Vocabulary is not Knowledge – June 29, 2015, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

Reading through the research literature, it always depresses me a little bit when I read an article “On Kata” or some sort and as I begin I realize the author is going to tell me that “Martial arts are taught in set-piece physical actions called kata.”

Oh, thanks.

The acquisition of a specialized vocabulary (in other words, a jargon) has always been a substitute for knowledge amongst undergrads who figure the game is to learn the language of science. This has been discovered by other fields of study and some struggle to create a jargon as obscure as they can make it. The problem isn’t restricted to academe, in class-based societies your language will substitute for your status, hence Pygmalion.

But that’s not how jargon works in relation to knowledge. Jargon is a shortcut not a goal and it’s only useful if everyone knows the shortcut. It does not work if it’s obscure, the aim is not to exclude, it’s to save time. Hence the need for undergrads to learn the language of their discipline, even if that discipline doesn’t really need a specialized language.

My daughter looked at a toddler the other day and asked if it is necessary for humans to lose that wonder of the world as they grow up. Unfortunately it is, we take in much too much information to deal with it unfiltered. Our brains sort and categorize, they don’t accumulate and extrapolate. We don’t do “big data”. If we did we wouldn’t have computers at faceplant crunching the numbers trying to figure out what we’re going to buy next. When the world has tigers in the bushes we don’t need to be pointing at flowers and saying “pretty”, we need to be seeing tigers. As toddlers we have adults doing that filtering for us until we get the ability. Then, as adults, we take special classes that help us “be in the world” and appreciate the pretty flowers, but again, that’s in a protected place like a temple, not, hopefully, while we’re driving a car. When we’re dealing with the modern tigers (cars) we need to categorize, we need to dismiss anything that we don’t need to see, like thousands of advertisements surrounding the road signs.

The research kids marvel that folks miss the guy in the ape suit who walks across their field of vision. I marvel that the researchers expect anyone to see him. We have to discriminate to survive.

Hence the jargon, we put entire species into a name, we put entire books worth of physics into a formula so that we can move beyond that book. If we don’t put chunks of knowledge into a word we spend all our time re-learning that knowledge. Once should be enough so that we can then trust that formula and use the method of it’s derivation on the next one.

We put an entire method of training into the word “kata”. But knowing what that word stands for isn’t the same as knowing how to learn or to teach kata. Vocabulary is not knowledge. Use it, by all means, but don’t assume that if you don’t know that bit of jargon you are somehow lacking in the knowledge that lies behind it. And of course, don’t assume that knowing the word means you actually understand the concept it represents. Louisa may speak with the posh accent but she’s still from the apple-selling classes. She’ll need to know how to fold napkins in the current style. Until she does, it might be best for her to speak posh, but as little as possible lest someone discover she knows the words but not the concepts behind them.

Kim Taylor
June 29, 2015

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