One of the things that are most amazing about fencing is the international nature of our sport. We have a rich and diverse group of people who practice fencing, and they are embedded in clubs all over the country. 

This is an aspect of fencing that we herald regularly for our youth fencers because connecting with people from varied backgrounds is a wonderful way to enrich their understanding of themselves and of their place in the world. It’s a beautiful aspect of our sport, but it’s not just youth fencers who find insight and inspiration from the wide berth of cultures that we engage with. Not long ago, I found some surprising insight from a parent in our club.

Forward faster?

The mother of one of our Y12 fencers came up to me a while back and asked me what technique her son should learn quickly so that he can improve his performance in competition. Her child is diligent and focused in practice and in tournaments, but many of his opponents were getting the better of him at the time. 

This is not unusual, especially for fencers who are relatively new to the sport, as her child was. This young man lacked some of the basic skills and techniques that his opponents seemed to have mastered, and it held him back. He and his mom were searching for ways that he could weave those methods into his fencing, allowing him to go further. 

I told them to be patient and that these things take time, but then he was developmentally appropriate given how long he’d been fencing. If he kept going with the hard work, then he’d eventually get there. “Growth takes time,” I told them.

The look that I got back showed me that this mother and son were clearly not satisfied with this answer. 

I took a different approach. “Your son hasn’t been fencing for very long, and his opponents have more experience, even though they are still Y12 fencers. The variation in opponents will actually help him to grow.”

The mom kept looking at me, and then asked, “But surely there’s something else that we could do to help him? You can see that he works hard and is attentive. He’s always going to be less experienced than someone – isn’t there a technique to catch him up? Otherwise, he’ll be behind forever.”

I realized that it’s really difficult to explain why two fencers that look the same on a piste actually do have a different set of skills. For a moment, I paused and thought about it. And then I saw a label that gave me an idea of an analogy that worked well for me in that conversation and several following ones with other parents. Something that is easier to explain to parents without a fencing background.

10,000 Chinese characters

The Chinese language is structured entirely differently from the way most other languages are structured. Instead of a couple of dozen individual letters that are put together to form patterns that we call words, they have characters that each have whole meanings of their own. It’s a beautiful way to communicate, even though it’s well out of the scope of what most Westerners can conceive of. 

To engage with the written form of the language, everyone learns in specific chunks as they grow up. For example, 1st graders might be expected to know 300 characters, but by 5th grade, they’ve expanded that to 1000. At the end of high school, that number is 5,000. Their equivalent of an undergraduate college degree holder would know 7,000-10,000, and someone with a doctorate might master upwards of 12,000.

There is a scaled learning structure here because of the nature of the written language. Someone might learn characters that are outside of the level that they’re technically in, but on the whole, your educational level is on point with the amount of written language you can interact with. The youngest students master the words that are most common and most needed to get along in the world, while the more academically minded students and adults will have a much broader spectrum of characters in their repertoire. It’s not that much different than it is for us with English, or with any other language for that matter. 

Could you go show a 7-year-old 5,000 characters? Sure you can, even if it takes you a week. You could sit down with her every day and go through them one after another until you got all the way through to the end. Would she understand all of them? Of course not, and she would probably get frustrated at having to sit at a table for hours and hours. What if you came back a week later and asked her to identify these advanced words? Obviously, there’s no way that she would be able to do that. She couldn’t become familiar with that many characters that were beyond her level of understanding given her age and her experience. 

That PhD student who has mastery of a dozen thousand words has spent probably two decades practicing, studying, and internalizing the shapes of the characters and the meaning behind them. It’s taken countless hours of hard work and focus in order to make sense of all of those words. How to write them, how to read them, how to recognize them in the handwriting of others, what subtle meanings they have, and when to use them appropriately. There are layers and complexities that we can all appreciate in that kind of study. 

It’s impossible to skip any of the steps along the way in learning those characters. It must happen step by step, with focus on the process and the knowledge that it’s a constant journey. Again, there is something endlessly beautiful about that. 

Building a fencing vocabulary

While fencing is not exactly Chinese characters, the way that we learn year over year until we can fence fluently is very much the same as when you spend year after year learning a language. 

We need to learn different techniques, master footwork, practice timing, internalize combinations of foot and blade-work, and do all of these things in combination in endless different situations. This must be done over and over and over again until we are fluent in the language of fencing and can do all of it without thinking. Learning a sport is teaching yourself reflexes that you didn’t have before. Just as you practice reading and writing in many different forms, you have to practice your fencing skills in many different places – in private lessons, in classes and of course, in many different competitions. You have to practice with many different opponents who are at many different levels. And I am not even going here to talk about the tactical and mental layers of fencing, which adds a whole new dimension.

