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?

I wrote a children’s book! “Molly’s Midnight Run”

coverA few years ago, at the height of my interests in all things zombie, I wrote a short story involving my daughter and some of the undead. A few months later, my wife hand drew images to accompany the text and we spent the next few months digitizing and coloring them in our free time. More months went by and we assembled them into several differently-formatted books, learning new software along the way. The book was sent out to numerous publishers with not even a rejection notice. So, I researched and test-printed numerous drafts of the book with numerous self-publishers, finally getting the formula right with Amazon’s Createspace.

Now, I’m a proud self-published author of a children’s zombie book! This book represents many things: my love of the undead, my wife’s unique artistic style, my daughter’s ability to survive the zombie apocalypse (it’s not a scary book, I swear), and much effort formatting pages and tweaking bleed margins.

The story is short, colorful, and cute. It makes a perfect bedtime read that will not induce nightmares but may inspire some self-reliance skills! Please check it out on Amazon. It would make a perfect gift for Halloween!

At right is the cover and below are the first two pages of the story:

Pages from MMR_Page_1 Pages from MMR_Page_2

A Letter to My Younger Teacher Self – #YoungerTeacherSelf challenge

This post is part of the #youngerteacherself challenge started by Joanna Malefaki. Please read her original post and the numerous other posts she has linked to! 

Dear Anthony,

You majored in anthropology, the study of people. But did you forget that you aren’t a people person? Did you forget you do not like talking with random people? That you do not like giving presentations or being the center of attention? That you are introverted and a little disinterested in other people, not to mention borderline misanthropic? How did you ever expect to do fieldwork with a disposition like this?

Well, would it shock you to know that in 2015, you have talked with strangers from around the globe, commanded the attention of children, teenagers, and adults, lived in several foreign countries, and are now a “professional”? No, you’re still not an anthropologist. And you’re not the president. You’re a teacher.

And not like an elementary school or high school teacher. No, you’re an English language instructor at a university – the coolest kind of teacher. You have been a teacher for almost 8 years. You have taught all ages, but have decided teaching university students and adults is more in line with your personality and interests. Good choice. Kids are terrible (incidentally, you have 2 beautiful children and they are not terrible!) You’ve also developed a keen interest in linguistics despite no formal training. And of course, because you’ve always been a nerd, you have integrated technology into everything you’ve done (and regretted not becoming a software engineer so you can invent the technology that you think is missing in this field).

Your first days of teaching were face-palm worthy. Just terrible. It’s never a good idea to ever make students stand up and shake hands. This is not language teaching. This is public embarrassment. It took you about six months before you figured out what you were doing, and you decided to pursue a master’s degree. You get much better. Some have even described you as a great. In my opinion, you’re not bad.

But, you can be so much better, which is why I’m writing. Those valuable months of failure you went through – I’m not going to give you any advice to avoid that. I want you to have that. Teaching is something you do learn on the job, through mistakes and failures. It’s how we grow. In fact, that’s my first point of advice. Here is what I want you to do:

  • Understand that failure is only an opportunity for growth and reflection – this is something I just learned.
  • Double major in linguistics and computer science – you’ll find that these areas will not only leave you well-informed in terms of language structure and language learning, but you will find numerous niches in which to combine these fields. You can invent software that will make language processing and language learning much more effective. Or maybe you’ll just make awesome power points. You’ll also find that examining the underlying structure of language is super fun, and what all the cool kids are doing on blogs and Twitter with their phonetic symbols and waveforms and brain diagrams. Don’t worry about what those are right now. Just keep reading…
  • Learn a language, or three – do not give up on French! Do you see those posters all over campus about study abroad? Don’t just daydream about them. Rip one down, march into the Study Abroad office and figure out a way to get there. Your poor, but you’re not that poor. You have a secret desire to be a polyglot. It’s hard work and it needs to start now!
  • DO NOT move to the woods. You will learn some valuable lessons about life and survival there, but you can learn those elsewhere. Instead, look for “esl teaching jobs” on AltaVista or whatever search engine is popular right now. Places to focus on: Japan, Korea, Turkey, France, Saudi Arabia. Spin the globe and pick a place at random. You’ll get valuable experience and a decent paycheck. See if you can get short-term contracts. Do this for a year or two.
  • Then, go back home and start your master’s ASAP. I started it while I was teaching in Korea. This allowed me to apply a lot of what I learned to the classroom to kind of test out what works and what doesn’t. This is great, but you will get a whole host of valuable experiences and opportunities if you get your MA before teaching. Applied linguistics sounds like a good area. Applied cognitive linguistics is also interesting. Natural language processing sounds boring, but a company called Google may be looking for people with this experience.
  • I got my master’s degree via distance. It was very convenient but I realized something major it lacked: the chance to work with faculty to conduct research. When you are getting your master’s degree, please please please find as many research opportunities as you can. This will give you the ability to travel, present, publish and create a stellar CV. That will be important for the future.
  • By the time you teach, study, and teach some more, it will have already been 2015 and you are me. We are struggling to figure out when to get a PhD, where to get a PhD, how to pay for the PhD, and whether or not a PhD is even worth it. Do me a favor: figure this out before you get here.

