Martial Arts and Language Learning

Learning a language and studying martial arts share much in common.

In my experience, martial arts are a great way to learn a language. 

I learned this lesson living in Peru, where I learned Spanish while practicing Judo.

My Martial Arts Language Story

I first learned Spanish in High school. In college, I took one class to fulfill a language requirement and then left it alone for a few years. 

In my senior year, I got the language learning bug after some brief international trips. In graduate school, I knew that I wanted to spend a few months after graduation to get the study abroad and immersion experience I never got in undergrad. 

Judo crew at IBC

In Peru, I found two great dojos to practice Judo. The first was Nippi Judo Club, which was founded by Japanese immigrants. The second club was International Bushido Club, run by a french judoka and sambo player (sadly the club does not exist anymore). 

Around the same time, I picked up Judo during my first year of graduate school. Three years later I was an almost brown belt with some proficiency in the sport. I planned my trip 6 months in advance and found that Peru would be a great place to explore while learning Spanish. 

Saying good bye at Nippi Judo (guy on the far left was beast)

While I didn’t leave Peru a black belt in Judo or Spanish, it was an amazing time for personal growth. My language adventure and martial arts training complemented themselves.

Combining language learning with martial arts and international travel was an experience I’ll never forget.

Here is what I learned about studying martial arts and studying a foreign language at the same time.

Patience is key

The learning curve in Judo can be high. The key is to keep practicing and avoid frustration. The same goes for learning a language. Learning a language is a long game. Just because fluency might take years to achieve does not mean that you can’t start learning today. Learn the basics and build from there. You will get there eventually. 

Mistakes are necessary to learning martial arts and a language 

If you don’t speak the language out of fear that you will make a mistake, you will learn nothing. 

It’s very common to fear making mistakes when learning a language.  This is because we feel we will sound or look silly. Our fear of embarrassment prevents us from growing. 

In reality, the mistakes push us to improve. In martial arts, a mistake provide instant feedback on how to improve. If a technique is not performed correctly, you will usually be on the receiving end of a throw/punch/kick. It causes us to reflect and try something different.  

Having a training partner makes a huge difference

The principle of “Mutual Welfare and Benefit” (Jita kyoei) should be familiar to any student of Judo.

The concept of mutual benefit means that participants practice together to improve each other’s ability and perspective. Essentially, participants in the martial arts want to help each other out. 

When I moved to Peru my fellow judo players lived these principles which tremendously helped my language learning. 

For me, the dojo was an ideal, real world classroom. My training partners understood that I was learning their language. They were always eager to teach me a new word or repeat what they had just said. I learned more there than I could in any classroom. Plus, it was a lot cheaper!

Learning language in context

Learning Judo and Spanish in the dojo was fun. We often learn a language in settings devoid of any real context. 

In the dojo, the context was familiar (martial arts) but just in a different language. Judo provided a useful and non-threatening environment to learn (notwithstanding that everyone is trying to throw you to the ground!). 

Words like “lanzalo” (throw him), “mariado”(dizzy), and “solapa” (lapel) became part of my judo-spanish vocabulary list. These were words I would use often when practicing. To this day, I think of practicing judo whenever I have occasion to use them in my Spanish. 

Conclusion

Can martial arts help you learn a language? Absolutely. Martial arts and language learning are fun activities by themselves, together they make a great combination for self growth. 

Even if you don’t want to learn a language, I highly recommend martial arts training and travel. Its easier than ever to train and travel, particularity in the case of bjj camps which have grown in popularity.

For further reading on this topic, check out this post by Nikki Benson, who had a similar experience in Peru while learning BJJ.


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