Friday, November 11, 2011


Gordon Taylor will be "zu Tode betruebt" or at the very least "tres decu".

In other, more homely words, he could also be a tad disappointed.

So that was a tricky start. Foreign languages, a barbed wire no-go zone for many, a place of catastrophic Pythonesque misunderstandings for others. "Did you say "toast"?. Oh I'm terribly sorry, I thought you said "toads". No toads on the menu today, no, no! Ha ha. Ah what an oaf I am!... No, I said "oaf..." And so on and so on.

Few are they who walk the nomadic fields and trip the linguistic fantastic without stopping to catch breath and straighten their dipthongs. We cannot expect everybody, even in these enlightened times, to speak a rich variety of languages and be comfortable listening to conversations in Hungarian and Dutch, Greek and Danish. It is a big wide world but we have brains which have been frazzled by too much cinema vérité and Stella Artois, too many late nights pounding the computer console with our stubby fingers. The coup de grace, as ever, came from that tank of Duvel that we drank the other week. The brain has not been the same since. Bloody Belgians, present Kompany excepted, naturally enough.

Somewhere within this morasse of cliché and inuendo, however, lies a salient point. You, my single loyal reader, probably clicked on the link that transported you here so painlessly because you fully expected to be reading something (some tripe) in English. And this what you got. Already, some two hundred words in, you have had to feast your eyes on at least eleven words or phrases that are not in fact English at all.

But what if your name were Carlos Alberto Martinez? You would of course already have mentally turned off and would be busy excavating your nose.

But, what if.

Would it be possible to assume that, when he was informed by his hard working entourage that the next leg of the magical mystery tour that is his career would see him heading for "West Ham United" all those years ago, that the very basic thoughts that he so specialises in might have featured one of the following rhetorical questions:

  • West Ham's in Inglaterra, isn't it? London, if I'm not mistaken. East End.
  • The people in England speak English, don't they?
  • You have to speak English in England, don't you, if you want to survive, prosper even?
  • English is a popular means of communication between all sorts of people in all sorts of places around the globe. Isn't it? 
I wonder quietly to myself at night, when all I can here outside is the braying of the neighbour's dog and a distant row between homeward bound drunks in the hissing night mist, what exactly Tevez's highly specialised, well-oiled and classily expensive entourage of healers and helpers thought might be a good idea at that particular juncture in his interesting and meandering professional career. Did they immediately sign him up for a crash course, knowing that their client had some difficulty ordering a side portion of picadas in his own husky Spanish on a bad day, or did they resolve to let him flounder and see what transpired? Did they discuss in quiet lucid gatherings how they could best enable their clients a soft and agreeable landing in this land of Balti Pies and Benny Hill, Bullseye and Scotch Eggs (God love us, what must people think?), and what they might have to do to allow their clients to concentrate on the next game, Barry


All that money rolling in. All those flashlights popping in his face. Little Mascherano alongside him at the press conference blinking and spluttering. Not a word of English between them. But that was a decidedly long time ago. 2006, it says here. You, dear reader, could learn Farsi, Hebrew and Mandarin Chinese in the time that has since elapsed, and even more quickly if someone waved a salary slip in front of you with more noughts on it than the Greek National Audit. Even if they didn't, you could do it. We are capable of these things, given time and patience, half a memory and a bit of the rub of the green.  

Even me.

I am living proof of this fact. For my sins, I have worked at various times in Holland, Germany, Switzerland, France, Belgium and Portugal. At no time did it cross my mind that I could simply get away with English in any of those places. I spent nearly ten years in Holland. This is a country that possesses a language which, when spoken with vivacity and enthusiasm, say, in a crowded meeting of management consultants or (my own preferred territory) a stuffed bar at half-past one in the morning, sounds a little like somebody repeatedly standing on an adult squirrel. I persevered with this Language of the Throat and, by the end of my time there, was working exclusively in the native tongue, much to the probable mirth of my company's clients. I, a class A dunce, wastrel and purveyor of linguistic shipwrecks, had made it and made it in Dutch of all languages on this sceptered planet.