All in all, if you don’t follow any of this advice, you still have a pretty decent career. But, like I said, I think these things can make your life a whole lot better. Notice that I don’t have any advice for actually teaching? Because, as I said, this comes with time and experience. Your teaching style fits your personality, and it is always changing because you do a lot of reading and research. Whatever path you end up on, I believe your teaching style is a representation of you. Me. We. Us.

Sincerely,

You on May 12, 2015 – Knoxville, Tennessee, USA

Blogging will resume shortly…

My international journey, which included hauling two children, 1 wife, 1 stroller, 2 car seats, 8 checked suitcases, and 3 carry on bags from South Korea to Knoxville, Tennessee, is finally complete. And it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. In the end, only one bag was missing, and I got it the next day. That’s the best I could have hoped for.

So, we have been in Knoxville for about three weeks, and still experience stages of homesickness for Korea and reverse culture shock. But, now that I have begun working (though not teaching yet for another two weeks), I have more focus and am now enjoying my time here more.

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A Goodbye Letter to Korea

After seven years of living abroad in Korea, I am finally returning home. I will be working at the English Language Institute at the University of Tennessee. I am both excited and nervous as I leave my familiar home and the only home my children have known to venture back to the terrible/wonderful beast that is America. The following is a good-bye letter of sorts.

“Where are you from?” is probably one of the first questions a language student learns. And on the surface, it has a simple answer: the country and/or city you spent the majority of your life. Most people who ask this question are expecting a simple answer, too: “I’m from the USA/Florida/the UK/Sydney/Paris.”

However, this question isn’t as simple as it seems. Yes, where you are from could be the place where you spent the majority of your life, but, like most things, quality counts almost as much as quality. I was born in New York and only spent a few years there. I never say that I’m from New York. Never. I grew up in Florida and spent about 18 years there, including K-12 and five years of university. Yet, I feel as though I’m lying if I answer, “I’m from Florida” because I have spent the past seven years (nearly a decade) abroad. And this time has most certainly had the same or more quality to it when compared to my time in Florida: I have matured here, I have become financially independent here, I have fallen in love with language and education here, I have found a rewarding career path here, and most importantly, one of the biggest moment’s of a person life – having children – was done here. How can I claim a simple “I’m from Florida” when “I’m from Korea” sounds so much more true to me?

And, when I return to the States next week to begin a new life, what kind of reaction would I get by saying “I’m from Korea”? I don’t look Korean. My wife isn’t Korean. I don’t speak Korean very well. I don’t like kimchi, or K-pop, or Korean dramas. But…I do take my shoes off indoors (I did this before Korea, though). I do love Korean barbeque (who doesn’t?). I think brushing your teeth at work or school is a fine idea and I will be importing this to America. I love Samsung (as any red-blooded Korean should). I think the ease of transferring money and using bank accounts instead of writing checks is just swell (the US hasn’t totally caught on to this). I like sitting on the floor to eat. I am inspired by Korean (non-hipster) fashion. I like to write in Hangeul. I am at the same time awe-struck and repulsed by the insanity and effectiveness of the Korean education system. I love the safety of Korea. I love being nestled between an ocean and mountains. I like using chopsticks. I like the quaintness and affordability of love motels and minbaks. I love the fast and cheap internet. Despite the fact that these things have shaped me as a person, none of this makes me Korean.

I don’t know for how long I will struggle with the “Where are you from?” question, but for now, my answer will be “I am from Korea”, and I will mean that with no sarcasm, facetiousness, or delusion. I will miss my home. I will miss my friends. I will miss Korea. 대한민국, 정말 감사합니다. 사랑해.

Random Facts about Me and Korea

  • I have visited Busan, Jeju, Geoje, Seoul, Yongin, Jinju, Andong, Pohang, Seokcho, Gwangju, Daegu, Milyang and a few other various cities and towns here and there.
  • My oldest daughter was born in a woman’s hospital Haeundae.
  • My youngest daughter was born in a giant bathtub at Mediflower Birthing Center in Seoul.
  • I studied hapkido for four years and received a black belt.
  • I studied MMA with Team Mad, the same gym as popular fighter Kim Dong Hyun, but not the same location. I have met his trainer, but not him.
  • I have taught at two middle schools and one university.
  • I have taught at both ends of Busan: Gijang and Noksan.
  • I have a Korean driver’s licenese and drove a Daewoo Matiz II.
  • I have a TOPIK Beginner Level 2 certificate in Korean. I haven’t studied Korean since receiving the certificate.
  • My kitchen balcony faces Jangsan mountain, so my view is almost all mountain. It’s very beautiful.
  • I briefly left Korea to live and teach in Japan. I discovered that Japan is great for vacation, but too expensive to live in.
  • I have become a big fan of Samsung products, starting with the Note 8 and the Note 3. The next time I buy a laptop, it will probably be Samsung.
  • I have never been to a baseball game here.
  • I love 돼지국밥, 카레돈까스, 생갈비, 오겹살, 갈국수, 꽃방, 탕수욕, and  복분자.
  • I have eaten dog, but it wasn’t very good. I have heard that dog is usually tasty, so I think I just went to a bad restaurant.