Fencing as Language Acquisition

Students of the Lichtenauer tradition would recognise that many of the techniques in the “system” can be structured almost as a flowchart of attack and counterattack.  We also know that actions must be taken ‘indes’ (in the moment), so how are we to translate structured drills into a broader ability to fence.

Every martial art contains this same problem, and the solution is a proven one; repetition.  The human brain is, in essence, largely a pattern recognition and response system. By training repeatedly with a physical stimulus/response we essentially automate the process, taking our higher-level cognitive processes out of the loop.

We do this by beginning with the basic guards and cuts and build up to more complex drills.  The important thing to remember is that what we’re learning here is not simply a bunch of “nouns” which label stances, nor “verbs” which label strikes in a strict way;  just like words, stances and cuts have shades of meaning depending on context and additional information.  What we are actually learning is the “grammar” of swordsmanship and with it numerous “adjectives” which allow variation of meaning. As such guards should be considered as transitional points in a cutting action or parry and may vary based on the situation, in which case it’s possible that all of the interpretations above are correct.  An ochs can be more or less forward, a pflug more or less offline.  While the labels have a meaning, it’s the way they go together that creates phrases, prose, poetry.

Imagine if you only knew the nouns and verbs in English.  You would be able to express yourself but it would be in a stilted and awkward way.  If instead we learn the structure or grammar of the language and the shades of meaning associated with it then we can truly express ourselves through writing or speech.  Thus it is with swordsmanship – we’re trying to elicit the structure of a duel; be it antagonistic or agonistic, such that we can truly express ourselves with the sword.

This is largely the reason we begin by practicing techniques slowly and increase difficulty as follows:

  1. Learn individual techniques as a discrete set of steps without resistance, slowly smoothing out the discrete steps so we have a single flowing sequence for each technique, still without resistance.
  2. Add an element of challenge to the sequence with a discrete decision point; for example the attacker might be either strong or weak in the bind, the defender does the technique but takes a moment to assess, slowly increasing the challenge element to a natural speed over time.
  3. Add the challenge element into a dynamic scenario (eg. free play) – again with a supervisory partner pointing out when a particular technique might be deployed.

Using our “fencing as language” analogy from last the last lesson, we see that this sequence reflects a child learning correct use of past tense for verbs.

  1. Child learns a handful of discrete words: walk, walked, run, ran, etc. and learns to use them correctly in a handful of cases.
  2. As the child practices they arrive at a general pattern; the use of “ed” for past tense, in this case.  However at this point the rule becomes over-generalised; the child will say “runned” instead of ran (just as we over-use a learned technique in a fight)
  3. Through active use and correction the child learns to use the rule, as well as the exceptions (ran, ate, etc).

In this way the child learns to choose the correct word in the moment in a manner based on context.  In exactly the same way we learn to employ and vary a technique in a fight.

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