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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

What Are Words For?

Language is a bigger deal than you might think in the martial arts.

Usually, much of what we train in the United States and Canada comes to us from various places in Asia: China, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, and other countries. Or they come from Israel, or in the case of historical European martial arts, non-English speaking countries like Germany or Italy or Russia.

Very few martial arts traditions here in North America come from English speakers.

Additionally, a lot of us have ties to countries where English isn't the dominant language and BOTH of us are learning a martial art rooted in a country that speaks a third language.

You Europeans reading this are smiling, because you're reading this in English, which is probably not be your native language, and you and friends from other nearby countries that speak a different language than you do (but might use English to talk to each other) are all trying to learn terms from, say, the Philippines.

The additional wrinkle, of course, is that those countries I listed above - China and the Philippines being the obvious example - often have different languages within their country, so two people from the same country can absolutely speak very different languages.

Add in the additional problem of dialects...

There's just a lot of wrestling with language and terms we English speakers need to do.

Most of the time, we're trying to adopt native terms in a respect for the cultural context of the martial art, and trying to honor it as best we can. So any mistakes we make are often due to our own limitations in being able to hear, understand, and pronounce non-English words.

Many of these languages are also written very differently than English, which is very hard for an English speaker to understand. Even if a language uses a similar alphabet, there may be special characters that we don't know how to pronounce.

Next, let's layer on top our own regional dialects and accents of English, and yeah, there's a lot of weird spellings and strange pronunciations of martial arts terms going on.

Sometimes, folks of the native language get upset that we Westerners can't or don't pronounce or spell things the way they think we should.

I get why that would be very, very irritating, I truly do.

I'm going to ask you native speakers to give us - your friends and your students who don't speak your language - a little slack.

Look, I'm from Missouri, growing up in St. Louis, which has its own... particular... ways of pronouncing some words. (learn about that HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE).

Trying to pronounce some English words can be a challenge for me. Pronouncing words in a different language altogether is even tougher.

Please take the effort we're making into account. We are trying, we promise.

It's tough when you do FMA's, because the Philippines has 120 to 187 different languages/dialects, and some folks from one region will tell you to use a certain word or spell/pronounce it a certain way, and someone else from a different part of the Philippines will tell you something different.

This happens a lot.

Of course, we English speakers could translate non-English terms into native English terms, and solve the problem that way. I know people who make this choice, because they're afraid of offending native speakers with their pronunciation of words.

However, when we remove the native words, we move what we do a little further away from the cultural context of the martial art.

It's kind of like how a lot of people who teach a few FMA drills on the side of their non-FMA martial arts program (like karate or taekwondo) will teach sinawali and call it a "stick drill", removing it from any connection to its FMA source.

THAT bothers me, personally. I think we've got a big enough problem as it is, getting FMA's known and respected. Removing the cultural context of drills and ideas from the FMA's doesn't help at all.

Finally, sometimes, we English don't know the native terms at all. Our native speaking teachers decided to use a different (English) term, or just never really named it as a "thing" with a name at all. Or like me, my direct teachers aren't Filipino, and sometimes they either don't know or can't pronounce the native term well themselves, so it comes to me that way.

So we can remove the source culture altogether, or we can do our best to pronounce words that can be hard for us to pronounce (much less spell).

Me, I tend to try to use native terms when I know them, and English when I don't. I might mispronounce native terms, but I'm doing my best.

All I ask is that native speakers pity us a little, and not be too hard on us when we mess it up, ok?

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