As a secondary school languages teacher I have lost count of the amount of footballing kids who have said to me ‘What’s the point of doing languages sir? I’m gonna be a footballer.’ Thankfully, in recent years I have been able to reply ‘Well, maybe David Beckham, Joe Cole, Michael Owen or Joey Barton once asked their teacher the same thing’. It makes me think though; is the British footballing world ‘bon’ or ‘mauvais’ when it comes to speaking other languages?
Roy Hodgson, the current England boss, sets himself apart when it comes to embracing different languages and cultures. Already in his brief time as England boss Roy has conducted press conferences in a range of languages; testament to his diverse early managerial career. Well liked in Scandinavia and Italy in particular, Roy’s linguistic abilities could not be more different than those of his competition for the England job, Harry Redknapp, who openly admitted not being able to spell or send a text in his native tongue. Not bad for a multi-millionaire. Frank Lampard, Harry’s nephew, does not have the same limitations. Excelling at the highly academic Brentwood School, Essex, Frank can boast a GCSE A* in Latin to go with his plethora of other high school qualifications. This probably helped him when learning Spanish during his relationship with Elen Rives. Frank has often been seen in deep conversation in Spanish with Hispanic adversaries and was also linked to move to Spain earlier in his career, in part due to his knowledge of Spanish.
Two strikers of yester year are also pretty fluent when it comes to Spanish. Former Liverpool, Brighton and Ireland striker Michael Robinson enjoyed his time in Spain so much that he stayed there in order to forge a career in the Spanish media. Tweeting in fluent Spanish from @michaerobinson he has become a fountain of knowledge on Spanish football, a far cry from his early days playing for Preston North End. Robinson is so accomplished in Spanish language and culture that Steve McManaman saw him as a mentor and teacher of all things Spanish during his successful time in Madrid.
TV Presenter and one time striker Gary Lineker also speaks impressive Spanish following his time in Barcelona. He tells how he had two lessons every week for two years in order to fully immerse himself in the language and culture of Spain.
Other notable ‘Ballon d’Or’ nominees are ex-Chelsea trio of Graeme Rix, Tony Cascarino and Ray Wilkins, who between them speak French and Italian fluently following spells abroad. Cascarino in particular flourished during his time in Marseille and according to his excellent biography ‘Full Time’ has brought his children up to be bilingual.
Ballon en plastique:
When David Beckham transferred to Real Madrid he did what everyone does when learning a new language: learnt the swear words first! Except for the odd ‘gracias’ and ‘hola’ Beckham’s first recorded Spanish in public was ‘hijo di puta’ (son of a bitch) to a linesman. Cracking ambassador for our country is Dave. Despite his now more articulate usage of English it is generally accepted that Beckham did not naturally take to Spanish and was rumoured to be wearing an earpiece under a woolly hat in some of his early interviews! Even after four seasons at Madrid he did not seem comfortable speaking Spanish in his farewell press conference.
Stoke back-up goalkeeper Carlo Nash is not your typical footballer. Carlo describes himself as a luxury back packer, however he could also describe himself as language student. With knowledge of several languages Carlo has had one-to-one tutoring in Italian; perhaps in order to book a youth hostel in Rome more easily.
L’important c’est l’accent :
Two proud Brits abroad have shown the footballing world that fluency in the language, or lack of it, doesn’t matter as long as you have got the accent. Brolly toting Steve McLaren was the first to forward this technique when being interviewed during his time in Holland. We were given the full range of Steve’s extensive Dutch vocabulary. He even learnt colloquialisms such as ‘we are what you call the underdog’ in a fluent, hilarious and cringe worthy accent.
Even more of a YouTube sensation and national news story was Joey Barton’s bizarre attempt to speak in a French accent in a recent press conference. Given his self promotion as a modern day George Orwell he went against the grain with his faux French accent. Maybe Joey is thinking back to holidays abroad when people just speak in English but with an accent and then louder if they cannot be understood. Maybe his friends in the Marseille Ultras, with whom he was pictured, can one day give him a few lessons in Marseillais.
So we are, to use a footballing terminology, a lower league nation when it comes to speaking languages. In comparison to the Champions League elite linguists such as Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabergas or Arsene Wenger we could even be conference standard. However, with English being the predominant language of the football world, and the riches of the premier league hampering foreign exportation, this seems unlikely to change!