Guest Blog post by Emily Boaler

I am writing this article as I wholeheartedly believe that football has a crucial role to play in reversing the decline of foreign language learning in the UK. To really grasp how multilingual and multicultural football really is I don’t need to look any further than on my own doorstep. That could be playing football with my Argentinian friends, picking up on Notts County’s close international ties with Juventus, Nottingham Forest’s dominantly French and Portuguese speaking squad or reading about Nottingham born Hilbert Kilpin who founded AC Milan FC back in 1899….

UK government statistics state that deficient language skills in the UK cost 3.5% of GDP equating to billions of pounds lost due to missing out on potential sales opportunities. To make matters worse schools have seen the lowest intakes of GCSE and A-Level languages in over a decade and monolingual attitudes have arisen after voting to leave the EU. The taking up of foreign language learning is at an all-time low at a time when we require more linguists to allow businesses to venture abroad, for national security and for other vital sectors and I believe that football is the answer.

From the age of 7, my mother taught English to French-speaking Nottingham Forest football players. I met the players, received free tickets, signed shirts and merchandise. As a young child, it gave me the impression that learning languages can bring about exciting and varied opportunities. For that reason, I started to learn foreign languages and I see no reason why more of us cannot follow in the same footsteps. Football has the power to bring players, managers and fans together, regardless of gender, languages spoken, race, culture and age. Foreign languages are omnipresent in football whether that’s in the changing room, on the pitch, within the international followings of clubs or the numerous languages spoken within squads. Languages spoken in football vary not only from country to country but within countries too as we can see at FCB’s Nou Camp ‘MÉS QUE UN CLUB’ or the numerous languages spoken within the Belgian national team.

Aston Villa’s signing Mbwana Samatta from Tanzania marked the 117th nation to feature a player in the Premier League. According to the FA ‘The game has more spectators, participants, revenues and media interest than at any time in its history’. With more international players and football lovers than ever, there is no better time than now to start propagating the combination of foreign language learning with football which has the potential of appealing to such a vast audience.
One may learn Spanish thanks to their love of salsa dancing or Italian thanks to their love of opera music. However, FOOTBALL needs to become ONE of those reasons why one chooses to learn a foreign language. Here are twelve suggestions on how football can tackle the UK’s multilingual skill gap …

Promote language learning during international competitions … – I’m specifically referring to World cups, the Champions League, Euros and the Europa League. I remember seeing campaigns from the British Council during the Rio Olympics ‘Portuguese is a hugely important language for the UK both now and in the future. Ultimately having more of us being able to speak at least a little of a foreign language is good for the UK’s long–term competitiveness in the increasingly connected world.”
Unfortunately, I cannot recall language learning being incited during football competitions. Encouraging language learning during an international competition such as a World Cup would encourage many more to take up a language as it is a time where we see so many people engaged in football even those who don’t normally follow it. It is also a time where many of us start designating new role models whether that’s Kylion Mbappé or James Rodriguez and younger children want to follow in their footsteps in every way possible and that could mean learning their native languages.

More clubs should follow Arsenal Double Club’s example … ”Arsenal Double Club Languages is an innovative, award-winning educational programme that combines football with language learning. The programme is supported by the European Commission and a network of linguistic and cultural partner organisations, and currently includes modules at primary and secondary level in five languages: French, German, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. At the end of the programme, all schools have the option to bring their groups to Arsenal for a unique Language Day visit, which includes a guided, language-themed tour of Emirates Stadium, a quiz in the target language, a visit to the Arsenal Museum and certificates and prizes.”
”Since the programme began over 15,000 pupils have participated and the programme has won many national and international awards such as European Award for Languages (2008, 2010).’’ Despite the success of the programme Arsenal Double Club really does appear to be one of its kind when it comes to encouraging foreign language learning. Why aren’t more clubs following Arsenal’s example? Why aren’t more multilingual programmes such as these being replicated around the UK?

Add foreign languages to the Premier League Primary Stars programme … The Premier League Primary Stars program currently covers PHSE, Maths, English and P.E. I was surprised to see that languages aren’t on the curricular as there is no doubt that our leagues are the most multilingual and culturally diverse ones in the world. Each and every Premier League team consists of managers and players from numerous countries speaking many languages between them so surely this should be incorporated into the programme?

Incorporate foreign languages into more school visits … Despite being a Forest fan, I take my hat off to Derby County who last year sent some players to Shirebrook Academy for their foreign language day emphasising the importance of foreign languages to the students. It is vital for football players to highlight the important role foreign languages play in football and there is no better way than it coming from themselves. More multilingual orientated school visits similar to these need to become more commonplace. Young children want to be like their role models in every way possible and if that means learning their native language then that’s even better.

Use the soaring popularity of women’s football to our advantage… We saw a ‘pinnacle moment’ in the rise of women’s football in 2019 attracting record crowds and more girls and women are playing football than ever. As more have now taken a likening to football combining foreign language learning with football will without a doubt appeal to an even wider audience. Just like in the men’s game there will be female football role models from all over the world exposing us to their language and cultural heritage. If we play our cards right by promoting foreign languages in the right way more will be encouraged to study them.

