forced to use my Chinese outside of the classroom much more often. And I’ve been panicking. Even the simplest of sentences I can barely blurt out of my mouth. Sometimes it can be a variation of choking and panicking, like when I’m preparing myself to ask someone a simple question and I go over what I’m supposed to say in my head. Up there it comes fairly quickly and easily and now I’m preparing myself for the interaction. Sometimes my mouth and my brain don’t communicate with one another before words come spewing outward like you’ve just eaten some bad street food.
For example, we were eating at a restaurant last night and were taking turns asking the servers for things in Chinese. We always alternate using our Chinese so we can feel like idiots together. Now it’s my turn to ask for the check, which we learned how to say ages ago. I quickly think about how to say it in my head: “Wo3men yao4 wo3de mai4 dan1.” (Direct translation: “We want our check” – the language is very straightforward and polite ways to phrase a question, such as: “When you have time, would you mind dropping off our check please? Thanks so much!” are almost never used in situations like this.) No problem. When it’s time for me to blurt out this incredibly easy question, I begin to second guess myself halfway through and throw in another word that doesn’t belong and now I have to change my sentence completely to get it to try to make sense. At this point I’m searching through my brain for words to use and I’m just staring at a blank screen. Sometimes I’m so caught up with digging for these words to use that I don’t notice words are still rolling off my tongue. I end up saying something along the lines of, “We can want our check.” Whatever, it got us our check.
Today was probably the most shameful days of my Chinese ability. First, I froze up when ordering shuttle bus tickets, which I’ve done a few times now. It took me what felt like 90 seconds to say this 11 word sentence, with a 10 second delay in between every word. Ugh, I suck. Eight months in and I’m stuttering during an elementary sentence.
Then, I had to deal with new apartment issues. I had to talk to my Chinese-speaking agent to tell her our TV, washing machine, and front door were all not working properly. This resulted in me struggling to comprehend a whole novel of Chinese coming at me at full-speed and my responses and comprehension ending in a train wreck. (For the record, my listening skills are terrible. That’s Zach’s strong point and of course this was a solo job for me today).
So far three different people have been in my apartment today blurting out Chinese at such a quick pace that I’m not sure they were even moving their tongue or opening their mouth, but instead grunting and growling for an extended period of time while throwing in some random hand gestures. (I thought hand gestures were for the most part universal?) Every once in a while, based off my head tilting slightly forward, eyebrows pushed together and slightly lifted, and eyes squinting slightly, they’d ask, “Ting1 de dong3 ma?” (Understand?) And I’d smile shamefully saying, “Uhhh ting1 bu4 dong3.” (Nope.) And then they’d continue with the grunting and growling some more.
I’m sure I knew a lot more of what they were saying than what I was digesting. The pressure of hyper-speed speaking and not knowing the correct vocabulary for the situation turned my brain off completely. I instantly shut down, panicked, and said the one word us foreigners say to respond to most incomprehensible things spoken to us: “hao3” (“Ok.”).
I guess I need to keep practicing until my panicking becomes choking. Can’t wait to see the day!