The Captain Jack Sparrow approach to language learning

The Captain Jack Sparrow approach to language learning

Benny

Of all the idols to have when learning languages (I’m sure there are plenty of amazing polyglots throughout history), mine is quite an unlikely one: Captain Jack Sparrow (from Pirates of the Caribbean).

As far as I know, his character doesn’t even speak any foreign languages, but he has all the traits I feel are essential for successfully speaking one:

No fear and no over-analysing

The main thing holding people back from speaking their language is fear. Fear of mistakes, fear of using the language with new people, fear of getting out of their comfort zone of being locked away studying.

It’s time to be frank: if you want to get anywhere in this world, pure hard work is not enough. You have to have some guts. Put yourself out there and speak!

How much do you think Jack Sparrow stops and ponders over what he should do? He doesn’t waste time thinking of all the different possible bad outcomes, he just acts. Of course having a plan of action helps, but it’s more important to put that plan into action than to spend an eternity preparing for it.

In “At World’s End” as Jack is ingeniously escaping once again, Lieutenant Groves asks “Do you think he plans it all out, or just makes it up as he goes along?”

When I speak a foreign language, I just speak it without worrying and analysing too much. Sure, there is a plan behind it all, but I mostly make it up as I go along. Stop thinking too much about it!

Drama: Inject some personality into your conversations!

Captain Jack Sparrow is mostly famous for his ridiculous character. He has a slurred way of speaking and uses lots of flailing hand gestures. Drama is injected into every aspect of his interactions with people and this makes him all the more interesting.

I used to be quite shy, but simply putting myself in situations that demanded me to interact meant that I had to inject some personality into things if I wanted to make more of an impression than forever just being “the guy trying to learn our language”. When speaking a language, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

When speaking a foreign language, if all you hear is my mistakes you will quickly start to get uninterested. But I can always keep people’s interest in conversations with me, even a week or two after starting a language. This isn’t by impressing them with vast amounts of vocabulary or conjugating the verb the right way. It’s by having some personality.

Jack sparrow is known for using wit and deceit to defeat his foes, and I like to use a little “misdirection” myself. I’ll distract people from seeing that I’ve forgotten a word by replacing my “um….” with a dramatic pause, à la Jack Sparrow.

Rather than say “um…”, I may put my hand on the other person’s shoulder, look them in the eye (or stare pensively into the distance), take a deliberate deep breath… and then say the word. Since I have made these dramatic pauses a natural part of my basic conversations in a foreign language, during this time I am actually thinking hard about that word I have temporarily forgotten.

Even simple conversations suddenly become all the more intruiging with this addition.

For example, if I need a moment to recall the way to say a key word, I could say “I’m going to the…” [raise index finger analytically, take a step back, breath in deeply as if you are about to reveal the secret of life the universe and everything, and look out the window at the quest that awaits you] “… supermarket! Do you need anything?”

If you think this is silly, then so be it. I can assure you that I can hold people’s interest no matter how basic my language skills are by thinking outside of grammar and vocabulary. There are many ways to get your personality across, and sometimes being unapologetically silly is the best way.

Bookworms who know all the theory about a language are not as interesting to talk to as someone with way less of the language (at the moment) but a lot of personality. Even if that someone is a little zany. The world needs a little more crazy sometimes, and I think we could all learn a lot even from fictional movie characters… Savvy?

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Any other ways you could take inspiration from Jack Sparrow to learn a language, or generally enjoy life more? Share them with us in the comments!

And don’t forget to share this post with your Captain Jack Sparrow loving friends on Facebook!

Of all the idols to have when learning languages (I’m sure there are plenty of amazing polyglots throughout history), mine is quite an unlikely one: Captain Jack Sparrow (from Pirates of the Caribbean). As far as I know, his character doesn’t even speak any foreign languages, but he has all the traits I feel are […]

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  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Social skills are a huge influence to being able to express yourself and eventually improve language skills. Having a personality to boot acts as a buffer so you can ease yourself in a lot better and quicker. People who see a language as nothing more than grammar and vocabulary are living in an unrealistic bubble as far as I’m concerned ;)

  • http://yourlifeamp.com Your Life Amp

    Love this approach and the Jack Sparrow analogy. But I do have a question. In your first few weeks of no English in the target country, when your command of the target language is presumably extremely limited, how can you manage to converse entirely in that language??

    I must be missing the point here, but when all you know how to say is “I am hungry” and “c’est la vie”, I can’t imagine how any amount of zaniness can help, because even if they genuinely want to talk to you, you can barely communicate.

    I’m not trying to put down your approach or be negative. In fact, I would dearly love to be wrong about this. :)

  • http://yourlifeamp.com Your Life Amp

    Love this approach and the Jack Sparrow analogy. But I do have a question. In your first few weeks of no English in the target country, when your command of the target language is presumably extremely limited, how can you manage to converse entirely in that language??

    I must be missing the point here, but when all you know how to say is “I am hungry” and “c’est la vie”, I can’t imagine how any amount of zaniness can help, because even if they genuinely want to talk to you, you can barely communicate.

