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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 December 2007, 11:25 GMT
Learning the lingo
Brian Barwick, Fabio Capello, and translator
Capello is using translators

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

New England manager Fabio Capello has vowed to learn English in a month, but can he and does he need to?

"But in this moment my English is not so well."

Fabio Capello's explanation at his first press conference as England manager indicated two things.

Those people who said he had no understanding whatsoever of English were wrong. And those people who said he actually spoke English were wrong.

But Capello is a man not short on confidence and has promised he will be able to speak to the players in English within a month. It's a brave claim for a man who suggested he was "hono-rayed" to be appointed and uses "well" incorrectly.

I would be giving the hairdryer treatment in English and he would be giving the hairdryer treatment in Russian
Gary Johnson
Ex-Latvia manager

Daniel Tammet, the British autistic savant, once learned Icelandic in a week.

On the other hand, football managers can be slow to achieve fluency and there are those who believe this threatens their work with the media as well as the main job of coaching.

Claudio Ranieri started with an interpreter as Chelsea manager and took a few years to get fluent. Rafael Benitez started at Liverpool with a solid if limited grasp of English, but was heavily reliant on stock phrases, often ending thoughts with "then for sure, we have possibilities".

Timothy Blake, managing director of the London School of English is sceptical that fluency can be reached in any language in a few weeks.

Hard work

"Learning another language is basically not that quick. It has always been some sort of fantasy. A few people are capable of doing that but they probably speak six or seven languages already. They are like professional musicians learning an instrument.

"For most people who want to learn a foreign language it's very hard work."

Blake would recommend a course of intensive one-on-one tuition, no more than six hours of lessons per day, with learning tailored to Capello's particular sporting needs.

Claudio Ranieri
Claudio Ranieri was much mocked but achieved fluency

"He doesn't need to be told the jargon for different formations," says Blake. Just as an English manager might already know his difensore from his centrocampista, or his catenaccio from his libero, Capello will probably know the basic English terms.

But the thing he will lack is the level of idiom that allows more effective communication, and this is within a workplace that is more idiomatic in its use of English than most.

Many have laughed at the "over the moons" and "sick as a parrot" of post-match banality, but footballers are often not the clearest and most concise English speakers.

There are those that suggest that operating through an interpreter for the months while he gains fluency might not be such a bad thing. Or indeed, dismiss the notion that it is essential that he does gain fluency.

Gary Johnson, manager of high-flying Championship side Bristol City, knows all about what it is like to immerse yourself in a foreign culture where you don't speak a word. He took on the post of Latvia manager in 1999. The key is a good attitude and an interpreter that understands football matters, he says.

Dolce & Gabbana

"Go in, be humble and put over your views in a clever way. If you can speak Double Dutch and you are winning people will accept you. If he isn't winning he can speak the Queen's English but it won't help.

"I had a very good interpreter. He was the general secretary of the Latvian FA and he was very passionate about the game.

"I would be giving the hairdryer treatment in English and he would be giving the hairdryer treatment in Russian."

But of course, as Johnson notes, it's a slightly different state of affairs when you're going to a nation where the players may have a smattering of English and want to learn more. The England squad do not have a smattering of Italian, beyond Dolce & Gabbana and Versace that is.

Business seminar
In business body language is often the key

"[In Latvia] it wasn't that difficult, they wanted me to teach the players English, the brief was to get them into European clubs. Now there are a lot of Cockney-speaking Latvians," says Johnson.

Only on one occasion was Johnson and his translator stumped.

"I was trying to tell one of the players he was a cheat. I had to spend 10 minutes in a charade of making a card drop from underneath my cuff."

Of course, away from football, in the world of international business, communicating complicated concepts when you don't speak any of the language is common.

"There are lots of seminars around looking at body language, how you can identify what people are thinking about," says Frances Wilson, of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

"Most good companies would send people on a cultural briefing [before a foreign posting]. There are things which are appropriate in some cultures but wouldn't be appropriate in Japan, for instance."

Tackling the language barrier is a common issue for Premiership clubs in the era of foreign players. To take one example, Bolton organise one-to-one English lessons for them.

In the early days of foreign players arriving, classes might have tackled basic English like "man on", "take it short" and "keep a high line". But a desire to use language as an aid to helping young players settle in is now also the order of the day.

And for Capello to succeed, Blake says it is important the players learn to speak better English to make things easier.

"Communication is a two-way process. You should be looking at both ends of that, teaching the players to speak better. Teaching British people how to speak English more comprehensibly."

So the "boy done good" is out for the moment.


Send us your comments using the form below.

"But in this moment my English is not so well." ? Poor prepositional play in the first half and then totally let himself down with that shocking use of the adverb towards the end.
Mark Mehta, Voisins le Bretonneux, France

A month is a little ambitious to learn English, but I can't imagine it taking him very long. He will be immersed in the language from January, and with a good teacher he will get a good grasp of the language that he needs. I learned Swedish from scratch in 6 months. Once you have the basics down, then the rest is pretty easy. Its a sharp learning curve to begin with, and as I am a pretty good English teacher, I would be more than happy to offer to my services to the FA and Capello, should they need someone! Good luck Mr. Capello! with the language and the job!
Paul Sheehan, Stockholm, Sweden

I don't see the problem here with Cappello not speaking fluent English. I can't think of many English football players who can speak fluent English either. They usually speak in general cliches peppered with generous helpings of 'you know', sometimes with the 'what I mean' added on. E.g. "They put us under a lot of pressure, you know, but Gav-o did well, you know, because sometimes in football you have to score goals, you know and the first 90 minutes of the match are the most important because, you know, I'm a firm believer that if the other side scores first you have to score twice to win, you know."
Jimmy, Glasgow

I think this whole discussion - especially the suggestion that Capello can learn English in a month - is reinforcing people's idea that everyone who comes here should be able to learn English quickly and easily. As anyone who has studied a foreign language will know, it is a long and difficult process and fluency is not attained in a month, or even 2 or 3. The fact is that Capello will have access to expensive intensive tuition and a team of interpreters/advisors, unlike many other immigrants to this country, who have to learn while working long hours (if they can afford language school fees, that is). I'm not saying that people shouldn't have to learn English, just that it is easier for some than others and the effort and slower progress of the majority of non-English speakers should be given more recognition.
Michelle, London

As someone who has worked in over 10 different countries over 3 continents I would like to add that everything I have read to date on this issue smacks of a typical "little England" or perhaps I should say "Fortress England" mentality. In my experience what counts is the ability to do the job, whether you need an interpreter or not; it was ability that took Kevin Keegan to Hamburg, Gary Lineker to Barcelona and David Beckham to Real Madrid, not their ability to speak the language. Give the guy a break, after all what have the "English" managed to do since 1966? Yes I am English but I despair at where the game has gone and indeed never mind the players ability to speak English, the TV commentators' so called English often leads me to tune into the Thai commentary.
Mick Grover, Koh Samui Thailand

"But in this moment my English is not so well" still make more sense than Wayne Rooney's grunts.
P, UK

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