Swearing in a New Language

Posted: October 22, 2011 in Attitude, Technique

American males, of which I am a card-carrying member, are brought up in a culture where we are given Army men as kids, play cops and robbers with toy guns, play fight with one another, and are pretty obsessed with video games, which are oftentimes rife with death and first person shooter smackdowns. Turning on the TV, going to the movies, or going on the Internet, we are further exposed to loads of violence. Testosterone coursing through  our veins and possessing the ability to recite lines from ‘Pulp Fiction’ from memory, we are lulled into a sense that we truly understand violence and can take care of ourselves in a fight. “How hard is it to throw a punch?” we scoff. “I’ve seen ‘Enter the Dragon’ 14 times and listen to Rap music. I’m a BADASS!”

Every human being is capable of fighting.  But one only has to watch an average school fight or two to see that this is not the case.  Street brawls and schoolyard tussles tend to be brief, violent, but also comically frenetic. Face it, we don’t know how to fight (or fight well) and our punches, learned mostly by watching Clint Eastwood or Jason Statham, well….suck. We can pose and practice in the mirror, strut down dark alleyways like we mean business, but do most of us truly know how to handle ourselves in a throwdown? Probably not.

Many of us turn to martial arts. Broadly, I think it’s fair to categorize them, at least for this blog post, as traditional and reality-based self-defense styles. Styles like Karate, Kenpo, Tae Kwon Do, and Judo are in the former category while styles such as Krav Maga and Haganah fall into the latter category. Both are fine ways to go and neither category is inherently better than the other, let me make that perfectly and abundantly clear. It’s all good. [See “My Style Can Beat Up Your Style!” for more on this subject]. What I have been thinking about a lot lately, though, is how quickly any technique can be made part of one’s natural behavior when one finds themselves in a confrontation.

Let’s take learning a foreign language as an example to illustrate my point. It takes a long time to learn a new language. We fumble around with new words and phrases but ultimately become serviceable if we stick to it long enough and give it a lot of practice. Let’s say we move to France and become fully immersed in the culture — we’re surrounded by people speaking French 24 x 7. We go down to the bowling alley with our French friends and during the last frame drop a bowling ball on our big toe, crushing it to a pulp. In this case, as an American who’s been brought up speaking English, what do we say? “SHIT!!!” not “MERDE!!!!”  English is natural and comes easily to us. Our brain is wired this way because that’s how, from birth, we have learned to communicate verbally with others. In this example at the French bowling alley, this immediate need to express our intense dissatisfaction with our toe being crushed by the ball we don’t even have to think about how to curse. The English version of the expletive comes to mind automatically without a conscious thought.

Same is true of self-defense in the martial arts. In my brief exposure to Uechi-ryu some 20 years ago, and seeing my daughter and her fellow students’ experience in Kenpo class, traditional martial arts take a while to feel natural. For the first several months it feels awkward and unnatural for most and in most styles. I remember feeling this way in particular with the stances in Uechi-ryu. A fine, fine style and I mean no disrespect but I really had a hard time imagining falling naturally into the fighting stance if I entered into a confrontation. It just felt weird to me. Still kind of does. If I were to be attacked within the first several months of training I strongly suspected I’d fall back on my “natural” fighting instincts (i.e., flailing around with wild, ineffective punches) rather than the fighting techniques I had recently been exposed to.

What I like so much about Krav Maga is how natural it feels. I have only been training for 4.5 months, 3 – 4 times a week but — even in that short time — I feel like I would feel completely natural employing these techniques in the real world. They make sense and don’t feel awkward to me.

Again, I am not rating one type of style over another style. That’s not my point. Over time, any style will feel natural to the student and would be extremely effective in any combat situation. What I’m saying is that Krav Maga just seems to make that connection so much quicker. By design, it’s meant to be assimilated easily, rapidly, and takes advantage of your natural reactions. Sure, it takes a lot of work, sweat, and time to be truly great at it but the basics ought to come naturally; a student shouldn’t have to think about falling into particular stances and the order of a particular kata flows.

No sane person wishes a confrontation but if I ever find myself in that unfortunate situation I am positive that I’ll be swearing in French.

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