If the mantra in Holland (a country where even the cows moo decent English) is "When in Holland, speak the language the locals do", what can we say about dear old Blighty? I have been addressed in English by supermarket check-out girls in Amsterdam, by shop assistants in Vienna and by floor cleaners in Porto (yes, I get around, yes I talk to absolutely anybody), but England is different. this is because of English. Not Polish, not Turkish. English.Coming to England as a foreigner is different. English, the global language of media, sport, politics and more or less anything else you care to think of, is everywhere. You cannot go to the cinema without it, nor enter a congress. In short you cannot behave like we have all behaved when abroad and wander casually into a place and proceed, without even asking if it is possible, to have a conversation with a complete stranger at speed in your own language.

All of which makes Carlos Tevez ever so slightly odd.

Translate that!
In the intricate world of professional football, communication is key. Teams fill up with foreign imports, managers and coaches come from far afield, fitness trainers, cooks, bottlewashers, cone experts, veruka advisers, nail polishers and boot lickers. They are all there at your top clubs these days and half of them are foreigners.Football is cash. Football is time and space, It is energy. It consumes everything before it. It is Mammon. It is Terry. It is Cole. It is Capello. It is Gordon Taylor. It is the indefatigably obscene Sepp Blatter. The football family speaks English. It churns out publicity, magazines, tickets, jingles, sponsor straplines and a complete wasteland of press coverage and all of it in English. Just Do It. Impossible Is Nothing. For The Good of the Game. You just cannot escape it. Unless your name is Carlos Tevez.


The modern day footballer has to pick up on an infinite array of tactical suggestions, dossiers on opponents, travel itineries and catwalk invitations. He has to sit at press conferences looking meaningful, answer questions about this that and the tedious other, all the time playing the straight bat, keeping the poker face and following the company line. "We do not test on small fluffy animals." "We do not commit affluent chemical liquids to the North Sea." "We were not in the book depository when the top of his head came off.". Etcetera. To do all of this without falling over takes a working knowledge of the local lingo. How could it be otherwise? I once had the undiluted pleasure of working with Ajax and Benfica, two European football institutions of the highest repute. Dish of the Day? Organising language training for foreign players. Now Dutch and Portuguese are not the easiest of things to get your teeth into. I was there when poor Jari Litmanen's eyes glazed over. I was there when Marcio Santos suddenly needed to go home for a pee (any excuse) and I was most certainly there when Michel Preud'homme tried to distract me from my onerous task by inviting me for a round of golf in Cascais instead. Almost to a man, the players thought it was a big joke. A bloke in a suit trying to sign them up for sessions in front of a whiteboard making fools of themselves. I have seen it many times before. This is like going naked. Suddenly, the senior partner of a huge multinational is laid bare as a mumbling imbecile in English. Top footballers do not like this much.John terry looks tough and confident in "Cockney", but ask him to sit down and order a fruit loop in French and he will look like one of the biggest Jessies since Jessie James.

The counter argument is: where does one start with a language like English, with its silent b's and it's intrusive th's? Put yourself, for a moment, in Carlos's comfortable ultra expensive silk carpet slippers and try to form a Carlos-inspired opinion on the following....English is the language that brings you:
  • six different ways to pronounce "ough" (thought, tough, through, cough, bough, although)
  • verbs that change so radically they might be from Venus (seek > sought)
  • rules that have more exceptions than examples
  • pronunciation from the bowels of hell itself (innovate > innovative; famous > infamous. Try asking a foreigner to say "Neville Southall" and watch as they bite their tongues and keel over)
  • structure as user-friendly as the Mountain Path to Mordor: "I wanted to see what it was like" "I wanted to see how it was"
  • 100s of words that aren't remotely English anyway: creche, kindergarten, shampoo, breeze, laissez-faire, brio, bankrupt, gateau, ketchup.....
It's a tough ask, as modern users of the lingo are prone to say. In real English, it is a demanding challenge. Let Carlos turn the telly on for half an hour and what might he come across for his entertainment , for his education? Ah look, it's Sir Alex Ferguson, speaking...what exactly? Sounds like Hindi from a man with a Mars bar stuck up his nose, but it could be Finnish with all the vowels removed. Let's zap. Ah, Peter Reid. No, can't understand a single word of that either.

