Third Space Lab Guest Speaker Series Report | Whose Karate? Language and Cultural Learning in a Multilingual Karate Club in London

By Sihan Wang

Class of 2023

The third talk of the Third Space Lab Guest Speaker Series happened on the eve of Lantern Festival in China. We had the great honor to invite Dr. Zhu Hua, Chair of Educational Linguistics in School of Education from University Birmingham and the director of MOSAIC Group for Research in Multilingualism. In tune with the concept of Third Space, Dr. Zhu introduced the key theoretical notion developed by Kramsch in 2009, where she brought forward the “third culture” created through cultural translation from the language users’ point of view, playing an important role in language teaching and learning. This translation, different from its literal meanings, illustrates “a way of thinking how languages, people, and cultures are transformed as they move between different places”. Consequently, culture translations bring values and practices that have evolved in one specific community to another and expect adaptation, appropriation and changes.

One critical component of the exploration of language learning is translanguaging, which broadened the concept of language as a multifaceted sense- and meaning-making resource. The word translanguaging can be divided into trans, meaning going beyond, and languaging, in this case, serves as a verb, indicating people to take actions.

To dig deeper into the significance of translanguaging, Dr. Zhu shared her 3-month long research project focused on the sociolinguistic ethnography of translanguaging practices in a Karate club in east London. Interestingly, widely considered as Japanese characters , karate (空手道) actually started from the Chinese characters “Tang Shou唐手”, which later went through Japanimation to become “empty hand空手”. Through weaving the Buddhism meaning of “emptiness”—the state of having a pure mind into the term, karate reflects the further emphasis of promoting this art as a “martial way” that possessed para-religious undertones. Survived through the second World War, karate has become a very popular marital art for self-defense worldwide. Going back to the karate club located at a multilingual community with a diverse ethnical background, by following the karate coach Sensei Stan, a 6th Dan in Japanese Funakoshi Karate capable of using 4 different types of languages, and the students of various cultural backgrounds involved, a variety of translanguaging phenomena were observed and analyzed. With the Japanese commands, and Polish, Romania and English communications in between, the karate club was transformed into a different space, where the students need to image themselves turning into real karate players, experiencing the dilemma of showing respect while demonstrating competence in an embodied sense. As the coach Sensei Stan states, the teaching of karate is also the teaching of “respect”. That’s to say, respect is intertwined with Japanese karate routines, and with translanguaging as a middle carrier, the feeling of the meaning “respect” is enhanced in the participants’ mind/body and is gradually being applied to everyday life beyond the practice hall/classroom.

To conclude by connecting translanguaging with foreign language learning and teaching, translanguaging challenges the traditional monolingual classroom settings, suggesting the creation of a seamless flow between languages and language varieties to achieve effective communications. Furthermore, as multilinguals don’t think monolingually in a politically named linguistic entity framed with a “monolingual mode”, translanguaging is therefore a fluid and dynamic practice that transcends the socially constructed language systems and structures engaged by multilingual language users, serving as a prime case of embodied and culturally embedded cognition. It offers a brand-new insight into the mutual interactions between languages, communications, and cultural contexts, building up a promising pathway that can better shorten the distance between different cultures.