Language and A Question of Sport

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Is the internationalisation of sport helping or hindering language preservation? This is the question Kwintessential intern, Aiden Froud, investigates in his first blog for the Culture Vulture.

Louis Van Gaal was appointed the new manager of Manchester United in July 2014. This was met with a positive response from both fans and players alike after his success with the Dutch national team.

It was barely a month in to his reign when midfielder Juan Mata revealed that the players had been instructed to speak English to each other whenever they were together – even if their native language wasn’t English.

Many people saw this as an attempt to eliminate cultural identity from sports despite Van Gaal informing Sky Sports that he was only attempting to remove linguistic obstacles between players and officials.

However this shows how foreign sports stars are trying to embrace the culture of the country that they are playing in. Alan Pardew also asked 5 French signings to learn and speak English or face hefty fines ranging from an intense press up routine to monetary fines. However, is this taking away the right to speak you own language? Given the multi-cultural society that we live in it is key that we keep all languages alive.

This cultural embrace isn’t shared in all sports though. One example is Andy Murray. Whenever he gives an interview after playing in a country where English isn’t the primary language, he doesn’t use the local language, whereas Novak Djokovic, the current world number 1, speaks Serbian, English, German, French and Italian and uses them when he has to. Murray, who lived in Spain for two years, admitted to the Daily Record “It’s something I regret not doing when I was actually over in Spain. I wish I had learned the language. I can understand a fair amount, I’m just not comfortable speaking it.”


One of the most outstanding moments on a tennis tour was in 2013 at the Italian Open when Serena Williams gave her entire victory speech in Italian much to the delight of the locals and the confusion of the TV crews.

Many governing bodies within sport are trying to preserve native languages within their sport and are offering language courses to those who would like it. UEFA- the Union of European Football Associations- have brought out a dictionary which contains key footballing terminology in the official languages of UEFA (English, French and German) and it can be brought by all but is given to all officials who are officiating matches with foreign teams.  The pocket dictionary contains 1,800 phrases in all three languages and is endorsed by the world football body FIFA.

Each country has a specific style of play in all sports, whether it be tika-taka in football, the Spanish national team, or using your wingers as much as possible – the Welsh rugby team – just like each country has its own unique language or languages and by not embracing these languages it will only contribute to the 25 languages that fall silent each year.

Project International deliver an Elite Sports Academy at Epsom College which is attended by teenagers from all over the world. They offer two courses. One is a sports only course and the other is a sports and TEFL course. The TEFL course offers 12 hours of English tuition each week alongside the hours of sport also on offer to them. This course has been both highly praised and criticised because English is being taught and the sports coaches only speak English. The English being taught is praised for spreading a language but, like Louis Van Gaal, criticised for almost forcing the students to speak English.

If you watch 6 Nations rugby and listen to what the referee says to players in the England-France match, he will speak English to everybody. Many players have pleaded for this to be altered as some see it as an insult that the referee isn’t even attempting to speak in the native language.

Sir Bradley Wiggins also caused some upset amongst French nationals when he won Le Tour de France because the first thing he said in his victory speech was, “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll speak English,” suggesting that he can speak French but didn’t want to at the time. On the other hand some people praised him for at least acknowledging the native tongue of the majority of his audience rather than speaking English immediately. The list of incidents like this could go on for an extensive period of time and include such names as Mauricio Pochettino, Fabio Capello, Steve McClaren, Robert Pires and Carlos Tevez.

To help combat the elimination of languages, many feel that Van Gaal, and others, are wrong to make all the players talk in English when, for example, Daley Blind, Robin Van Persie and Van Gaal himself can communicate in Dutch and Angel Di Maria, Juan Mata, David de Gea and Ander Herrera can all converse in Spanish. However as a collective group, such as in training, then all players should at least try to speak in a common language.  And in a recent interview with Geoff Shreeves, Angel Di Maria required some help with translating from Juan Mata. This not only made Manchester United fans grin even more after a 4-0 victory but triggered one of the largest sporting trends on Twitter that originated in the UK.

Sport is helping preserve native languages by teaching languages to the younger sports stars and the top stars learning them as well but it is also hindering it as some franchises are trying to enforce a common language throughout the players and coaching staff at all times.  Everything that can be helped can also be hindered, it’s up to you what happens next.

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