Something I often hear experienced jiu-jitsu (BJJ / Brazilian jiu-jitsu) practitioners say is that “learning jiu-jitsu is like learning a language”. I also hear this comparison from other combat sports practitioners, like Muay Thai, but not as often.
Sometimes, people compare BJJ with language learning as a general analogy, suggesting that you learn a vocabulary of moves just like you learn an actual vocabulary in a language. And sometimes the people saying it do so on the basis of experience in having learned another language.
But I want to provide a different perspective. I’m a relatively junior martial arts practitioner, but a very experienced language learner, who specifically specialises in the art of improving how we learn languages.
Yes, I do believe that learning a martial art (particularly BJJ) is a lot like learning a language. But it also is different in some non-obvious and interesting ways.
Below I’ll look at:
- How language learning is similar to learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu
- How they’re different
- How my experience in learning languages has affected the way in which I study BJJ
Here are my latest posts on combat sports gym reviews from around the world, vocabulary for training in other languages, and other resources. If you’d like to have me visit and see your gym, please contact me — I love visiting new places and making new friends through combat sports.
- Chinese Characters / Kanji in Martial Arts
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) vs Language Learning — A Linguist’s Perspective
- Dog Eat Dog MMA Review — The Best Combat Sports Gym in Florence, Italy
- Training MMA / BJJ in Italian — Words / Vocabulary / Glossary
- Vera Fight Club: Boxing and Jiu Jitsu at Pitbull Dojo in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Briefly — About Me (BJJ and Languages)
I’m a blue belt in jiu-jitsu, though I’m not generally a fan of belts and grading. I’ve been at it for around 600 hours over the last two years (or more, by the time you read this), according to my detailed training log. I’m familiar with most basics, some very well, and some not well at all. I used to think blue belts were gods; Well, I’m not, I’m very mortal. I do around 80% grappling, 20% striking.
Competitive athletes of any level give me hell, and even other blue belts humble me sometimes. Basically, anyone with more experience, more youth, or more of a competitive edge can give me trouble, and I’m not ashamed to admit it! Because despite all the above, I still inflict pain upon myself five times a week for reasons I struggle to explain.
While I’m a beginner-intermediate combat sports practitioner, I’m a very experienced language learner. At this stage I speak eight languages well, and can get by in another four. Sometimes, I worry they’re getting rusty, but hey, I gave someone directions in Hebrew recently (a tourist, lost in Belgium… unfortunately I knew her language but I didn’t know my way around), so they’re not absent. And that’s not one of the ones I count as “well”.
Over time, I’ve gone through many theories of language learning. Many experienced language learners do cycle through theories and techniques. And in the end, many of us arrive at the same point: Do whatever’s effective and fun for you.
Enough about me, let’s talk about BJJ vs language learning.
How Language Learning is Similar to BJJ
Firstly, there are some obvious ways in which learning BJJ or combat sports is similar to language learning.
A General Learning Approach
To begin with, I find that students of martial arts and languages benefit from a similar general learning approach. This encompasses a number of smaller points.
You learn jiu-jitsu and languages from a variety of sources, and cobble your knowledge together. Sources such as teachers, classes, videos online (I like the Grappler’s Guide — that’s my long review of it), courses, books, apps… none of them should be the be-all and end-all, but they all help.
Both language learning and combat sports training can involve drilling. You learn something slowly and well, and then add complexity and speed later. You can avoid this if you want (in either discipline), and there’s a similar debate either way about the pros and cons.
And in both Jiu-Jitsu and language learning, it’s really helpful to experiment and make mistakes. A typical good approach to learning is to try something, fail to do it perfectly, go learn how to do it, and then try again. In both disciplines, it would be impossible to wait until you’re ‘perfect’ before trying to do something.
Finally, there’s a strong intellectual and mental component to both language learning and getting better at combat sports — particularly jiu-jitsu.
In both disciplines, you have to have a curious mentality. You have to be patient. You have to push through plateaus where you feel like you’re not getting any better. And you have to work on really believing that one day you’ll master it.
It’s quite easy to lose the mental game and give up hope. We can self-sabotage simply by telling ourselves things like “I’m not good at sports” or “I’m terrible at languages”. This is a whole other topic. It’s maybe universal, and can apply to any endeavour that requires struggle.
In this way, working on learning a language or getting to mastery in a martial art can both be great ways to find out more about yourself and what you’re capable of — other than physically (which is one of the differentiators I note below).
Building a Vocabulary
Both language learning and jiu-jitsu have a “vocabulary”.
When you start learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, you start learning a working vocabulary of positions and movements. This is mount, this is side control, this is an arm lock, this is one method of passing the guard.
I don’t mean that you’re literally building a vocabulary, because you obviously do learn new words, such as Portuguese loan words like ‘omoplata’, Japanese terms like ‘kesa gatame’, or just new uses of English words like ‘triangle’. But aside from actual words, you learn individual movements and positions and add them to your arsenal.
(I add vocabulary lists for learning BJJ / Striking / MMA in various languages in the general martial arts section.)
For example, in jiu-jitsu you learn movements like hip escapes, inversions using your neck and shoulders, joint locks for control, and strangleholds (or ‘chokes’ colloquially).
This is a lot like how in boxing / striking you might learn a jab, cross, slip, or switch kick. You do have to drill those individual movements and get them looking good.
Individually, these movements don’t serve any purpose or have any meaning. But when you sequence them together with other movements, they make more sense. This is similar to how in languages, words have very little meaning outside context, which is why it makes more sense to learn sentences.
Sparring / Conversation
Both combat sports and language learning have a heavy emphasis on live practise — sparring or rolling, in combat sports, and conversation, in language learning.
When learning BJJ or other combat sports, the focus is very much on sparring, rolling, or randori — whatever you call it.
