Education Articles – Learning Language through the Body: Lessons from the Martial Arts by Dr George Jennings
Language learning and martial arts practise might sound like an unusual or even a bizarre combination, but in practical reality, they often operate in unison. Even with forms of combat that have their origins in English-speaking countries, such as mixed martial arts (MMA) developed in the United States, people learn movements to words and expand their lexicon through sometimes daunting and more often than not (initially) painful techniques.
There is something about the combination of feelings, conscious effort (willpower), movement and memory that made me put pen to paper. When my colleague, Cristina, very kindly invited me to write an educational article for Entropy Publishing – spanishlanguagebites – I pondered on various options from my time as an English as a foreign language teacher in Mexico, and thought of a theme that might connect to my research in physical culture. The topic of language learning through movement sprung to my attention, and it is with joy that I share these early insights with readers – students, teachers, education providers, publishers and policy makers alike – in hope that it might stimulate a new way of looking at modern (and even ancient) languages from an old expression of humanity: the martial arts.
This inclusive term, ‘martial arts,’ is an umbrella term for an array of styles and systems from around the world and from periods across history. With the rich culture and the philosophical concepts that shape these arts come the languages of ethnic groups that founded them and nation-states where they are under centralised control. Japanese words of respect and reverence are expressed in the Budo arts of Japanese Aikido, Judo and Kendo, Cantonese technical terms abound in the Southern Chinese martial art of Wing Chun Kung Fu, and there are numerous other examples from the prescribed vocabulary of martial systems from across the globe. Through studying, repeating and embodying these words, we start to understand technique, but also their underlying principles. Yet not all martial arts are Asian: Fighting systems from all around the globe can act as gateways to foreign tongues, and with them, their ways of thinking, acting and being.
An example of this eclectic way of combined academic and embodied learning is the recently invented martial art of Xilam (see www.xilam.org), which is inspired by pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican warriors and is also rooted in Aztec philosophy. Developed and taught in Mexico by a Mexican woman, Marisela Ugalde, and her team of instructors, it is disseminated primarily in the Spanish language, but also shared terms in the indigenous languages – not dialects, as they are often regarded – of Nahuatl, Mayan and Zapotec. This is because the art is designed to educate modern Mexicans about their pre-Columbian heritage in a more dynamic and physical way than they may have experienced through the relatively passive book reading and en masse visits to museums in which artefacts and documents are displayed through protected glass cabinets – intangible and unreachable items for direct, sensuous learning.
One way to reinforce language learning is through a combination of forms of sensuous learning via collective and individual efforts of oral mantra and physical movement – something common in many martial arts pedagogical strategies, in which students call out the names of techniques in the native language of the art (I still recall the ‘men’ and ‘do’ strikes to the head and waist in the Japanese sword art of Kendo). With the fierce yet composed intent, one’s memory is forged around a single syllable. Invariably, we tend to remember the numbers in another language far more easily than other vocabulary and expressions. Why is this? Perhaps the tactile and mobile nature of counting using our fingers combined with just how often we use numbers in day-to-day life and count in order within classes. There is thus a logic of ease and nature with remembering numbers. Several years after my initial ethnographic study of Xilam in 2011, I can still both recall and, quite instantly, call out, the first twenty numbers in Nahuatl: “Ce, ome, yeye, nahui, machuilli, chicuacen, chicome, chicyeye, chicnahui, matlactli…” thanks to hours of shouting out these figures while pumping out repetitions of techniques in a low, gruelling stance or whilst wincing in pain during a warm-up full of exercises for all joints of the body from the fingers to the ankles – twenty repetitions for each part, repeated for every single person lined up in the studio. I remember the first five numbers in Mayan (hun, ka ox, kan, ho…), as we were only given a list of some of the basic numbers and the seven animals, which form the structure of the system, in Zapotec, such as venda (snake), the foundational level, and migu (monkey), an intermediate stage.
The case of Xilam illustrates a connection between documents provided by the teacher for personal learning within the more informal pedagogy (printed lists of vocabulary to take away as homework) and ways to embody this as a collective group within the formal pedagogy (through movement and mantra, often combined). By reading, writing and note taking followed by verbally repeating and physically expressing these words – and combinations of this sequence – we can truly remember words for years to come, as they have become part of us: Not just in our heads, but in the very fabric of our being.
Of course, the importance of linguistics in the formal curriculum and informal practice at home or with training partners differs from teacher to teacher and from school to school, but the central idea of grasping the basis or essence of another language could be achieved by using one’s whole self and different senses: To learn in silence, by writing and even in movement. Language teachers and students alike could make the “ce, ome, yeye” mantra a call of “ein, zwei, drei” or “un, deux, trois” in physical exercises of their own accord – something meaningful that unites thought, emotion and action, be them in the guise of press-ups, Yoga asanas or Zumba movements. Little by little, we might be able to acquire our new language, quite literally, one step at a time.
Dr. George Jennings is a lecturer in sport sociology / physical culture at Cardiff Metropolitan University. His research is focused on martial arts cultures and pedagogy from a qualitative approach. George is the cofounder of the recently created Documents Research Network (DRN) with Aimee Grant and Maria Pournara of Cardiff University. He is becoming increasingly interested in the development of a critical martial arts pedagogy tied to lifelong learning and wellbeing. George was an English teacher and translator in Mexico City prior to his return to full-time academia. He is also the founder of Research English Services, an emerging, bespoke service to support non-native speakers of English working on research presentations and publications.