Thursday, March 4, 2010

Martial Arts and Foreign Language as the Greatest Forms of Learning

If it becomes known that you study martial arts or a foreign language, chances are you will be asked to either demonstrate a technique or say something in your language of study. Based on your answer, people often conclude much. I think in this situation after you have admitted your practice, one may often assume you’re invincible to physical attacks or fluent in your language of study, but any who has attempted these will tell you that, sure, those are the goals, but require a long path of devotion and internalization. Its especially fun when someone may try to surprise you and pretend to hit you, and if you don’t give an appropriate reaction to “block” their attack, then they judge you as a fake. Or maybe you did hit them back, and they are offended and hurt, and judge you else wise. It surely is a fine line that the martial artist will walk. As for language, if you don’t know some arbitrary phrase in your language of study that your questioner deems important, then they will be unimpressed.

OK, these are quite trivial instances, as who gives a &*$% about what someone like that would think, but I think these examples are a testament to the two disciplines of language and martial arts.

I believe that language study and martial arts are at the pinnacle of “learning“, as they require such a solid internalization, that one truly must become their language or martial art in order to be proficient. In order for proficiency, one must be able to execute their language or martial art effortlessly and without thought.

First let’s take a look at the Tai Chi Chuan long form as it applies to this theory. There are many styles of Tai Chi Chuan, with various forms, but as far as I know, just about every style has a “long form” that is practiced at a slow speed and may take on average between 10 to 40 minutes to complete. I will speak from my experience in the Yang Style. One peculiarity to Tai Chi Chuan is that it’s long form is really long! Today while practicing I began realizing one particular theory for this. In the Tai Chi Chuan form, there are a multitude of stances, techniques, and applications to remember. These are the important details and manifestations of the art, yet, there is something deeper than the techniques. Underlying all of these techniques are the base foundational qualities of Tai Chi Chuan that should be present in all of those individual movements be they, center alignment, constant motion, relaxation, maintaining a bridge in your arms, etc. Though we are practicing those individual techniques, what I believe is really being learned is that which is subconsciously executed. I may be practicing single whip and focusing on the movement of the arms, but that is on top of relaxation, center alignment, balance, etc. This internalization takes a long time to become sufficient and natural, but once it is, it is truly learned I think.

I believe this concept relates to any language, but for my specific circumstances, we’ll deal with Japanese as that is my realm of experience. One of the aspects of my study comes from a textbook. Each chapter focuses on one or two new grammar points, and at the beginning, about 10 to 20 example sentences are given with the new grammar. Now, you can simply read them, but that doesn’t give yourself much of an opportunity for internalization. You can read about a certain martial art, but that doesn’t mean you can perform it accurately. You could write your own sentences using the new grammar which is a great way to practice analytical thinking and creativity, but they may not be correct, and in the form of some strange indiscernible gaijin dialect of Japanese (a necessary but frustrating and at this point regular way of learning for me). Just because you came up with some new super awesome technique, doesn’t mean it will work in the real world. BUT, what I have been doing lately, and actually benefiting the most from, is simply memorizing the sentences given until I can repeat them on my own from memory sufficiently. By sufficiently I mean, remembering all of the words without unnecessary pauses, and I use the appropriate rhythm and intonation that a native speaker would use. After I have repeated the sentence(s) effectively, I forget them and move on the next with an empty cup. This way, the desired Japanese will be internalized to some effect.

Now, the real interesting and relative part of this method of learning is that although it is the new grammar part of the sentence I struggle to memorize the most, it is all the other parts of the sentence that I am really learning. By reiterating over and over again the sentence structure, word order, verb form, and appropriate particles I have learned before, I am effectively assimilating them into a “state of normalcy”, which is the ideal for language ability.

Because proficiency in foreign language and martial arts require such a high (or deep) level of internalization, I believe they require true learning ability. I’m already thinking of a few others, but I challenge all of you readers to present other examples of disciplines that may require something akin to the true learning I have proposed in this article. Also, helpful ideas on effective internalization are greatly appreciated.


  1. How about writing?
    One of the best writers I know says "words on paper, Now!"

  2. Your right! I must investigate further. With no money and no plans, it will be a weekend with heavy thoughts unloaded on the computer for Gaijinexplorer.

  3. I wrote something on paper about the similarity between language learning and martial arts just a few weeks ago... I'll see if I can find and publish 'em!

  4. Uhm, music needs a good deal of internalization, especially for improvisation. Not as much as a language though!

  5. music was the one I had in mind that I didn't mention, because I have absolutley no authority in that field, but was hoping somebody would bring it up.