Sports: Bridging Language Gap Takes Steps From Both Sides

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Sep 1 14:01:19 UTC 2008

Bridging Language Gap Takes Steps From Both Sides

Published: August 31, 2008

After her victory Sunday at the United States Open, Jelena Jankovic
conducted her news conferences in two languages — English first, then
her native Serbian. She probably could have conducted one in French,
which she studied at a diplomacy school as a teenager back home in
Belgrade, but she hasn't kept up. One of the top female players in the
world, Jankovic has criticized the new demand by the L.P.G.A. that all
players on that tour be able to speak adequate English by the end of

"To be honest, I don't think it should be that way," Jankovic said in
a private interview Friday. "We are foreigners, and we are athletes.
My language is Serbian. This is not a language school." Having
blundered into this policy apparently without thinking it through, the
L.P.G.A. is now trying to rationalize that it wants its foreign
players to speak English so they can drum up business while they are
driving and chipping and all the rest. Apparently, one of the
previously underpublicized roles of the players on the L.P.G.A. tour
is chatting up well-heeled friends of women's golf during the pro-am
events. The women on the tennis tour are not saddled with the
responsibility of charming business contacts while swatting backhands.

Because the golf tour has 45 players from South Korea, the impression
remains that the L.P.G.A. is singling out these players with Dobbsian
bluster. To the customers who pony up to play in the L.P.G.A. pro-ams,
I would like to offer one word: yoboseyo. It means hello in Korean,
and it always got me a smile in Seoul during the World Cup of soccer
in 2002, after which people offered me directions and advice — in
English, of course. And they all had relatives in my home borough of
Queens. Koreans learn languages pretty quickly. It's Americans who
have language problems.


Professional athletes may not be scholars, but they are certainly
quick studies. One year Yao Ming from China needed an interpreter, the
next year he was answering basic basketball questions in English. As a
rookie, Jorge Posada from Puerto Rico spoke rudimentary English in
public, but soon he was one of the spokesmen in the Yankee clubhouse.

As Tracy Austin noted on USA Network the other night, Zheng Jie of
China did not speak English two years ago but the other day when she
lost to Jankovic she spoke English, explaining her new fiery look on
the court.

"Of course, it's helpful," Jankovic said of English, which she studied
from the age of 13 when she moved from Serbia to Nick Bollettieri's
camp in Bradenton, Fla.

"Education is very important," she said Friday. "I liked going to
school." She studied four or five hours in the morning, bolted down
lunch in the cafeteria, and then ran to play tennis. She obviously had
a feel for language, the same way Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic, her
two Serbian compatriots, did.

Athletes learn. That's how they got where they are. A few years ago
Rafael Nadal of Spain seemed almost bashful when he had to use a
translator for his news conferences, but just as his game has matured,
so has his confidence in basic English. He acknowledged the other day
that his lack of English probably keeps him from getting closer to
Roger Federer, who speaks Swiss German, French and English.

"Some guys, it's difficult," Nikolay Davydenko of Russia said the
other day when asked about the golf rule. "I know I need to speak with
everyone familiar English," Davydenko added: "But maybe we need also
the translator. Sometimes, I also don't understand some questions. I
need also translate from English to Russia, and then maybe after I can
speak in English to you." He made his point. He tried.

Most foreign athletes do learn the predominant language in the world.
They watch television, they go shopping, they go out socially, and all
of a sudden they are speaking quite well. But the L.P.G.A. didn't feel
it had the time to wait for native intelligence to take over.

The L.P.G.A. probably has the right to install close-to-mandatory
English courses for the players — an hour here, an hour there. Maybe
the pro-am gig could be considered a language lab. But setting a
deadline, putting employment on the line? Sounds anti-American to me.


Of course, it is true that athletes who can express their personality
become more popular, more marketable. Jankovic is thoughtful in her
second language. After she recovered to beat Caroline Wozniacki of
Denmark, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, on Sunday, she was asked about the flashes of
humor she displays.

"It's not easy, you know, our sport and traveling so much and going
from places to places all year and being away from family, being away
from your friends," she said. "You really have to make the most of it
and really enjoy yourself and have fun, whatever you do."

Jankovic comes off as an athlete with an inner life. I bet many of the
foreign golfers have a bit of Jankovic in them. The failure is with
the boosters and officials of the L.P.G.A. On the first tee of the
next pro-am, somebody could start with yoboseyo. I bet they would get
a smile. And that's a start.

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