Use of local language when teaching.

Robert Barton 

            It has become a common practice in the martial arts world today to require students to learn the names of techniques and to count in Asian languages. Many people are of the opinion that is part of what it means to be a traditionalist. While Shorin Goju is certainly a traditional karate method we specifically recommend that our instructors teach in the local language as much as is possible. Some people see this as a break with tradition. So in this essay I will examine this ‘tradition’ and set forth the reasoning for Shorin Goju being taught in the local language without a general requirement to learn Japanese or Chinese counting or names.

            Lets take a look at this ‘tradition’ and how it has come about. The first exposure of Americans to Chinese boxing began slowly in the western U.S. as instructors teaching in Chinese neighborhoods started to accept non-Chinese students. In some instances Chinese martial arts may have been made accessible in the 19th century to some few non-Chinese Americans but on the whole Chinese martial arts remained within Chinese American neighborhoods with these Americans retaining much of their cultural and linguistic heritage. The latter half of the 20th century found some of these schools opening up to people of non-Chinese heritage.

The widespread exposure of Westerners to karate began shortly after WWII ended while soldiers were stationed in Japan and Okinawa. These soldiers studied locally and learned various methods which they later taught when they came home to the U.S. Eventually this type of exposure began with Europeans who also returned home to pass along what they had learned.

Simply put, these first Westerners to be exposed were learning in the local language which happened to be an Asian language because the classes were being taught in an Asian country or Asian neighborhood. There was a language barrier and these people learned a lot about the local language in order to understand what was being taught. Many of them came home and began to teach and because they had learned the art in another language they continued to use the names from those languages. And so the ‘tradition’ was born that an Asian martial art should be taught in the Asian language. This is a tradition in many schools now and that is the choice of the heads of those schools.

I would like to look at another tradition through historical cases. We have two very clear and specific historical cases of a knowledge set from the martial arts of one country being moved to another country well over a century ago. The founder on the Nah-te school of martial arts, Kanryo Higashionna spent many years learning kung fu in China. When he returned to Naha in Okinawa he began to teach and we see that he translated the names of the kata and techniques to his native tongue and taught these skills in the language most effectively understood by his students. His student Chojun Miyagi would do exactly the same thing a generation later when he established his Goju school of karate. These two specific cases are very important to Shorin Goju since we take our kata and principles from this specific lineage.

More generally we can see a lot of exchange between Asian Countries in the martial arts and the techniques and principles are generally easily translated into the local language. The very nature of written language in much of Asia easily facilitates this and it is the nature of exchange of information in Asia. An example would be the martial arts commonly seen in Korea much of which was learned directly from the Chinese and Japanese and yet they are taught in the Korean language. Almost every kata known to Korean martial arts prior to 30 years ago was of Chinese or Japanese origin and yet they have Korean names in Korea. This also applies to the Arts of Malaysia and the constant exchange of skills by the martial artists of India and China.

This ‘tradition’ is a valid tradition in many schools and I do not seek to try to invalidate it in this essay. But what I am pointing out is that it is fairly recent and that there is another tradition which is just as valid. Rather than breaking with ‘tradition’ in our practice of using local languages we are rather adhering to another valid tradition.

Shorin Goju Karate schools are just that ‘schools’ and our overall philosophy is based on teaching and we can be described as a teaching system. One of the cornerstones of good instruction is communication and there are two sides to this process. The instructor has the responsibility to articulate and convey information to students and to find ways to present information. The student must understand the information being presented. The onus is on the instructor to establish a successful communication process.

When information is presented to a student in the local language or primary language of the student it becomes easier to comprehend and absorb for the student. In our effort to improve communication with students we embrace this and discard any misguided ideas about the need for a student to learn another language in order to learn our art and philosophies. So we teach and we make an effort to teach in the local language to better enable our student to understand our teachings.

It will also be noted that certificates and appointments in Shorin Goju are generally issued in the local language and so may not have writing in Asian languages and may in fact be in any language. Our school stamps and security stamps are approved by the head of family and must be in the primary language used at the location master stamps and personal stamps may be done by the individual in any language that he or she chooses. We do not view this as a break with a tradition that stamps should always be in kanji we view it as a continuation of a tradition that says that the stamps should be understood by the issuer and bearer. 

I hope that this has clearly articulated the reasoning for using local languages and not requiring our students to learn an Asian language. If a student wishes to learn the names of kata and technique in an Asian language we are happy to oblige but we do not require it. I understand that there will remain those who view this as a break with ‘tradition’ and I accept that they will have this opinion. I have no intention of changing this approach any time soon. I welcome informed debate about the issue. 

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