5 Martial Arts Principles That Will Help You Master a Language

Oct 17, 2023

Most people know that martial arts training can foster discipline and strengthen the mind and body. But it turns out that they also provide many powerful principles you can apply in foreign languages. Here are five.

1) Mastering the basics matters more than chasing the flashy stuff

Like many 80s kids, I grew up watching the dazzling exploits of martial artist actors like Bruce Lee, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal. Their explosive side kicks, ceiling high roundhouses, and joint cracking locks empowered them to beat dozens of opponents at once, take down the big baddy, and save the day.

While I knew that some of these displays were a product of movie magic, I didn't realize until decades later just how fake much of this onscreen fighting had been. It turns out that what looks good on camera and what actually works in a real fight are very different things.

As I began practicing martial arts myself in the late 90s, my teachers quickly popped my the cinematic illusions. Many of the fighting techniques that had made Enter the Dragon, Bloodsport, and Under Siege so impressive to watch would all but guarantee defeat in a real-life conflict.

For example, Van Damme's fancy kicks may look pretty, but they're almost always a bad idea in a fight. High, spinning kicks take more time, telegraph your intent, and put you off balance. Strikers will use them as an opportunity to hit you while off balance, and grapplers will zoom in under your leg and take you to the ground.

Whether learning Hapkido, Aikido, Baguazhang, or Wing Chun, I heard the same advice over and over from my teachers: master the basics and keep it simple. Talk or leave if you can. If you must fight, use quick, direct movements aimed at vulnerable points. Leave the jump spinning hook kicks for the movie stars.

The exact same principle is true in language learning. It can be tempting to learn rare vocabulary, pithy idioms, and complex constructions so you appear more erudite. In practice, you often just confuse or alienate other people. Don't use fifty-cent words when a simpler, more common term is available.

“When something goes wrong in a big way—a once great sports team loses to a no-name underdog or a successful business goes under—it’s almost always for the same reason. At some point during their rise, everyone quit paying attention to the fundamentals. They advanced so far and started spending so much time trying to perfect the fancy stuff they lost sight of the basics. And when the basics crumble, the fancy stuff doesn’t matter any more.” ―Tyler Tervooren

2) Mastery is built on consistency and discipline

Whether learning Japanese or Jūjutsu, consistency is king. To improve, you have to practice a language or martial art every day. In fact, it's often such everyday discipline that is the truly difficult part of learning.

Studying or training when you feel like it? Easy.

Showing up every single day for two years in a row? Hard.

But part of what makes languages and martial arts so rewarding is the fact they are hard (See #5 below).

“Discipline means taking the hard road—the uphill road. To do what is right. For you and for others. So often, the easy path calls us: to be weak for that moment. To break down another time. To give in to desire and short-term gratification. Discipline will not allow that. Discipline calls for strength and fortitude and WILL. It won’t accept weakness. It won’t tolerate a breakdown in will. Discipline can seem like your worst enemy. But in reality it is your best friend. It will take care of you like nothing else can. And it will put you on the path to strength and health and intelligence and happiness. And most important, discipline will put you on the path to freedom.”

—Jocko Willink, Discipline Equals Freedom

3) Stick to a "minimum effective dose" of daily practice

Fortunately, there is an effective way to engineer long-term consistency and growth: choose a daily minimum you will hit no matter how busy, sick, or unmotivated you happen to be.

“The minimum effective dose (MED) is the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome. To boil water, the MED is 212° F (100° C) at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it ‘more boiled.’ Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.” —Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Body

The key word here is minimum. This is not your personal best. It's not be the biggest, baddest routine you can possibly achieve. Rather, it's the smallest task you will actually complete no matter what.

You can (and likely will) complete far more than this minimum once you get going, but setting the barrier to entry low greases the path to your MED on those days you are busy, stressed, depressed, or ill.

And these are the days that matter most in long-term habit formation. If you can avoid the temptation to quit or procrastinate when you’re at your worst, you preserve your identity as a committed language learner or martial artist.

In the end, identity and consistency matter more than than the training itself. Your psychology and time on task are what ultimately make the difference between wanting to learn a language and actually reaching fluency.

4) In stressful situations, you don't rise to the occasion; you fall to the level of your training

As the Greek poet Archilochus wrote:

“We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

Whether exchanging words in a foreign language or exchanging blows in the ring, you will default to your strongest habits. To the structures or techniques you've practiced most. Again, this is why its so important to master the basics. (See #1.)

When stress rises, you need to be able to fall back on the foundations and trust your instincts. There won't be time to think. You won't have the mental bandwidth to weigh options. You have to act instantly.

Instantaneous action requires automaticity.

Automaticity requires consistent training.

Training requires discipline.

5) Doing hard things creates a deep sense of satisfaction

Language learning can be a joyous journey full of adventure, travel, and friendships. It can unlock doors you didn't even knew existed. It may lead to a new life, a better job, or the partner of your dreams.

But learning a complex skill like a language also entails ample doses of discomfort, frustration, and boredom. You won't enjoy every minute of it. There will days you don't feel like putting in the time. You will be tempted to quit.

Learning a martial art is much the same. While it can eventually lead to increased confidence, improved coordination, and a stronger mind and body, these benefits are the product of thousands of reps over hundreds of days.

If you keep at a language or martial art for a long enough period of time, however, you eventually realize that a special certain kind of satisfaction lives inside the agony. You may never love pain, but you can at least learn to appreciate it.