Foreign Languages and Football: The Bundesliga and Multilingualism

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With football players changings clubs more often than they change their socks, it is not surprising that the football clubs in the German Bundesliga have players from all over the world. Of course, this can hinder good communication. Ben Gladwell asks himself whether this means a lingua franca is needed in the football world.

In an article on Bundesliga, Ben Gladwell discusses the topic of multilingualism in German football (soccer for our American readers).

He questions how the different nationalities in the German teams affect communication. According to Gladwell, English is usually the favoured language to communicate in. And if a player does not speak English, he says, they usually turn to body language.

However, explaining or understanding a complicated tactical system or a training methodology in body language can be quite the challenge, Gladwell says.

This is why the Catalan Pep Guardiola took lessons in German six months prior to his appointment as the coach of FC Bayern Munchen. Before coming to Germany, Guardiola already spoke Castilian, Italian and English and Gladwell believes the addition of German means the football coach can communicate with almost every player on his team.

[Guardiola – the multilingual manager]

Not all people in the football industry prepare themselves as thoroughly as Guardiola before they head to Germany, Gladwell says.

Giovanni Trapattoni, who used to coach the Bayern team, coined the neologism ‘ich habe fertig’ (I’ve had enough) when he was angry about a defeat. This exclamation now has a cult status in Germany, but at least people knew what he meant.

This was not the case when Trapattoni mentioned having a cat in the sack, Gladwell says – only people who know the German ‘alle Tassen im Schrank’ understood what he meant. However, Gladwell says it makes sense that people make these kinds of mistakes when they are under pressure.

Gladwell believes this is why a lingua franca is necessary in the football industry, even more so for players speaking languages that have no ties with German.

This is probably why in 2011, Bayern paid a Japanese-German speaking boy to help Takashi Usami learn the German language. Despite their efforts, not all players become fluent in the language: Gladwell gives the example of Luci Toni, who, when he left Borussia Dortmund, could only count to three in German and knew the words ‘gewinnen’ and ‘glücklich.’

[Luca Toni left Germany being able to count to 3 – yes, crazy Luca isnt’t it?!]

Speaking more languages can be an advantage for players, Gladwell says. Speaking a foreign language on the field can polarise players of the other team and exotic swear words will probably not be noticed by the referee.

This is why Gladwell believes the Bundesliga will never lose its multilingualism. However, as English and German will remain dominant, he advises football players in Germany to learn one of these languages for their own good.

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