Highlight when learning a language went in one’s favour and when failing to do so didn’t… Gary Lineker spent a successful three seasons as a striker at Barcelona. He said that ‘”speaking Spanish opened doors in my career”. He still speaks Spanish today and a few years back even presented an episode of Match of the Day in Spanish. Unlike Gary Lineker, we saw that Gary Neville’s four-month managerial spell in Spain wasn’t as successful. He worked hard to learn Spanish but struggled to communicate at press conferences turning to English and admitted the language barrier was a big problem in the dressing room.
Learning a language can be useful not just when playing abroad, but on home soil too, just like when Ashley Williams chose to learn Spanish at Swansea City after a succession of Spanish speaking managers helping to facilitate communication within the team.
Not being able to speak a language before moving to a new country can result in getting off on the wrong foot consequently delaying the acclimatisation period, raising communication barriers and creating poor relationships with the press and the fans. Moreover, it can be devastating for a player/manager’s career and can even tarnish their reputation. It is clear to see that a strong understanding of a foreign language is key for bringing about success when moving to a new foreign country both on and off the pitch.

Start designating role models on the languages they speak as well as their football ability … With 17 goals in just 25 games, mastering Italian in a very short space of time and being able to speak a total of 8 foreign languages Romelu Lukaku is a perfect role model based on both his football and multilingual ability. Lukaku is fully aware of the importance of being able to speak a language fluently both on and off the pitch. “It’s important for me as a player that they understand me perfectly. How I want the ball. Where I want the ball. I have to know those exact words in Italian because the subtleties are different in every language. There’s no substitute for that. It’s a respect thing, for the culture, the surroundings, the employer and your team-mates. The least you can do is respect the culture and the language instead of assuming others will change for you.” Role models such as Lukaku will without a doubt encourage more to study a language……

Highlight careers requiring foreign languages in football … There are numerous opportunities requiring foreign languages in football. That could be translating football stats, interpreting for players/managers, working at UEFA/FIFA, working as a football liaison officer, coaching abroad, football journalism and the list goes on and on. Many lack awareness on what type of careers do require language skills and it’s just matter of highlighting and educating others on this to give them a good reason to take up a language in the first place.

Take advantage of international followings …… The majority of football clubs will boast international followings. Notts County has a strong Italian following thanks to the club’s proud ties with Juventus, to whom Notts gave their first-ever kit. More than 100 years later the two clubs still have strong ties. Just last year Juventus offered to pay for the Notts County’s kit as a way to say thank you for bringing the black and white stripes from Nottingham to the Piedmont capital. Notts also added a logo reading ‘Two hearts, one soul – From Nottingham to Turin’ to all of those buying a shirt in Italy.
The UK needs to consider how we can benefit from international followings such as these when it comes to foreign language learning. Encouraging people from all over the world to unite over one shared passion can benefit each and every individual. Could clubs encourage a speaking partner programme where fans from different countries are paired up and are encouraged to learn one another’s language?

Language course providers to team up with football clubs/associations … La Liga has just teamed up with Instituto Cervantes which is the largest organisation in the world that promotes Spanish language learning offering courses with languages and football combined. Could the Premier League follow La Liga’s example and team up with the British Council or other organisations such as Instituto Cervantes?
With input from both foreign language course providers and footballing experts, I am convinced that the content used for these type of courses will be engaging and of a high calibre capturing the attention of football lovers who choose to learn a new language. Combining a passion for football with foreign language learning prevents it from becoming a chore …….

Incorporate foreign languages into summer football camps … There are many football camps running during the summer holidays here in the UK. However, I have rarely seen programmes offering both football and languages for native English speakers. As many of these camps run during the six weeks holidays why not get language teachers involved by teaching football-related vocabulary and then shouting it out on the pitch? There’s no better way to learn the language than putting it into practice and combining it with another passion ………….

More foreign language-related content to be incorporated into football-related media … This could mean incorporating languages into more social media posts, airing programmes on lives of footballers before they came to the UK and their struggles of adapting to a new culture, footballers who succeeded and failed abroad due to learning or failing to learn the language, football-related programmes from abroad or presenting our own programmes in a different language every now and again just like when Gary Lineker presented MOTD in Spanish a few years back.
The more foreign language-based content we are exposed to the better as we will frequently be reminded of the important role foreign languages play in football. Not only will media expose us to foreign languages, but will encourage us to get involved. Young followers will also want to follow in their role models footsteps. More importantly, it sends out a loud and clear message that learning foreign languages is cool and contemporary…

In Conclusion

Encouraging language learning with football combined creates a win-win situation not just for the footballing world, but for the business world too not forgetting the vital importance of languages in other sectors such as security and education. We don’t want to be hitting the woodwork when it comes to trading abroad, we need to be putting the ball in the back of the net. We can’t allow for a language deficit to result in missed out sales opportunities. We need to be on the ball, get stuck in and cannot afford to watch from the sidelines if we desire to remain internationally competitive in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world…
Football and foreign languages have many things in common, ranging from communication to having the power to bring cultures together. The two have intertwined on a daily basis ever since I started learning foreign languages and can, therefore, work in sync. That could be meeting French-speaking Nottingham Forest players, watching Chievo Verona play against Roma while living in Italy or playing on FIFA in Spanish. Thanks to the globalisation of football, technological advances and easy access to vast amounts of material on football in many languages combining football with foreign language learning has never been easier.
Football can without a doubt become a game-changer when it comes to inciting more to learn foreign languages. It’s just a matter of education, adaptation, awareness, exposure and learning how to embrace foreign languages with open arms. Promoting and combining foreign languages with football gives the impression that languages are cool, contemporary and captivating. A solid strategy and an innovative approach are required to take on the challenge of combining football and languages together with a strong coalition of teams and organisations that can support it. If acted upon correctly I believe that football has the potential of breaking the vicious cycle of monolingualism here in the UK.

Together we can turn the beautiful game into o jogo bonito……….