speak Korean

“Come on, guys, let’s count in Korean,” I said with mock exasperation. A few nights ago my instructor had given me and my fellow classmates (teenage black belts) a series of exercises to do for our warm-up: jumping jacks, squats, mountain climbers, and push-ups. We were instructed to count out loud so we could stay together. I gritted my teeth though counting the first set of jumping jacks in English–it made me feel like a white belt–and spoke up as soon as I had the chance.

Saying, “Hana, dool, set…” never felt so sweet.*

I’m not as clued in on the current forms of taekwondo instruction as I probably should be. Everything I do is a combination of being self-taught, learning by osmosis by watching others teach, and some helpful pointers from my own instructors. One thing I hope is still a trend in taekwondo schools, whether they are WTF, ITF, or even ATA, is using and testing on Korean terminology. Having coached and judged matches in several tournaments, I know the kyorugi (sparring) commands are still used, but I don’t know what people do at their individual dojangs.

At my old dojang we were expected to learn certain terminology with each belt level. It helped that our Korean Grandmaster sometimes spoke his native language more than English, and we just had to figure it out from context clues. Our Chief Instructor often used Korean terms when he led us through kicking exercises, and that’s something I adopted when I started teaching classes. It kept people on their mental and physical toes when we were yelling kicking commands at them in a different language!

Even though we’re not as formal at my new dojang, I still greet black belts and instructors with a handshake and a sincere “Annyeong Hashimnika.” It’s a very ingrained habit that I don’t intend to break. I think the instructors do an incredible job at my new dojang, and I have tons of respect for them. I do, however, feel like the students are missing out by not learning an integral historical part of the martial art they study.

My Master and I were recently talking about what I’d like to teach when I get back in the game. We both agreed that traditional taekwondo is my specialty and comfort zone (as opposed to coaching her nationally ranked Olympic-style fighters, who are amazing), and that’s where I’m happiest. Along with old-school taekwondo comes old-school Korean.

When that day comes, and it’s not coming any time soon, I will be throwing in Korean terminology as much as I can, which means I need to brush up on my commands. It’s not that different from the ballet I studied in college–of course the actual instruction was in English, but we used French for all ballet technique terminology.

Whether it’s using French in ballet or Korean in taekwondo, using the “native” language of the art or sport helps connect it and its current students to years of rich history and tradition. If you happen to take a ballet class or at taekwondo class in another country, hopefully you’ll be able to follow along if they’re using traditional terminology.

Using Korean terminology and commands in class takes us out of our everyday interactions in English and reminds us that we’re doing something special, sacred, and very specific.


*Forgive the phonetic spellings (i.e., guessing) of Korean words. I don’t think any English-speaker has gotten it right yet. 🙂

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