The Captain Jack Sparrow approach to language learning
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 intriguing 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 with 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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