A week ago, the Washington Post’s Steven Goff chronicled the story of D.C. United offering Spanish classes to several of the players who wished to learn a new language. It is normal for MLS teams to offer English classes to Latin American players who need to get up to speed when they enter the league. What is unusual is teams offering language classes to American players or those that already know English but want to gain proficiency in another language. “The priority is for them to learn English,” Russell Canouse said to the Washington Post. Canouse, who was in January Camp with the United States this year, made the 18 against Bosnia and Herzegovina but did not appear in the match. “But if they see some guys making the effort to learn their language too, it makes them feel more welcome and hopefully helps them want to learn English.”
D.C. United offering Spanish classes at the request of David Ousted and Russell Canouse is a step in the right direction for MLS. Expanding the linguistic palate of English-speaking players will only help them in their careers. Steven Goff highlighted that Spanish is the most prevalent MLS foreign language, with over 21% of the league’s players coming from nations where Spanish is the first language. Still, MLS has become a global league, with players here speaking dozens of languages.
The Philadelphia Union is another team that has offered language courses to English speakers on the team, while Chivas USA offered Spanish classes to non-Spanish speakers when they were in existence, allowing team members to assimilate with the Mexican roots that the team held close. Other teams have also offered English courses to non-English speaking players, but few have gone the other way to offer classes in Spanish or other languages.
But, why stop at Spanish? The official FIFA languages are English, Spanish, French, and German. Luckily, those languages are spoken in 4 of the top 5 leagues in the world: the Premier League, La Liga, Ligue 1, and the Bundesliga. MLS teams should be focusing efforts on getting their players to be proficient in at least two FIFA languages. There are also other languages that would make sense for players to learn in an effort to advance their careers: Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, or even Swedish or Danish. With so many players in MLS either coming from leagues where one of those languages dominates or going to similar leagues, it would be beneficial to have multiple languages under their belt.
Learning the local language helps with a player’s ability to settle in and become comfortable not just at the club, but their new surroundings. While the United States does not have an official language, English is the predominant and de facto language that is used among the thousands you will hear in cities across the country. When players come to MLS that don’t know English, they are placed in classes so that they can become conversational. It helps them communicate with the coaching staff, their fellow teammates and fans, as well as become comfortable with living in their new city and conducting regular daily transactions like going to the store or out to eat.
It can even help the media, as evidenced by an interview Sunday night with Paul Arriola and Luciano Acosta following D.C. United’s win over Atlanta United:
Arriola’s Spanish fluency has helped him already in his career, as he played for Club Tijuana of Liga MX before transferring to D.C. a year ago. It will continue to help him as teammates endear themselves to him and his ability to communicate with the majority of the locker room in their native language, further bringing the team together.
Meeting international teammates halfway by learning their language while they learn yours only helps to cultivate camaraderie and a closer team bond. It allows players to feel more comfortable as they integrate into the team, and language is less of a barrier. It also helps in competition, when you can speak quickly to your teammate in multiple languages about strategy or an upcoming play. Those details are small, but they could be beneficial to the success of a team as well as the longevity of a career. If a player moves on to play somewhere in Europe, having proficiency in multiple languages will allow the learning curve to be reduced as they assimilate to a new culture and a new team.
For USMNT players, it would more than help the program to have multiple players that can communicate with officials and even players on other teams in CONCACAF and around the world. How many Americans do we see testing themselves in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Mexico? How many more could we see in Spain, France or Italy if we had players fluent in Spanish, French or Italian? This sort of learning should be a vital part of the growth of a player throughout his career. It will also allow those Americans coming up through the system that grew up in a culture where English was not the first language to still feel the team spirit and be able to express themselves in their native tongue.
MLS clubs, and even clubs on lower levels, would do right by offering players classes at minimum in the official FIFA languages. If the clubs don’t offer it, players should request it. Having more players proficient in more languages will not only help the players throughout their career, but will help make MLS more attractive to top level players, and it will only improve the bond many USMNT players already have.
Which language do you think is most important for American players to learn to advance their careers and help out the national team?