The more experience you have, the wider that fencing vocabulary will grow. It’s a step by step process and there is no way to really skip anything in this process. You cannot possibly know how to do one thing until you’ve done the step before it. The foundational vocabulary is essential to know before you can learn the more advanced words. 

In learning Chinese, it obviously takes many years to get there. Over the course of many years, you build on the things that you’ve learned. Each and every year, you continue to build until you get to the top. This is the exact same with fencing. You start out by knowing a few movements, but once those are intrinsic, then we can move on to the next set of tougher moves. In many cases, the learning is so gradual that it doesn’t even seem to be happening at all. 

Think about the language that you speak now. You probably don’t remember the first words that you learned to write, but now you can’t imagine not knowing how to write them or read them. At the beginning, it was very difficult to start to understand the first words that you read, but eventually they are so built into your brain that they are automatic. 

This is exactly how it is with fencing. In the beginning, it takes a big lift to get you to understand how to move the body. By the time you’re competing, those fundamentals are so enmeshed in your brain that you can’t even remember how you learned them. This, incidentally, is why teaching fencing is such a special job – you have to go back and remember how to break down those basics that are so intrinsic in you in order to teach them to someone else. 

We even call the lists of movements that we do our “fencing vocabulary”. Every time you add a new movement or skill to your roster, you’re expanding the vocabulary that you have available to you in fencing. Then you start to go about putting them together in new ways, just as we put our words together to form new sentences in new ways.  

The importance of regularity

The only way that you can possibly do it is to keep going and to do practice regularly. Think about the way that students must learn a new language – they have to practice it often!

How much time and regular use you put into anything will affect how deeply it becomes embedded in your mind and body. When learning a language, you are best to immerse yourself in that language. This is why living somewhere where the language is spoken is such a great way to become fluent. It’s also the reason immersion schools are a great way to increase language skills. For this same reason, fencing intensive camps are great for improving fencing skills – they immerse you in the sport so that you can become more fluent. 

The same is true for competition, and it’s one reason that competition in fencing is so great for growth. When you are competing regularly during the season, you’re practicing those skills and they’re going to naturally improve. The more you practice and immerse yourself in this, the more fluent your fencing will become. 

Long breaks from anything will make it harder for you to get back into the groove of the language. Even though some of the language will stay with you long after you’ve stopped practicing, pulling yourself out of that environment will mean you do lose something. This is the same reason we advise not to take super long breaks from fencing, even though everyone does need some downtime now and again. 

Staying regular with both your learning and with your practice is how you continue to grow a strong foundation, and then how you continue to build something. Think about those people learning the Chinese characters – they have to spend a whole lot of time in school to practice and immerse themselves. School, particularly when you get into the realm of graduate school, requires a huge amount of focus and discipline, as well as a lot of time spent in the classroom. 

If you want your doctorate in fencing, you have to put in those hours, regularly and over time. 

Keep building fencing vocabulary

What is most striking about how learning 10,000 Chinese characters is like fencing is that core of building a vocabulary.

In fencing, we are constantly adding new things to what we are able to do. For example, you learn a basic lunge, then you add a wrist flick, then you master remise. Then you start to mix those up, just as you mix up the words when you are writing are talking. Now you flick, then lunge, then remise, or some other order with additional elements. We start off with just a few words and a few ways to put them together, then add another word at a time, making our sentences more and more complex. 

When we encourage our fencers to go to additional classes, to head over to open fencing, take private lessons, and to practice in summer intensives, this is what we’re talking about. These are the places that you learn new vocabulary words that you can put together in new and different ways. How does that fencer at a competition put his sentences together? What order does she put the movement, and how is that different from what you’re doing? New and different ways of putting things together come from the imagination mixed with observation and experience. 

To circle back around to the parent story at the beginning – let’s think in terms of the long game. A child would never be expected to understand a foreign language after three months in a school classroom. Of course not! You wouldn’t say “well, my child can’t speak French after six weeks of lessons, so this must not be the language for them.” Naturally, you would give them time to work with a teacher and be as immersed in that language as possible, all with the knowledge that fluency would take years of practice. This is so much the same with fencing – it takes a long time to put those pieces together. 

For fencers, putting in the time and effort to master and then express the language of fencing is a central part of the art of this sport. It may take many years to learn 10,000 fencing words, but over a lifetime we can find the joy in putting them together in new and exciting ways. Learning to speak this language is ultimately rewarding and enriching, even as it is challenging and constantly changing.