One of the most frequent comparisons used when talking
about learning a martial art, kenpo in my case, is that of learning to
read. While discussing this with a friend and how you can begin being creative
before mastering it, I realize how inaccurate this was.
When you come to think about it in detail, you easily
see that you have to know the basics of a language before you can even
think of reading (not equal to understanding). Yes, you have to learn the
names of the letters, what they look like and how do they sound when putting
one besides the other. But you already knew the language and the meaning
of the words and the basic grammar. You can see it in illiterates or little
children. They know the language and can communicate, probably not as efficiently
as university students, but it is a fact they know parts of the system
So now, we have agreed that learning a martial art is
not the same as learning to read. Then, why do we keep comparing it with
words, paragraphs, phrases, etc.? The answer is, because A MARTIAL ART
IS A LANGUAGE.
Learning the alphabet/basic
We've seen thus far that learning a martial art is not the
same as learning to read or write but as learning a new language. You have
to learn not only new phonemes (sounds)/movements, but a new grammar and
However, some of you may be thinking that we already know
how to move our body before learning a martial art. Now, if you have practiced
one before, think of those first classes when you felt like an idiot, incapable
of coordinating as the more advanced students, how you had to ask why that
was made that way and not another, etc. Going on with our comparison is
as if we already new the letters of the alphabet, but the drawing of them
was that of little kids who had just learned them, not firm and trembling
but still recognizable.
Then, we practice hard and learn the letters which we
didn't think were there at first, like the h in spanish; or the ones we
thought were one and were actually another letter, like the confusion between
s and c in some languages; or how it works somewhat different when put
alongside another letter, like the difference in pronunciation in the c
when it's followed by an h or a vowel in italian.
The basic movements work at this level. First you learn
then isolated and then you put them in pairs and trios and see how they
subtly modify to adapt to the previous and the next movements, same way
the letters do when handwritten in words. This first combinations of basic
movements are then like the words in the new language.
Now you can think that as these words come from the same
basics movements, which are more limited in extension than letters in the
main alphabets, available words will be somewhat limited and we won't have
that many different alphabets. Again I tell you that that's a really narrow
way of seeing things. Moreover, if you know more than one alphabet, you'll
see that related alphabets have letters whose graph is very similar if
not exactly the same, like the A in cyrillic, latin and greek alphabets.
And yet, while you're nodding you're still thinking that that leaves us
only with one family of alphabets. What about the martial arts which use
weapons such as knifes, bos, etc.? What about those that work mainly floor
techniques? That is, we've finally reach the different families of alphabets,
with some martial arts sharing an alphabet and some other which use an
alphabet of their own.
Learning a language/a martial
You now know some words, but that does mean that you know
the language? No, of course not. We're neither parrots nor chimpanzees,
though we can act like one sometimes. We still have to learn the grammar
and the syntax. And more important than that, we have to decide first how
we want to learn them: on our own? with friends? through a private teacher?
well sized classes in an academy?
To answer the first questions we must realize the materials
available now: magazines with glossy pictures, videos and DVDs and books.
Then we must realize we won't be having anyone to correct us or help us
in case we have doubts about a particular fact or idea we have. And that's
dangerous. Contrary to learning a new language in which only our larynx
and self esteem, together with our pockets, that is, will suffer in case
we don't learn properly, self taught self defense can cause serious injuries
if not properly done. There has to be a pro correcting body stances, column
position, way of falling, etc.
And here is where the friends subject arise. If you're
friend hasn't practiced a martial art before to a certain degree, he is
prone to do the same mistakes you do. If he has, he can to some extent
help you learning techniques and sparring, because that's the reason you
draw him/her to your practicing. But whether he/she hasn't already reached
that certain degree, that means that wrong positions will continue to be
I hope we have agreed then in the need of taking lessons
with a professional, either private or not. That will mainly depends on
our tastes, money availability and classes available for a prospective
Programs/systems & associations
You've been lucky and have found many different schools from
different associations, all trying to sell their systems as the best. You've
asked many questions and thus have loads of information to digest. But
again, as it happens with language academies and their programs, you don't
know which is better. I'm here supposing you're a keen apprentice as you've
read this far, so you're not into martial arts just because it's cool or
your parents have insisted upon it. I'm also supposing you're not a fashion
victim and have not decided on practicing it because that's what the last
movie star is doing.
What to do next? Take into account the price, the schedule,
whether the instructor are nice, sympathetic, tough, etc. Talk with some
of their students about what they like about this association and its program
and how the instructor works in a day to day basis. Try some classes and
decide if you like them. The best program is the one which fits our learning
style best, and that style is something only you know. So what works wonderfully
for your friend can be a complete disaster for you. But programs are fixed
by every association and are pretty similar for a certain art, as the martial
art is structured in one way no matter who is teaching it.
So my penny in this is, choose a class and a teacher you'll
enjoy and have fun in, no matter it's association. If you feel the association
offers a good deal for your money, then join it. But if you don't feel
comfortable in an association or you feel it has little to offer (no championships,
no medical insurance, no nothing), make that clear as soon as you can.
Some teachers will allow you to be there but not teach you anything else,
and some other will continue as before. And I'm sure you don't need help
in here to decide what you do.
Continuing with the comparison between martial arts and languages,
the different schools of a certain martial art will be no more than local
dialects. Therefore, karate will be the language and shotokan, shito ryu,
etc. will be the dialects. That's even clearer with kenpo, in which the
dialects will be american kenpo, nihon kenpo, shaolin kenpo, etc. They
all have some elements in common and are recognizable between practitioners
of the different styles, but still you can have difficulties understanding
some aspects. They share a common grammar and syntax and a pattern of expression,
though the actual expression differs. And they may end up being differentiated
martial arts if they evolve divergently.
