By Martyn Heather

16 August 2016 - 10:30

'I tell young players that if they were to play abroad, they’d be expected to learn the language'. Photo ©

Mat Wright

What difference can a foreign language make to the hopes of young footballers in the UK? Secondary-school student Ben Gowers interviewed Martyn Heather, Head of Education at the Premier League, to find out.

Why should young and emerging football players learn a language?

Learning a language helps make their careers longer and gives them more opportunities to develop, particularly because you can play anywhere in the world now.

The biggest emerging league at the moment is the Chinese one. They pay extremely high salaries to attract players and they want to challenge the Premier League at some stage. There could be some amazing opportunities in China, although not many people can speak English in the game there. The Indian Premier League is another example of a growing league that wasn’t there ten years ago. We’ve got to keep exposing young players to these opportunities.

We should also bear in mind the examples of players who went to other countries but didn’t learn the language, and therefore didn’t settle in. They lost the opportunity, because they didn’t embrace the culture.

It’s about saying to young players that, in terms of their careers, it isn’t just about playing in the UK. Just look at all the foreign players that come here and how well their careers advance because of it. There’s no reason why our young players can’t do the same abroad.

What can we learn from overseas players?

I always say to young players that many of the overseas stars who play in the UK are absolutely fluent in our language. You can see this when they’re conducting interviews. A lot of the foreign players who come here have to learn English because that’s the language of the changing room. Communication is an integral part of being in a team, so speaking the language is essential. If you go to France, it will be French, in Spain it will be Spanish, and so on.

As a manager, if you’re trying to put your point across and someone’s translating, it loses impact. It was this that hindered Gary Neville at Valencia: he was learning the language, but I think he should have tried to learn it before he went. It’s interesting because you see a lot of foreign managers like Pep Guardiola who were taking English lessons three or four years ago. It's because they knew they wanted to come to this country at some stage in their career, so they learned English in preparation for it. There are a lot of multilingual managers in the game now; Roy Hodgson is said to speak six languages and so is José Mourinho.

I tell young players that if they were to play abroad, they’d be expected to learn the language, although some will say that they’ll just speak English. So the challenge is trying to change that perception and show that not speaking another language is going to set them back.

How do you make learning another language interesting to young players?

When we do tournaments abroad or other teams come over here, getting the young players to communicate with each other is really important. When we have tournaments, we often have a meal with all the teams where we mix all the players up at the tables and don't put an adult there. Then we give them a quiz where they’ve got to work together and suddenly they realise that, to communicate, you’ve got to learn languages. It’s a subtle way of saying, not only are languages good for you, languages are fun. By making learning a language relevant to football, young players see there’s a reason to learn it and it will seem less boring as a result.

Tell us what languages have done for you and help us inspire more young people to #LearnALanguage.

Find out about Premier Skills, the British Council's partnership programme with the Premier League, or learn English through football with Premier Skills English.

You might also be interested in: