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I want to talk about learning a new language.

You can learn as many new phrases as you like from tapes or books when you’re going on a holiday. But saying “Excuse me, can you tell me where the nearest massage parlour is?” isn’t communicating once the native replies “What type of massage are you looking for?” in his quickly spoken local accent.

I’ve heard learning Jiu Jitsu compared to learning a language in the past, and I think it’s a valid comparison. You learn words (techniques), sentences (sequences), and how to respond to questions (reactions) and so on. Soon, you’re speaking pidgin and then after a long while, you’re fluent.

The analogy is good, but I’ve never really understood it as anything other than an abstract before- another method of expressing how difficult it is to learn BJJ when I’m dealing with frustrated students of mine who can’t understand their lack of progress. But lately, I’ve begun to have a deeper appreciation.

I teach in a Gaelscoil at least once a week. For my non-Irish readers, a Gaelscoil is an Irish Language school, where all classes (except English) are taught through the Irish language. That’s Gaeilge to us, but it’s sometimes referred to as Gaelic by non-Irish people. I’ve done this for the last 8 years, and to my shame, I have never given a full class ás Gaeilge. Sure, I’ve thrown the odd phrase in here and there, and I usually introduce myself and give an opening stanza in the language, but if I were asked to teach through Irish for even 5 minutes tomorrow, I’d stumble hopelessly along and probably speak more Caveman (ug uh, ur, em) than Irish. To the credit of the students and staff, they’ve never pressured me in any way to try to do it, but since about year 2, I’ve been saying that I really must learn. And since September of last year, I’ve really been trying.

Every Irish person learns Gaeilge in school. In fact, you begin at age 5, and continue with at least one class a day until age 17 or 18. You would think that we would all be fluent, but we’re not. Some might call that a colossal failure of education. You get a kid for 13 years and you still can’t teach him! But it’s not that much of a failure if you understand the nature of language. There’s something unique in language that you just can’t replicate in classes. You can learn all the phrases you want, but unless you’re speaking it every day, you won’t be able to communicate effectively. The best method to learn a language is called Immersion.

Immersion is what happens when you’re dropped in a foreign speaking country with a couple of phrases and no choice. You must speak the language or you will not be able to communicate with anyone. Immersion is how children learn to speak, by following their parents and family around and slowly beginning to see what phrases and words are used and in what context. Immersion is how your immigrant friend is better at speaking English than a lot of your English speaking friends, and how despite being from halfway around the world, he pronounces some words with your accent. Similarly, to keep on the migrant theme, if someone moves to a country with a group of compatriots and works in a non-verbal job, you’re going to find they struggle with the language. A Brazilian friend of mine spoke about having to move out of the apartment he shared with other Brazilians because he was in Ireland to learn English. If you don’t immerse, you’ll struggle.

I’m struggling. My wife is a fluent Irish speaker but English is spoken 99% of the time at home, and while we’ve often said we’d try harder to speak more Irish in the house, we live busy lives and communication is often urgent and waiting 20 minutes for me to get myself across is demanding. So when I go to teach my class once a week, I have a pre-rehearsed set of Irish phrases- techniques- that I use. Once I’m asked to deviate off the script however, my lack of immersion shows, and I’m left stuttering, and eventually revert to the safety net of English.

The concept of immersion for me is a perfect analogy to learning how to become more skillful at sport, and specifically, Jiu Jitsu. To most people, BJJ is a foreign language. They don’t know the words when they start, and once they learn some, they don’t know where to use them.

So when people ask me how to get better, faster, I tell them to do more. I once asked Robert Drysdale what he thought beginners should do first, and his response was that beginners should roll (spar) 90% of the time. This seems counter-intuitive to most people, but it’s in keeping with the concept of immersion.

Think of the two extremes from your own experience- one person who has nothing BUT technical training. Never spars, just drills technique over and over for 2 months. The second guy does no technical training- he just gets on the mat with other people and spars for his training for 2 months. With beginners, intermediates, and advanced people.

At the end of that 2 months, who do you think would be the tougher opponent? Who do you think would have learned more of the language needed to grapple? I’ve been around quite a bit, so I’ve seen both types of training. I have your answer for you.

The first guy will have an idea what to do. He’ll try to put on an armbar, and he’ll attempt the throw he’s learned over and over. But he won’t have much success. He’s the equivalent of the guy who has learned the phrase book off by heart, but doesn’t know what to do when the native speaker asks a qualifying question. “Excuse me, which way to the bus station?” (armbar) “Which bus station, there are two around here?” (opponent counters) “Ehhh”. This guy is me trying to speak Irish. Knows the phrases, but lacks the confidence and and real world communication that Immersion brings.

The second guy will have poor words and sentences. He’ll have little technique. But he’ll have seen what his opponents who have been kicking his ass for the past 2 months have done, so he’ll try to replicate them. He might fail, but he’ll know that when he fails he needs to move fast or he’ll get countered. He’ll know that he needs to keep his balance and he’ll also be fitter and tougher than the other guy. He’s the guy who can get his point across, but just uses the wrong words. This guy has been immersed and can communicate, but he’s not going to be writing a novel any time soon. But he’ll struggle when the questions become more difficult because his vocabulary of technique is so limited.

The answer is, of course, a combination of both. Good technical training mixed with good sparring and “real world” situations such as positional sparring and so on. However, doing it once a week isn’t immersion, and neither is twice or three times. Here’s what I suggest.

Whatever you can do, do. If there’s a chance to roll at your club, someone else’s club, technique at a seminar, competition- take it. Even if it’s the worst class you’ve ever been to, you’re taking another opportunity to train- to speak the language.

Immerse yourself daily- we live in an age of instant access. Watch videos on youtube, a great training resource, but don’t watch techniques, watch matches and fights. Seeing how the technique you learned in class is done in real time is much more beneficial than watching 50 variations of it. To give you a comparison, a lot of Scandinavians speak English with a pronounced North American accent, which I’m told is partially due to American TV being popular there.

Think Jiu Jitsu- If you miss a sweep, or found yourself in a situation, visualising how it happened and what you would do differently is a huge help. And remember if you didn’t find a solution for yourself, then you’ve just found a really good question for your coach. This is akin to asking for the correct word to describe a new object.

What this should give you is better fluency. I can’t think of a better term for someone who has become good at Jiu Jitsu than to describe them as fluent.

That’s all I’ve got to waffle on about today. Slán!


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