Give It a Try, They Said. It’ll Be Fun, They Said: How Learning Jiu-Jitsu Is Like Learning a Language

Until their little one came along, every time I turned around, it seemed our two beloved Boss Pandas were traveling to yet another far-flung locale, spreading good will, jiu-jitsu knowledge, and the latest training gear on most if not all the continents. Last year I got to follow suit, at least a little; I spent five weeks in Cascais, Portugal, just outside of Lisbon, with a side trip to Germany. I was there taking courses toward a counseling master’s degree as part of an overseas program my (U.S.-based) institution offers. So, I got some credits done while having an adventure. I still do not have nearly as many frequent flier miles as Hillary and Nelson, but I acquired enough on this trip to take me squarely outside my comfort zone.

I used to be quite fluent in German, and I worked with a tutor and the DuoLingo app to learn some Portuguese before my trip. Still, my grasp of neither language is anything to write home about, though I will say that being immersed in the cultures—and thanks to the patience and kindness of the people willing to practice with me—I made some progress. One thing I quickly realized pretty much as soon as I landed in Europe is that I needed a healthy sense of humor, specifically one directed at me. Ever the overachiever, on one day I even managed to screw up in two different languages.

First, I told an airline employee in German that my bag was “difficult” (“schwierig”) when I meant to say “heavy” (“schwer.”) You can use “schwer” to mean “difficult,” but not vice versa. That was when I was on my way back to Portugal after visiting a friend in Cologne for the weekend. Then when I got back, I tried to have a conversation in Portuguese with my taxi driver. We had talked about the many Catholic attractions in the area (Fatima, for instance), and so when he mentioned “Madonna” and “Sintra” (a town with a lot of history and beautiful architecture), I assumed he was talking about another such religious site. But actually, he was telling me that Madonna the pop star had come to Sintra to do a concert. He laughed and so did I, and I did the same thing with the baggage conversation. The airline employee and the cab driver were the umpteenth and umpteenth-and-first people to kindly correct me, and I truly appreciate that, at least in the abstract. Sometimes in the heat of things, though, I wish either I could say, “You knew what I meant,” or that I were better at this sh*t and did not need so much coaching.

It will come as a surprise to probably no-one that my experiences in trying to improve my language skills remind me of what it is like to try to improve my jiu-jitsu skills. With respect to German and Portuguese, by now I have a few phrases down pat, so if the conversation turns to those, I am golden. Want to talk about food in German or Portuguese? Want to know my name and where I am from? I can work with that. But venture into just about anything else—how to describe what I am studying, whether a five-ounce bird could carry a one-pound coconut—and I will nod and smile and pray there was not a question in that last barrage of cool-sounding but indecipherable noise.

I feel the same way with jiu-jitsu. Back in the day, when I was able to get people in my closed guard, I knew what to do, even if I was not that great at doing it. But put someone in side control on top of me, and I flailed around, becoming a physical manifestation of the phrase “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

I am not the first to conceive of jiu-jitsu as a language. As someone who has been around the game for a long time, I am a relatively fluent speaker now. This means I do not have to be as conscious of syntax and grammar because they come more easily to me now. In other words, I can generally participate in any conversation, even if the other participant has a more sophisticated vocabulary than I do, though I will always have an accent.

I am finding it helpful to make the comparison between my jiu-jitsu learning and my language learning because I am in the phase with the language learning where everything is hard and everyone else makes it look so easy and I will never get it and I may as well quit. So, thinking back to how hard jiu-jitsu was (and often still is) for me to learn is not just an exercise in masochism. Rather, it is a good reminder that the embarrassing and frustrating experiences never go away, but they do become fewer and farther between. The time is going to go by anyway, so I might as well try to become better at something while it does.

What’s the point? Well, when I am busy being the nail in a training situation, or when I am busy feeling like a nitwit in multiple languages, I would say there isn’t one. But even on those bad days, after I get through the training situation or embarrassing moment during which I said something wrong or inappropriate, I realize I survived and I learned something useful. And on the good days, like when I defend the sweep successfully after getting caught time after time, or when I crack a joke and it actually lands, that seems like a pretty good return on investment, and it makes me think that maybe I can figure this stuff out after all.

I was going to title this article The Universal Language, but I think it would be more accurately called something that refers to the universal experience of trying to learn something, which involves erring, trying again, erring a microgram less, and repeating ad nauseam.

Do you have this experience when you try to learn something new? Post your experiences to comments.

Valerie Worthington

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