But despite all this, we have yet to be careful and not
mistake a dialect/system with a jargon or slang. While a dialect wants
and needs everybody to be involved and participating, a jargon and slang
is exclusive. The members of the group want to be clearly separated from
the masses which share a language with them, but then don't understand
what's being said in the group. Some slang words may from time to time
go to the public domain and increase the body of the main dialect. This
seldom happens and most of the slang words/techniques fall into oblivion
as soon as they ain't cool anymore.
Now you've been practicing for a while and perhaps change
your school once or twice due to job related relocation. You've noticed
some little differences that can not be attributed to a difference in style,
but maybe to the personality of the instructor. That's exactly what we
call personal style and also the reason so many schools nowadays have the
master's name to address the style of martial art they're doing. I also
think they cause a lot of confusion in novices, and even in some advanced
students. Some of the masters and instructors know the fact, and yet most
of them feed the chaos out of some outburst of ego, or even some marketing
campaign to get more students, thus earning more money.
Yes, it's true that is these little variations are the
culprits of the evolution within a martial art, but as a local accent,
it's something you superimpose on your own unique way of talking. And I
don't think it's fair to try to sell it as if it were a completely different
language. It's only natural, though, as when you move to a new place with
a different accent, that you get some influences without noticing them,
and you also try to copy and/or adapt to what you like most about it, or
even to copy it not to be signaled as the new kid in town.
The friend I talked of in the beginning of this article thinks
that one cannot begin writing, creating its own techniques until one is
a black belt. Remember he was the one who told me learning a martial art
is like learning to read. How many words do you need to create your first
phrase? Just two or three (I love Mary). The same goes for the martial
art. The phrases at the beginning are going to be very limited both in
length and complexity, but as you learn more vocabulary, the grammar and
the syntax, you'll be capable of creating longer and more complex phrases,
put them together to create paragraphs and whole texts.
But the language is not a fixed things and you can communicate
without knowing to write and even not having a correct command of grammar
and syntax. So a two year old can fairly well say he's hungry, he wants
this and that and so a freshman can hit you hard in the face or kick your
ass if you forget this fact.
Nonetheless, you'll certainly communicate far better if
you learn some basic rules and speak properly, that is if you have a professional
to instruct you. The black belt will then be your graduation prize from
college, but nothing else. It grants that you've learn well enough to begin
working on your own, but it doesn't grant having something interesting
Searching and evolving
After having practiced a martial art for a while you may
feel that there are things you want to express that you can't because you
don't have the meanings. Then you'll begin searching in other languages/martial
arts if there's something similar to what you need to tell. If there is,
you may use it in the future as is, but if it's only similar you may adapt
it to suit the schemes of your former art.
You may end up talking spanglish and the orthodox saying
you're heretic. However, if this is the case, then there's a problem underlying
the fact: a lack of knowledge of your own way of expression. A certain
amount of foreign elements is natural if the related items are new to the
native tongue, thus evolving and enriching the language. But too many words,
with some of them replacing equals just means that your language is already
poor, probably because you haven't learn enough vocabulary, or because
you always use the same words instead of trying synonyms. A solution, searching
in the body of your martial art language for those missing words, which
were already there in the first place. Another solution, filling the gaps
after studying a new martial art. And yet another solution is incorporate
your own words, create them within the rules of your martial art. It's
putting into practice the "New problems, new solutions" saying, with the
new problems being new situations or new weapons.
Part of the problem here, the lost of vocabulary, is due
to tournaments and championship rules. In the step from martial art to
sport you lose some of the most dangerous movements to avoid injuries,
and you train mainly (if not only) the movements and strikes which allows
for a victory and forget what doesn't punctuate. So as the rules change,
so does the martial art in the same direction.
To finish this point, I have to tell that the search must
be conducted in fields not only directly related to the martial art, like
traditional forms, katas or pumses; but also the history and evolution
of the martial art as the art of war and social structure evolved in its
native area; body physiology and anatomy, and other health issues; training
methods and even some physics and mechanics. All this will help us understand
why a particular martial art followed a certain path and not another, and
why a movements is done a way and not another. You can have an intuitive
knowledge of part of this subjects, but to create something worth maintaining
at least your anatomy knowledge should be good.
Which martial art is the best?
About the question everybody asks, which martial art is the
best, we can answer the same way we'd do when talking about a language.
Is spanish better than english? Is chinese better than urdu? And the answer
depends on where and how you want to use that language. Of course, if you
want to win an olympic gold medal you should train judo, taekwondo or karate.
If you like punching but not kicking, you should go for boxing.
Some people will say that that is not enough for a street
fight (they're probably bullies), and that's probably right for someone
who has only trained the sportive part of the art. He'll then look for
something more like hapkido, jujutsu or kenpo. But when it comes to the
real thing it's a matter of personal attitude. As with languages, you can
know a lot of vocabulary and not being able to speak it in front of others,
and you can know a bunch of words but talk with others mixing it with body/gesture
language, or even your own mother tongue. The best language then is the
one in which one can communicate effectively, no matter your vocabulary
Then, to resume, learning a martial art is like learning
a foreign language to which we have to adapt ourselves a little (mental
schemes) while at the same time expressing our own thoughts clearly, choosing
the words we like most and creating new ones if we feel like that. That's
what the art part is about, isn't it?