    I’m not trying to put down your approach or be negative. In fact, I would dearly love to be wrong about this. :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      How could you possibly only know “I am hungry” and “c’est la vie” in your first weeks?? That’s nothing short of laziness. I study phrasebooks, make sure I have the core vocabulary I need to get by initially and build on that. People seem to forget that I’m talking about intensive immersion, not an hour a week and seeing what you have after that first week ;)

      • http://yourlifeamp.com Your Life Amp

        I study/read/listen to French for a total of 1-2 hours a day on average. I am learning very quickly, don’t consider myself to be lazy and am very happy with my results. I also try to speak with my French friends whether by messenger or in person almost every day. I am simply saying that if I were to go to France right now and not speak English at all, I feel that I would have such intense difficulty communicating that everyone would grow extremely tired of me. I am not criticising your approach, if anything I am in awe of how you jump into a new language so immediately. :)

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          My approach is 2+ hours of speaking a day and “try to study/read/listen” – the reverse of what you just said. With a change in priorities what I’m proposing is much more possible ;)
          If you feel that you would have intense difficulty then you will. As discussed in this article, I don’t think too much about my limitations and they don’t present themselves as often because of that :D
          Best of luck with your French – if you are speaking it in person already, I don’t see what would be so scary about doing that more intensively!

          • http://yourlifeamp.com Your Life Amp

            Duly noted mon ami. Merci beaucoup :)

          • http://yourlifeamp.com Your Life Amp

            Duly noted mon ami. Merci beaucoup :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      How could you possibly only know “I am hungry” and “c’est la vie” in your first weeks?? That’s nothing short of laziness. I study phrasebooks, make sure I have the core vocabulary I need to get by initially and build on that. People seem to forget that I’m talking about intensive immersion, not an hour a week and seeing what you have after that first week ;)

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Yup, I like how social dynamics and the stuff that you seemed to have picked up from the pick-up scene (aren’t I clever?) is being integrated with this, because it’s absolutely correct, it’s AMAZING how many different areas of life that stuff can help you with and apply to.

    You wanna know another character that is VERY much like Sparrow and would meet a lot of the criteria you stated above? The Joker in The Dark Knight. I’m not kidding, if you haven’t seen that movie go have a look at it, if you’ve seen it before go have another look. I’ve heard so many girls say how they found his character “strangely attractive” in that movie–not Heath Ledger, necessarily, but his character. More so than Batman. It was that “not give a crap” attitude combined with the expressiveness. Seriously, think of Captain Jack Sparrow while you’re watching The Dark Knight and actively compare him with The Joker as the movie goes along, you’ll be very surprised at all the similarities in personality and the way they express themselves, I think.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Actually I picked up most of this naturally over years of simply being social. I read “the Game” about 3 years ago and met some self-proclaimed pick-up artists in my travels. What they have to say is interesting, and it helps frame and phrase what I already know better, but I don’t use the techniques myself so much inspired by them ;)
      The Joker is cool!

  • Anonymous

    That’s a pretty cool way of going about things. I work in an establishment that teaches English at the moment in Japan, and I’m much more inclined to help and happy to see the kids who are a bit zany over the ones that just monotonously read what they’ve been told to say from a page.One of their lessons was to introduce themselves with a business card they made themselves, one girl (age 12) had ‘I like to make crazy face’ on her’s, I asked her to show me and she crossed her eyes and poked her tongue out – brilliant I thought!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Excellent! It’s a hard balance with excited kids – but when they have personality AND are trying to learn it’s so much fun to teach them :D

  • http://twitter.com/ryangoesabroad Ryan

    Haha… Great post Benny! Really glad I have become a reader of your blog… Putting personality into the communication is definitely the way to go. Much more exciting and full of life… I have found it to be true as I have started Skyping with native Spanish speakers. It’s fun if the other person is fun as well. Of course, in person you can have all those dramatic Jack Sparrow-esque bodily moves like hand on shoulder, walking away, turning around, etc.

  • http://twitter.com/ryangoesabroad Ryan

    Haha… Great post Benny! Really glad I have become a reader of your blog… Putting personality into the communication is definitely the way to go. Much more exciting and full of life… I have found it to be true as I have started Skyping with native Spanish speakers. It’s fun if the other person is fun as well. Of course, in person you can have all those dramatic Jack Sparrow-esque bodily moves like hand on shoulder, walking away, turning around, etc.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Yeah, that’s why my preference is to encourage people to meet other speakers in person and having Skype as a plan B. I’ll write a post about how that’s easier than people think :)

  • Lisa

    My language learning idol is Madison from Splash. She learned fluent English in one day. That’s even faster than Benny. :)

    http://ourbooksandmovies.blogspot.com/2010/05/language-lessons-learned-from-splash.html

  • Annette

    Your strategy of using a dramatic pause while trying to remember a word always reminds me of “smell the fart acting” from ‘Friends’. Hilarious :)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTwDHuCtlWk

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Hahahaha, exactly like that :P

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll definitely come back to this topic soon and give more details of my story ;) Hopefully you’ll find it helpful! But as mentioned in this post, sometimes simply not thinking about things too much is the best approach ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Haha, yep :D The world needs a little more drama!!

  • http://vagabondians.com Glenn Dixon

    great compilation of Sparrow quotes here! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCDA-m-TQdU

  • Tomos Burton

    That’s a good concept. To be honest, I’m most interested in getting my personality across.

  • Geoffrey Leung

    Benny, I simply cannot agree more about injecting personality into conversations. I think it’s true even in English. I’m rather shy, and I imagine that doing what you do in my weak Cantonese would be much more fun..

  • cameron whoah

    I tend to hold out the word a really long time… for example, in Spanish, Mark y yo somos en laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa biblioteca.