With a total of seven languages in his armoury, Petr Cech is by far the most lingual member of Arsenal’s squad, now that Mikel Arteta, conversant in nine tongues, has left the club. Earlier this year, Steve Eadon, Languages coordinator for the Arsenal Double Club, interviewed Cech about his experience with languages.
“Before I do these interviews, I have a little time with the players off camera,” explains Steve, who has also interviewed Hector Bellerin and Gabriel on the same subject. “I asked Petr how many of these languages he is actually fluent in. He said that he was fluent in all of them. So we tested him and, needless to say, he was telling the truth!”
Cech voluntarily learned Spanish and Portuguese when he arrived at Chelsea due to the proliferation of Spanish and Portuguese speaking players in the Blues’ defence. Cech revealed earlier this year that he uses three different languages to communicate with the Arsenal defence. The veteran goalkeeper explains that being a footballer leaves him with plenty of free time to study. He also learned to play the drums using his free afternoons after training.
Professional footballer is one of the most travelled jobs on the planet. As fans, we often underestimate the difficulties of adapting to a new culture, new climate and, chiefly, a new language, which players confront all the time. English people especially underestimate the difficulties of learning a language as an adult, given how commonly our language is spoken across the world. Communication is such a huge part of a footballer’s life, both on the pitch where instructions have to be relayed and understood in mere microseconds. Off the pitch too, camaraderie is so important in forging team spirit.
Not understanding a language spoken all around you is an isolating and lonely experience. My wife is from Brazil and her parents, my in-laws, do not speak any English. The first time I travelled to Brazil to meet them was a slightly frustrating experience. To live in someone’s house for 3 weeks and to not be able to communicate, to share jokes, to show gratitude, proved to be psychologically taxing. Words just bounced off of me like rocks as my wife patiently translated conversation. It was mentally exhausting. I resolved to learn Portuguese and have spent the last three and a half years taking classes.
This was how I first met Marc Joss. Marc is an Arsenal fan and a professional interpreter. He speaks French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese and works with Premier League footballers to help interpret and translate their media commitments. Prior to the away match at Olympiacos last December, my wife and I were with a Brazilian friend, speaking Portuguese. Marc was sat just in front of us, his ears burning, he joined the conversation in immaculate Brazilian Portuguese- putting my own pidgin efforts to shame.
I met Marc again in June, at an Arsenal Double Club languages event for local schools. Marc is a guest speaker on this occasion, talking to local schoolchildren about the importance of learning languages. I began to learn Portuguese at the age of 29 and it is very difficult for the adult brain to absorb alien languages structures. Children’s brains are much more elastic and they pick up linguistics much more easily, but it is often difficult to convince kids of the benefits of being bilingual.
Having a talent for languages certainly paid off for lifelong Gooner Marc, “I have been lucky enough to work with quite a few Arsenal players and any chance to visit London Colney brings with it the overwhelming feeling that I am in the dream job. My first job at Arsenal was interviewing Santi Cazorla in Spanish and translating the answers into English. I returned in July 2014 to meet new signing Mathieu Debuchy and conduct his first interview with the club in French, but I had to keep the news quiet as the deal wasn’t due to be announced until the following week!”
The Double Club event encouraged local schools to create innovative and inspiring language lessons for primary school classes. The Arsenal Double Club seeks to use the example of Arsenal’s multilingual squad to make learning languages more attractive. A few weeks prior to the event, I visited Holy Trinity primary school in Hackney, a stone’s throw from where my grandparents used to live, with Steve Eadon. Steve travels to local schools on a weekly basis to give Spanish lessons.
Typically, half of the lesson is spent in the classroom and the other half is spent in the playground with a coaching session given in Spanish. This was a lesson with a difference on this occasion. This particular class had been selected to undertake a one week trip to Madrid in conjunction with the Double Club. So Steve and I arrive with armfuls of official club tracksuits for the kids to wear on their excursion, where they met ex Arsenal and current Real Madrid groundsman Paul Burgess on the Bernabeu turf he oversees.
“A lot of the kids have never left the country before,” one teacher explains to me, “Many have had to apply for passports because they didn’t have them.” Steve and I briefly speak to the class about our wrestle with languages and the benefits of learning them in youth. The Double Club often arranges for slightly more inspiring speakers, such as Hector Bellerin to visit school language classes.
Arsenal’s Head of Marketing Charles Allen lived and worked in several different South American countries for over a decade. Charles is therefore fluent in Spanish in various dialects. “I am occasionally called upon to translate for Alexis Sanchez,” he tells me, “We have lots of Spanish speakers at the club, but in the North of Chile, where Alexis is from (Topocilla), the accent is strong and it can be difficult for even Spanish speakers to understand. So sometimes I am called out of the office to help out.”
Learning new languages can naturally lead to some embarrassing faux pas. Nacho Monreal elaborates on a training ground incident where he misunderstood Arsene Wenger’s instructions. Wenger instructed Nacho to grab a “white” bib, but the Spaniard thought that his boss had told him to “wait!” so he stood perfectly still, much to the manager’s bafflement. Marc Joss tells me about a time that he had to interpret a press conference barney involving Slaven Bilic after one of West Ham’s Europa League preliminary ties.
“In the summer of 2015 West Ham played Lusitans in a Europa League qualifier and I was the interpreter at the press conference for their manager who spoke Spanish. I was expecting him to say ‘My players gave it their all, we’re looking forward to the next game,’ – the classics – but he came in and really wanted to have an argument with Slaven Bilic, because the Croat hadn’t been in the dugout for the game.
“I was initially a bit taken aback by his fierce digs in Spanish such as “Does he think he’s the special one?”, especially as I’m not a confrontational guy in any way, but I had to put myself in the Lusitans’ manager’s shoes and effectively have a fight with Slaven Bilic on his behalf (and anyone who saw him play would know that’s not a wise idea).” For my own part, in my early wrestles with Brazilian Portuguese, I once unwittingly told my mother-in-law that I was horny, when I had meant to say that I was excited……
David Ospina’s recent interview with teammate Gabriel caused great mirth with the Brazilian forced to admit that he had never heard of Halloween and that he did not watch television. Amusing though it was, it does illustrate the difficulty of adjusting to life in London when you have been raised in a tough favela in São Paulo. This is a reality for a great many footballers that many of us would find impossible to relate to.
Footballers are generally not regarded as intellectual heavyweights, but when it comes to linguistics, football is a profession that would leave most others in the shade. In the current Arsenal squad, French, English, German, Portuguese, Spanish (in various iterations), Welsh (Aaron Ramsey is fluent), Italian, Turkish, Catalan, Albanian, Czech, Russian, Slovakian and Arabic are all spoken. At least 20 players are conversant in more than one tongue and have had to learn a new language in adulthood. We idolise players for their on pitch efforts, but if there is another area in which they can similarly inspire us, it’s undoubtedly languages.
Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto