Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Korean language in Taekwondo

Hanja for "Mountain"
This is not a post on different Korean Words and their meaning in English (or vice versa). This post
is about my thoughts on the usage of Korean in or during Taekwondo training and study. I recently had a lengthy discussion with a high ranking American Master who did not use any Korean language during his training and teaching at all and this post is the recults of my "afterthoughts" on that discussion, so it is a post about my thoughts on the why is Korean used in Taekwondo.

As the regular readers of this blog will know I live in Norway. In Norway we speak Norwegian. We all learn English at school starting in elementary school because it makes comunication with other nations very simple as Norwegian is not spoken in any other country than Norway (allthough linguistically speaking Norwegian, Swedish and Danish is the same language). So why are we learning English and not some other language? There are many reasons but English is frequently looked at as the "world language" and it is frequently used in international comunication. This blog is written in English and it has most of its traffic comming from USA and the UK, but if you take all the other non English speaking countries who read my blog and add them together they will outnumber the English speaking readers by far. We are all (hopefully) enjoying this blog and it is made possible because I write it in English and you who read it has presumably learned English. Using English during Taekwondo training seems like a no brainer then when it comes to teaching and reaching as many people as possible. Personally I dont think it is that easy when it comes to Taekwondo.

Taekwondo has roots within Okinawa/Japan, China and of course its own native traditions, but it was formulated in Korea by Koreans in the 1940s-50s. Modern Taekwondo as we know it today came about during the mid 70s to late 80s and for most of that time the development happened in Korea or was spearheaded by Koreans. Today Taekwondo is an internationally known art but that is something that has happened quite recently. Taekwondo comes with a ton of cultural baggage (in lack of a better term) in terms of philosophy, rituals and traditions. The framework we as traditional Taekwondo students work from as a base can only truly be understood by the students by also studying the culture that gave rise to these traditions, rituals and philosophy. Learning some Korean is a great way to unlock a lot of seemingly weird "baggage". Ranging from trivial things like: why do we call a mountain block a mountain block and not something else? It does not look like a mountain at all does it? To philosophical realizations occuring in Your mind when your Korean teacher insists that you use the word "Suryon" for training because "Suryon" better explain what we are trying to achieve if you look at the meaning behind the word. Learning Korean as part of your training ranging from simple commands and technique names to more "advanced" stuff really opens up your study that much more than if you simply use only your native language and nothing more.

Why do we Call this a "mountain block"?

"Makki" is a substitivation (making a verb into a substantive) of the root "Makda". It is often translated as "Block" in English but it is much more than that if you look at what it really means. It means to stop an attack or hinder an attack (among other things). A block can do that yes, but sometimes the Kukkiwon textbook will show you applications from Poomsae that shows blocks being used as joint locks instead! The English word block does not capture the neuance of the Korean word makki and that is just one little thing. Think about how it adds up when you eliminate Korean 100%.

One official example of a mountain block in usage.
Note the lack of "blocking" in this application.

Also while English is the world language, Korean is effectively the world language of Taekwondo. Yes there are many high ranking western people out there but there is not a single country in the world where so much experience and knowledge is gathered in one country when it comes to Taekwondo as Korea. And many of those People will not be speaking Enligsh when you come to them for instruction. When I first arrived at Chosun University I was only armed with the knowledge of Korean that I was used to through my Taekwondo studdies in Norway. Luckily for me we have allways used Korean during training and therefore I could follow along with much of what was happening during the training sessions in Korea. When the instructors told us to do Dollyo Chagi, I knew what to do for example because we used the word Dollyo Chagi in Norway for that technique. When I say we use Korean during training the reaction I often get is why dont you teach in your native language? The answer to that is that we do. All indepth explanations and discussions are in Norwegian (or in English if there are non Norwegian speakers present). We might discuss the mind set during chumbi after you complete your Poomsae as "Jungshin Chumbi" and then in Norwegian explain what "Jungshin" is. This way we know what it is even if we refer to it with Korean words and I can not even begin to tell you how much this helped when I came to Chosun University without knowing and Korean.

