What do Martial Arts and Language Learning Have in Common?

I step out of class dripping with sweat. My body is shaking and sore. Thirst fills my mouth. Walking into the cold night air is rejuvenating compared to the hot room I was just in. No, it’s not a language class. And no, I’m not the teacher. I’m talking about an average night at my mixed martial arts (MMA) gym.

On my drive home, while I’m mentally rehearsing hard crosses and switching from kimura to guillotine, it dawns on me that the teaching style of the gym seems very familiar. On a typical night after warming up, a technique is demonstrated to us, then we practice it slowly with a partner, increasing speed and power as we go along. The coaches answer questions and offers tweaks or tips. Our partners work with us gently, allowing us to get the form down. Towards the end of the night, we add resistance and something that simulates a more realistic – yet safe and friendly – match as we try to tackle or submit each other.

Make no mistake about it, this is PPP. It is explicit instruction and presentation, practice with feedback, and the slow removal of support (and the increase of complexity) until we have a production stage. And you know what? It works – over time. The students that have been there a while, and even some who have been there for a few months, seem to move fluently from technique to technique without effort. They can instinctively react to what their partner is doing, often times predicting what is going to come from subtle cues. They have flow, and it is automatic.

It reminds me so much of language. The unconscious and conscious ability to respond to another person. The back and forth. The flow. One of the coaches constantly says that when we are “rolling” (wrestling), our partner’s movements are telling us what they are trying to do and what we can do. It’s no surprise he says that we are having “conversations”.

Now, martial arts is a skill. What about language learning? Some would argue it is definitely not a skill, or at least not one that is a physical skills like martial arts. It is a skill that has severe interference from other languages spoken and involves a deeper level of cognitive processes. But, it is a skill nonetheless.

According to skill acquisition theory, a skill is learned by engaging in the target behavior while relying on declarative knowledge (i.e. paying attention to the rule while practicing). Strengthening and fine-tuning this knowledge through practice leads to automatizing it. Practice is the key to it. This is as true for martial arts as it is for language.

Whether this practice comes from PPP, or from TBLT, or some other model, it still remains that practice is important. And there is enough evidence that indicates that both explicit instruction (see Spada & Tomita, 2010) and PPP are in effective (see Anderson, 2016) methods of instruction (this, of course, does not speak to pre-defined, grammar-based syllabus, but rather simply a mode of instruction, whether it comes pre-planned or as a way to address and emergent language).

PPP has its issues, sure, but it has evidence and logic behind it. If you want to get good at something, you need practice and refinement, support and freedom. The next time you watch a UFC fighter, a jiu-jitsu competitor, or a proficient language user, think about how they got to where they are. It is possible that they “picked up” some of their skills along the way, but more than likely, it was a combination of instruction, feedback, and tons of practice.

Spot the teacher. Where am I?