How to Speak a Foreign Language Like MacGyver

Sep 13, 2023

When I was a kid in the 80s, I was obsessed with the TV series MacGyver. No matter how perilous the situation, Angus "Mac" MacGyver was able to curb disaster and skirt death with nothing but his trusty Swiss Army knife, a roll of duct tape, and whatever items were handy. And he was quite the polyglot, too, with proficiency in American Sign Language, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish!

While his fictional adventures usually involved defusing bombs, rescuing hostages, or escaping perilous situations, there are three valuable real-life principles we can take from this iconic TV character when mastering a new language.

1) Improvise and adapt

MacGyver liked to wing it. He rarely went into a mission with a crystal clear plan. He just jumped in and trusted his wits.

Try to do the same thing in foreign languages.

Don't overthink grammar or vocabulary while speaking. Trust your instincts.

Sure, you may use the wrong word or conjugation, but chances are good that you will be understood. And when you do make a mistake, you will get valuable feedback on what not to say next time.

Don't know the right word? Talk around it. Use gestures. Draw pictures. Write things down.

And most importantly, give all of your focus to what the other person is saying, not what you want to say next. The better you listen, the easier it is to respond appropriately.

💡 For more on the power of improvisation in language learning, see my post 3 Powerful Improv Principles That Will Help You Speak Japanese More Fluently.

2) Use the tools and resources you have

MacGyver creatively applied whatever tools and materials were available in his environment or pockets: paper clips, chewing gum, shoe strings, matches, birthday candles, you name it!

You can do the same thing when learning your target language.

Don't wait until you have the "perfect" language learning resources to start learning. They don't exist.

Don't fall into the resource trap, where you keep acquiring more and more books, apps, etc. but never actually use any of them.

Just start now, where you are, with what you have.

Or as Ernest Hemingway writes in The Old Man and the Sea​:

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”

But don't forget that part of what you "have" today is access to a nearly endless supply of online language learning resources with just a tap or click.

💡 See my free Immersion Toolbox for the best modern tools you can use to learn any language, anywhere in the world.

3) Build your linguistic Swiss Army knife

The finite set of tools available on Mac's trusty Victorinox Swiss Army knife (blade, screwdriver, wire stripper, can opener, bottle opener, etc.) allowed him to handle a near infinite number of situations.

As it's been said of MacGyver, "No agent does more with less."

It turns out that you can do a lot with a little in languages, too.

Research shows that a small percentage of high-frequency words account for the vast majority of the words you’ll hear, read, speak, and write on a daily basis.

For example:

  • The most frequent 100 words account for 42% of written materials.
  • The most frequent 500 words account for 72% of written materials.
  • The most frequent 1,000 words account for 86% of written materials.
  • The most frequent 2,000 words account for 96% of written materials.
  • The most frequent 3,000 words account for 98% of written materials.

As you can see, the law of diminishing returns quickly sets in the higher up you go. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't continue to expand your vocabulary (you certainly should!), but this does mean you should focus on high-frequency vocabulary first.

In addition, also focus your early efforts on mastering:

  • Personally relevant terms: Learn the words you need to talk about your interests, job, family, etc. (even if some of the terms are relatively rare).
  • Common collocations: Certain words are frequently used together. Learning these as chunks will help you sound much more natural.
  • Conjugations for "I" and "you": In the vast majority of situations, you need to talk about yourself and the person you're talking to. The others can wait a bit.

Learning a new language might seem like an insurmountable task (especially a language like Japanese or Mandarin Chinese). But with MacGyver-style resourcefulness and adaptability, there is no language challenge you can't solve.

So grab your metaphorical Swiss Army knife and linguistic duct tape, and let's embark on a language adventure worthy of prime time television!