Can Multilingual Sports Stars Encourage the Love of Language and Culture in Our Children?

by Corey · 2 comments

With the World Cup South Africa 2010 in full swing, we see over and over again multilingualism in vivid action.  Players from different countries, training in international locations with trainers who speak different languages, interacting with diverse people and players and fans.  Being a sports star ain’t what is used to be!

Have you ever heard the Gordie Howe quote about hockey players being bilingual?  No, it doesn’t have anything to do with coming from Quebec:

All hockey players are bilingual. They know English and profanity.
— Gordie Howe

But in all seriousness, sports is one area where multilingualism is extremely prevalent, regardless of team.  One reason is due to the fact that players are often recruited internationally.  No longer are teams only made up of players from a single country of origin.

One of the favorite players on the Mariner’s baseball team here where I live in Seattle is Ichiro Suzuki from Japan.  While we Americans are cheering on Ichiro game after game, fans in Japan are doing the same.  His role as a high visibility, bilingual sports player creates a bridge which expands across continents, cultures and languages.

Although I wasn’t able to find a definitive list of current multilingual World Cup players (anyone know where to find that?), we know via articles and interviews that many, if not most, are multilingual.  It goes with the territory.

Researchers have been intrigued by the role that bilingualism plays in sports. Colin Baker and Sylvia Prys Jones include an overview of Bilingualism in Sports in their Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education (Multilingual Matters, 1998).  Although the information is outdated, it is an excellent example of what we take for granted nowadays:

Star players such as Pele (Brazil), Cruyff (Holland), Maradona (Argentina), Klinsmann (Germany), Donadoni (Italy), Sousa (Portugual), Kanchelskis (Russia), Stoichkov (Bulgaria), Hagi (Romania) and Laudrup (Denmark) are all bilingual or multilingual.  In some cases, second language acquisition has occurred when such players transferred to famous clubs in foreign countries.

Baker and Jones go on to include a list of bilingual referees from the 1996 European Football Cup, which reminded me of a recent article I forwarded via Twitter about multilingual referees learning words in different languages during this year’s World Cup.  The reason is probably not what you think it is (and brings us back to the Gordie Howe quote)!

After Wayne Rooney swore at a referee earlier this week for being carded, FIFA felt that it would be appropriate to educate their referees in swearing in various languages and cultures. The hope is that refs will be able to understand more of what players say to them and the playing field (pardon the pun) will be leveled a little. Refs will be able to distinguish if a player speaking in his native language has sworn. If so, the ref will have definite grounds to throw a yellow card (a warning).

As FIFA knows, the World Cup is a family affair for many of us.  Our children emulate their favorite teams and players, watching their every move and cheering them on at every game.  If this is the case in your family, then what a perfect opportunity to use this to your multilingual parenting advantage!

As many, if not most, players are multilingual, emphasize this fact to your children. Talk with them about how international their favorite players are.  Highlight how many languages they speak and if you aren’t sure, make an educated guess based on where they are from, where they train, what team they play on, etc.  Do a search on the internet about your children’s favorite players.  See what you can find out and really make the language and culture bits stand out.  It is a fabulous way to instill a sense of multilingual-multicultural pride in your children!

But don’t wait!  With the World Cup in full swing, the excitement is in full gear right now.  Once the matches are over, it is possible that your child may lose the same degree of interest.  Seize the opportunity while it is still sizzling hot.  If you need some ideas, check out this article on using the World Cup for some bilingual language learning.

Who are your/your children’s favorite players?  Do you know if they are multilingual?  Can you recommend any good sources of information about multilingual sports players?  If so, share it with all of us in the comments below!

Photo Credit: © Orlando Florin Rosu

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 14, 12 and 10, in German and English.

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