Martial arts seen as languages

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 well enough.

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 movements

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 syntax.

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 art

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 so.

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 student.

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.

Expression: writing/creating

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 to tell.

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 limitations.

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?



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