In most BJJ schools, you spar from day one. Some schools require you to do a fundamentals course first for safety. In most boxing gyms, you’d spend a couple of months building fundamentals and reflexes before you do light sparring, but you do get into it.
When you spar, you get a chance to test your skills in a high-pressure environment. You have to use your moves quickly, remember what comes next, and have a plan of attack.
Since there’s a lot of sparring, you can’t just learn BJJ or boxing through self-study or at home. You can’t watch videos, practise the forms on the floor or in the mirror, and get much better. You can improve, but only incrementally.
Language learning is the same. You can’t learn a language just through an app or through watching videos on YouTube. You have to speak to people.
A conversation is much higher pressure than doing exercises at home or flashcards. When you’re looking someone in the eye and trying to find the right word or phrase it can be really nerve-wracking! Especially if there’s an element of stress in it — like if it’s a job interview, a test, or if they’re very good looking…
The difference between conversation and sparring, of course, is that a typical conversation is not competitive! Sparring is competitive, more like a lively debate.
You also don’t have to focus on conversation in language learning. You might just like to read, to play language learning games, or slowly work through movies. There are martial arts like this too — those that focus more on forms and art rather than combat. So in this way, they can still be similar.
Differences Between Combat Sports and Language Learning
There are also some important ways in which language learning and BJJ / combat sports are very different, too.
Psychological vs Physical Challenges
Both combat sports and languages have a “mental game” aspect, as mentioned above. This is a little more obvious in sports. In combat sports, you have to have a strong drive to succeed, while staying humble and not underestimating your opponent.
While both combat sports and languages can teach you about yourself, you get really pushed physically in learning martial arts. Dripping with sweat and exhaustion, you often face consecutive rounds of drills or sparring. You have to find new ways of pushing through and keeping your focus. This physical aspect has no equivalent in the intellectual pursuit of language learning.
Martial Arts are Competitive
Sparring / rolling is competitive, even if there’s no winning and losing. In actual competition, there is winning and losing — there are points, knockouts, submissions, and other aggressive moves. In sparring in a class, it’s less competitive, but it’s still oriented in that direction.
Both of these scenarios contrast sharply with conversation, which is largely about repartee. There might be banter and to-and-fro, but you’re not trying to “win” a conversation (I hope, usually).
In combat sports, we’re often taught to have a direction, to “direct the game”, to plan sequences of moves, to feint, and so on — it’s a lot more like a like a heated debate with a clear objective, or interrogating a witness.
In conversation, you can kind of fake your way through if you’re not fluent in a language. If I miss a few words, I can catch the “gist” and move on. In combat sports, I can’t — if I don’t know what’s going on, it’s a good sign that I’m losing the edge.
But bear in mind that language learning can include things other than conversation, like reading / writing, or just listening to or watching media. So, in general, it’s a much gentler activity.
Martial Arts are Constantly Evolving
In most languages, the rules of the language are set. Yes, word usage evolves, but very slowly — generally, aside from slang, the general structure and rules of languages are static.
This is very unlike in modern combat sports, where — aside from rule sets for competitions generally intended to avoid permanent harm — there are no rules. The younger martial arts, in particular, evolve very quickly. But there’s no “right” or “wrong”. This is particularly true when you get into the details: Ask any two people what the “right” way to do a specific move is, and they’re very likely to tell you at least slightly different things.
In combat sports, nobody will tell you “You can’t chain those two movements as it’s wrong.” It may be not very fluid, or expose yourself, but it’s not “wrong” per se. If it works for you, and it isn’t going to permanently disfigure your opponent, then it’s allowable.
Eventually, combat sports evolve into more structured disciplines, becoming “traditional” martial arts. At that point, they do seem more like languages.
How Language Learning Informs my Combat Sports Training
I like to think about the “theory” of learning a little bit — not too much. But all my time in language learning has taught me that we all have to find our own path in how we best learn things as individuals.
For every language-learning philosophy, there are just as many people who think that the philosophy is a waste of time. For example, some people believe in learning grammar rigorously as a solid foundation, whereas some language learners believe that grammar is a construct that you can ignore. Some people believe in immersing yourself in listening, and some believe you should be speaking from day one. Some love flashcards, and some think they’re artificial and you don’t need them.
Maybe my favourite is the “learn like a child” fallacy. I reject this and say you should learn like an adult!
My own path for learning combat sports is highly informed by my language-learning philosophy. Overall, I try to find a balance between what’s fun and what’s useful, and always stay active in my learning.
On fun: If I’m not having fun, then I don’t learn. There’s a wide variety of things that are fun. In the past, I’ve even found working through exercise books fun. These days, I just like trying to go about my daily life in new countries and do everyday things, like negotiate at markets, or learn jiu-jitsu!
Similarly in martial arts, I do everything with an attitude of fun. I can tell some people are trying to win. I’m trying to do a move that I think looks interesting, even though it’s low-percentage, just because I know it’ll make me a better grappler.
On useful: In everyday life in other countries, I constantly encounter words and phrases I need to learn. My general attitude is to try to do something, fail because I run out of words, and then go and learn it out of necessity.
In jiu-jitsu and striking, if my opponent does something and I need to learn how to react, I go and learn and drill it. Or if I’m working on a move and it’s not quite there, then I go and study it more.
And on active: Learning for me has to be involved. I have to be doing it. This means either speaking or sparring. Yes, it’s nice to just watch stuff sometimes, or review flashcards… but the active component has to exist somewhere.
I’m not an expect in BJJ by any means, nor am I an academic in the science of learning. The above is a personal reflection of parallels I’ve found.
As I go deeper into my practise of combat sports, I’ll update it. But if you have anything you’d like to share, drop a comment or send me a note — I always respond!