From time to time we would be visited by foreign people (usually Europeans or Americans) who wanted to train in Korea. I noticed a trend that the European students would be able to follow along quite nicely during training but the Americans rarely managed to follow along at all. When I talked to the European students they too used Korean in their Taekwondo training back home while the American students I met often came from "sport Dojang" who had eliminated Korean 100% to teach in English. The Europeans got a lot of good training and a good experience as well as instructors who really wanted to teach them more while the American students was by the Korean`s looked at as arrogant since they did not use any Korean words during training (their point of view not mine) and as they struggeled so hard to follow along during training they did not have many if any good training sessions.

I have often been met with the notion that for example a Dutch Master butchering Korean words and an American Master butchering those same Korean words will not sound anything a like so there is no point in using Korean. My experience in this is that while there are differences in pronounciation I have rarely heard someone so way off mark that I do not recognize the most used words spoken in different pronounciations. Also a common field terminology is extremly common in any field of endevour. When I played football (or soccer for the american readers) we said "corner" and "offside" not the Norwegian words. Likewise a ballet dancer will use a lot of French words, a doctor will use a lot of Latin words etc. It is not only natural to have a common terminology but also great for the cognetive learning process. We allready have it with the Korean words so I say why not just use what we have instead of making it all up in all of the worlds languages?

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  1. [Skip to "Short Version" or read the bullet form abridged rant]

    - People appreciate being noticed and respected. If you show their culture/knowledge respect, they will be motivated to treat you positively.

    - Certain people are more keen in learning about cultures than other people. I think that learning a portion of the key language when learning Martial Arts is a key point for separating the "McDojo"-like practitioners from the legitimate long-term Martial Artists.

    - If you as a Master or Instructor are omitting the cultural lessons from your Art then I believe you are doing yourself, students and Art a disservice both mentally and physically. You are creating students with a knowledge deficit. Stop teaching and go learn. Common terminology brings people together.

    [Short Version]
    If you want to learn a Martial Art. You need to learn the cultural, mental and physical elements of it. Otherwise you might as well open up a manual and just train hitting a wall and sliding/rolling across the floor. People took the time to make this, so show them the respect they deserve and proliferate it with the expected knowledge base. In fact, proliferate it with unexpected knowledge to GROW it. Don't just teach part of it. Not teaching TKD using Korean is like not giving people the key to unlock what was really meant in the first place: just like not having the key to holistically interpret Poomsae. :D

  2. OK - I'm going to play "Devil's Advocate" on a particular point of this subject.

    I've always been interested in history and culture, just as much if not more outside of the US than within. I also used to believe that in order to "display" that interest with any type of sincerity, you had to learn key applicable portions of the language(s). Then reality (mine, anyway) began to appear. I have taken language courses other than English (which I still struggle with) with serious intent three different times. All three times ended with total failure (lowest grade possible, this even included, depressingly, Norwegian in one of the attempts). Was it for lack of effort or poor teaching? Absolutely not - attempts also included tutors. No matter how hard I tried, I had a "tin ear" for language and an exceptionally poor grasp of how to pull things together. It took me three weeks just to memorize "pardon me, I do not speak French, do you speak english?" Pathetic, yes, but that's my reality.

    Now, I have tried to memorize Korean phrases and terms for the sake of "displaying" how much I appreciate the culture, etc. It is such a struggle that I would have to make choices of time spent on that and family, etc.

    Now, it may be rationalization, but I've come to accept my issue, but also the feeling that I can appreciate history and culture as much as the next person, just in a slightly different way.

    I also realized that much of what is memorized is simply terminology or labels. Is there much of anything more limiting than the language of labels? Along that same thought, I began to realize the movements should and can transcend language. After all, in the end, I could have the ability to read and discuss in any language the movements and use, but in the end, will only truly understand them once I begin to work through them.

    As always, just my two-cents worth of thought.

    1. I dont really mean that everyone practising Taekwondo should be fluent in Korean, but I do think that when we allready have terminology made for us in Korean we should endevour to understand the terms we are using instead of making up Our own New terminology:-) I think thats what I meant anyway :-P I Guess two cents can get you a lot these days Ron ;-)