I previously wrote about the similarities between learning to ride a bike and learning a language, but in this post, I’d like to share the parallels between language learning and another major passion of mine: martial arts. Just like learning a martial art, mastering a foreign tongue requires ① time and effort (which is the real meaning of the term “kung fu”), ② the proper blend of “self-study” and “sparring,” ③ a great deal of patience, and ④ a focus on mastering the basics instead of always chasing flashy new moves or words.

Both Require “Kung Fu”

One of my constant struggles as a language blogger is to find the right balance point between highlighting the importance of having fun in language learning and setting proper expectations about how much time and effort is required to reach fluency (however it is you define the term).

In both language learning and martial arts, you should do everything you can to ensure that you genuinely enjoy the learning process. Choose a good teacher, find other people to learn with, and find activities you love. But you must also accept that:

  • Some requisite tasks will hurt (e.g. doing horse stances and learning conjugations).
  • Some days you just won’t feel like learning and will have to force yourself to do so anyway.

This is where “kung fu” (功夫, gōngfu) comes in.  The word actually refers not just to martial arts, but to any form of learning that requires a great deal of time and effort to master:

“Gongfu is an ancient Chinese term describing work/devotion/effort that has been successfully applied over a substantial period of time, resulting in a degree of mastery in a specific field. Although the term is synonymous in the West with martial arts (though it is most over rendered Kung Fu), it is equally applicable to calligraphy, painting, music, or other areas of endeavor.” —Andy James

I don’t know about you, but I think learning a foreign language fits this definition perfectly!

Both Require a Blend of “Self-Study” & “Sparring”

Another challenge in both martial arts and language learning is finding the right balance between preparation and application.

Some learners spend all their time training or studying alone, putting off the messy process of sparring or speaking with others until they feel “ready” (a feeling that will never come). You get better at what you practice, so if your goal is to learn how to defend yourself from an attacker or participate in flowing conversations with native speakers, then you have to actually apply movements with someone trying to attack you and speak with actual human beings, not just your iPhone.

Conversely, some learners want to just jump in and start sparring or speaking on day one. This is certainly preferable of the two options (especially for languages since there is no risk of physical injury), but the importance of self-study and preparation must not be underestimated in either endeavor:

  • The more hours you spend in a horse stance or doing Anki reps, the stronger your kicks and vocabulary will become.
  • The more times you practice techniques and phrases with slow, perfect form, the easier it will be to apply them at full speed while sparring or speaking.

Start “sparring” as soon as possible, but don’t expect to have effortless, free-flowing exchanges with native speakers until you have spent the requisite time in your “linguistic horse stance”!

Both Require Patience

I freaking love movies, especially those that follow what Joseph Campbell called “the hero’s journey” or “monomyth” in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

But there is big unintended problem with such hero flicks: by showing the transformation from beginner to bad-ass in the course of 2 hours or so, they make us believe (at least at a subconscious level) that significant change can happen almost instantaneously. In fact, the majority of the learning in such movies is crammed into a short “montage” scene, where someone goes from zero to hero in the course of an 80s rock ballad! This hilarious clip from South Park sums up this absurdity nicely. At a conscious level, all of us know that developing actual abilities will obviously take more than a few minutes. But these films can leave us with a short-lived sugar high, a hunger for instant gratification that will quickly evaporate once one realizes what actual training or study feel like. Use films to pump you up, but make sure to start out in a new language or martial art with realistic expectations about how much time it will take you to reach your  personal proficiency goals.

Both Require a Focus on the Basics

In a similar vein, many new learners of martial arts or languages want to skip the basics and jump ahead to the “flashy” stuff, may it be jump spinning hook kicks or technical terminology. While there is a time and place for both, it is imperative to master the basics first. Just as you can communicate a great deal with a very small number of words (Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham using only 50!), a martial artist can defend themselves from an almost limitless number of attacks using a very small set of core techniques. The key is quality, not quantity. As Bruce Lee said:

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

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