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Defeating the Offence: Language, Sports & Racism

Sport. Whether you’re an armchair commentator or a chess boxing champion, for the partakers of sport and its fans, sport means something. Be it a chance to keep healthy, or the rush that comes with seeing your rival team defeated, sport – especially team sport – unites people (hopefully) far more than it divides.

Which brings us to another great unifier; languages. Because communication, and ultimately, understanding, are things we think you’ll agree are key to anything that brings us together. And therefore combining sport and languages sounds like a recipe for all kinds of good things. Let’s investigate.


If you’re a baseball lover, you might already be aware of the recent controversy when Mike Schmidt cited a ‘language barrier’ as the reason the Philadelphia Phillies couldn’t build a team around outfielder Odubel Herrera. Even Schmidt’s apology points to Herrera’s improvement of his language – English – being central to developing his leadership skills. What kind of messed up, ignorant, blinded ideology is that?

Of course, the language barrier is a real, existing hurdle for international players of any sport that is ‘played’ in another language – in terms of communication between team members, understanding the rules and referees, and so on. But generally speaking, learning a new language just points to how incredible some of our international athletes really are, and is a testament to their character, not their ability to lead a team.

Photo via Pexels

Language learners

If anyone needs an inspirational nudge to learn a second language for themselves, here’s a few people that might help.

Pau Gasol from Spain is a six-time NBA All-Star who has been in the NBA since 2001, and speaks Spanish, Catalan and English.

Przemek Karnowski from Poland is a young basketball player who has recently completed his his college career at Gonzaga University – in English – despite calling himself a terrible student when he was back in Torun.

Baseball starting pitcher Michael Pineda from the Dominican Republic sets an amazing example for overcoming language difficulties in sports, striving to learn English yet at the same time pointing the finger of blame for his language level solely at himself for not learning, following the pine tar incident in 2014.

And finally, defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, from Russia, who has been traded to play for Tampa Bay, has been praised by teammates and coaches alike for his mastery of English since arriving in Canada in 2015.

GIF via Giphy

The beautiful game

We have purposely omitted any football – soccer players, from the list above, because there are just so many examples we could have used. The Premier League has been around since 1992 and has attracted some of the most talented and internationally-loved football players from around the world. A lack of English hasn’t stopped these players from integrating into their teams, earning them titles, and becoming firm fan favourites for their skills.

We’re not talking about the Fabio Capellos of this world, who didn’t really bother to learn English despite captaining the English team, and also seemed disinterested in the culture of the game itself. We’re thinking of Chelsea manager Antonio Conte taking additional English lessons whilst being a manager. We’re talking about the Lionel Messis, the Arsene Wengers, and the Cesc Fabregas’ of football, who are in many cases multilingual. Ambassadors for sport and for language learning; what’s not to love about that?

Learning a new language? Check out our free placement test to see how your level measures up!

GIF via Giphy

An important message

Because with international players seems to come the exposing of the nastier side of some so-called football fans, in the form of racism. Fan-to-player racism is unfortunately seen as commonplace within the arena that is professional football, with racist chants and slurs often heard from the stands, despite efforts to stop it.

Only, football is fighting back. Show Racism The Red Card was established back in 1996, aiming to help tackle racism within the football community, and have a knock-on effect on society on the whole. The initiative serves to educate and promote a message of diversity, and understanding, and is supported by a wide range of footballers from the world over. And whilst fighting this prejudice is an ongoing, uphill challenge, footballers are united in doing so.

We said at the beginning that sport is a unifier, bringing people together for the shared love of their particular games. It goes without saying, then, that if sport can first, act as a unifier of shared interests, and second, be a catalyst for tackling prejudice, then learning languages can serve that same purpose.

If we learn to communicate in another language, we don’t just learn the words; we learn about the culture, history, customs, and ultimately that people are just people, regardless of their nationality, regardless of how different they appear to us. And if we can learn that, well, we’re on to even bigger and better means of tackling all the prejudices that tarnish our societies currently. Language learning isn’t just about enriching your holiday experience, it’s about celebrating the diversity of our world. Who wouldn’t want a part of that?!