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English is coming home




Robert McLarty is Publishing Manager for Business English and ESP at Oxford University Press. In this post he discusses English language teaching in the world of football.

It’s summer, the sun is occasionally shining between showers, and there is a pan-European economic crisis.  Yet for Europe this summer only one thing matters: football. At Oxford University Press’  Headquarters in Oxford, every office seems to have its own sweepstake. Editors, administrators and designers talk of little else. Watching the players on the pitch, everyone in publishing is wondering, “So what language do they all speak out there?”

Is the Slovenian referee B2? As the players shake hands or whisper in ears at corners, what language are they speaking? Did the French team understand Mr Hodgson’s instructions shouted from the sideline? How does an Italian coach deal with his Irish team? What do the Dutch call a stepover or a nutmeg? As the players talk to the press, have treatment, sign autographs or simply order coffee in the team hotel, how much English do they need?

As Sir Alex Ferguson says in the foreword to English for Football, “Football today is a truly global phenomenon. Just as in business or science, in football too, people increasingly tend to use English to communicate”. So just like any other form of ESP, if you are going to operate within this industry, there is a particular lexical set to learn, there are contexts for grammar which make learning more memorable and there are idioms and expressions used within the game which have to be understood.

Before a player’s first training session he needs to know the English for all the kit, equipment and pitch markings such as bibs, cones and box.  He needs to know the parts of the body so that he can describe any aches, pains or injuries. He needs to understand “Drop back! Man on! or Cut inside”. He also needs a context for grammar. For years we have struggled to teach the present perfect with the concept of unfinished time. In football, a season or a tournament is a perfect example of finished or unfinished time. Compare “How many goals has Messi scored this season?” with “How many goals did Messi score last season?”

Anyone who likes football will enjoy learning English through football, just as many kids learn music or maths through other languages. For once we have a book where age does not matter. Whether they are seven or seventy people can enjoy it. As I came through Frankfurt airport last week an official came across a copy in my bag. He took it out and started looking through it.  I offered it to him. “For my son,” he said. “Sure,” I thought.

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  1. Good article!

    I’m often amazed by the high level of English of certain current or former foreign Premier League players (Thierry Henry – who needs no introduction here in France – being one such example).

    In fact, from watching post-match interviews, I frequently get the impression that the foreign players speak better English than the majority of their native teammates!!

    PS Many thanks for the excellent Business Basics series!

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