Some of our most famous faces mangle the mother tongue until it sounds like a pig in a cement mixer. After a lot of grunting and bleating, all you are left with is bones and fur. How did Mirandinha, the little Brazilian arriving slightly ahead of his time in 80s Newcastle, deal with Gazza's verbal gymnastics, let alone his rubber breasted pranks? The poor man ran around with gloves on looking deeply puzzled for 3 months and promptly made his excuses and left. Deep fired Mars bars, barely dressed lasses ideologically wide at the hips and Barry Venison's highlights can all be tolerated, even enjoyed for what they are, but a gibbering maniac spouting Swahili through a loud-haler?


Swales + Elton get started
City have had their own moments of linguistic gold too, of course. Which club hasn't? Mention Peter Reid and his special version of thick Scouse, a world of "he's arrived too late at the back sticks" and "he's done his hamstrings in", brings a managerial predecessor to mind: Mel Machin. Here was a man for whom a sentence was often over before it had started or, on other occasions, before he appeared ready for it to be. Quiet, unassuming and utterly monotone, Mel could give press interviews that would have put a bull walrus to sleep. Sure, he pronounced every syllable like the Queen Mother, he used his prepositions accurately and sparingly, but boy did he meander. Peter Swales, another linguistic juggernaut, having famously accused our Mel of having "no repartee" with us proles, went on his merry way too. Many was the interview that would halt mid flow for Peter to put the question "What's the word I'm looking for here, Elton?". When he was hooked up to the mic with Jimmy Greaves in the studio, it was like trying to pull a hippopotamus tooth with a pair of your Nan's tweezers. "Ees the gaffer like Peter aint ee?" - "He is Greavsie, yeah, what's the word I want? Puffa jacket? is it?".

And don't ever get me started on the brilliantly inept Dragoslav Stepanovic, another of Big Mal's experiments: A Serb made captain of City in 1979 despite not speaking more than four words ("Come on you Blues" to be precise) of English...

I digress. Carlos is waiting for us by the eternal whiteboard, marker pen and dictaphone at the ready. So, look at this:

Characteristics of Good Language Learners -Good language learners are born and not made’ - consider the “Good language learner”  model proposed by Naiman, Frohlich, Todesco and Stern (1978) as part of the good language learner study. The model consists of five boxes which represent classes of variables in language learning. These are teaching, the learner and the context (the three independent causative variables.) and the learning and the outcome boxes (the caused variables).

Basically, there are four basic strategies which good language learners employ:
  active planning strategy
  ‘academic’ learning strategy
   social learning strategy
   affective learning strategy  (Stern, 1983)


Laissez ton cheval et allez boire ton lait
All of this will be news to Kia Joorabchian, I'm sure, but is it asking too much to expect somebody in a situation like this (feted, celebrated, in the media spotlight, paid amounts of money which demand some slight act of loyalty and effort in response) to become competent in the lingua franca of your employers, your peers and the people all around you? After 5 years?! Jan Molby, after a similar period, was so comfortable with the native tongue, he became completely assimilated in the local culture, sending messages in fluent English from his bench inside Bootle Jail. So, it can be done and it doesn't take a brain the size of the Planetarium to carry it off either. Arsene Wenger sounds like a History don from Cambridge when he gets going. Bergkamp, Kompany, Martin Jol, Gullit, Gudjohnsen, Larssen, Mourinho and many others have all impressed with their easy fluency. And herein, perhaps, lies another moot point. Take a Dutchman, a Swede, a Portuguese and they will rise to the linguistic challenge almost immediately. We have marveled down the years at how the Dutch adapt to our game so quickly, how the Scandinavians are onto it in short time, but there is a hidden factor. These are all nations small in size and whose languages don't get you far. Try speaking Portuguese or Danish in your local Waitrose and see what happens. These are countries with a spirit of adaptability and flexibility imbued in the souls of its people. The same cannot be said for your average Spaniard or Italian, where local t.v. dubs John Wayne into a ridiculous falsetto or France where James Bond may sound like Daffy Duck with a Parisien accent. Watch television or go to the cinema in Copenhagen, Lisbon or Amsterdam and you will hear the voices and the words of the people you are watching, not an army of behind-the-scenes mime artistes. There are praiseworthy exceptions (the afore-mentioned Wenger is one, Zola and Roberto Martinez others) but they are few and far between. Despite the clanging mistakes and the frolicking mispronunciations of Benitez, Capello and, it must be said, Mancini, at least they appear to be trying. In the case of Carlos Alberto Martinez, it appears to be more an example of nihilistic arrogance. Plus ça change.

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