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"Lauf, Geh!" - What Did He Say?

Do foreign soccer stars in Germany understand their German coach when he hollers instructions across the field? Hardly, says a linguist in Dortmund who is now designing a book to help them learn Deutsch.


Foreign talent in German clubs - Brazilian Ze Roberto of Bayer Leverkusen, right

Watching Germany's top soccer clubs in action is a reminder of just how multicultural the country's national sport has become.

But ever wonder whether that Brazilian star comprehended what his frenzied German coach just bellowed across at him from the sidelines?

Uwe Wiemann did.

"I’m a regular at football matches and I remember sitting in a stadium and watching Borussia Dortmund coach Matthias Sammer communicating with reserve candidate Evanilson through an interpreter," he said. "I thought to myself: how come he (Evanilson) can’t even speak a bit of German after one and a half years here?"

So the 33-year-old linguist and docotoral candidate at the University of Dortmund is working on a German language textbook geared at the fleet-footed foreign stars that have begun gracing Germany's soccer fields at a ever increasing rate.

Wiemann, who has good contacts in Bayer 04 Leverkusen decided to take his proposal to the club, which has its fair share of players from South America.

Co-operation with Bayer 04 Leverkusen

"The idea is new and that’s why when I approached Bayer 04 Leverkusen with it, they were enthusiastic about it," he told DW-WORLD.

He now works closely with the trainer for foreign players at the club Bayer Leverkusen, Frank Ditgens, and gets first-hand information about the language hindrances that foreign players face among themselves, in the locker rooms and on the field with the coaches, umpires and trainers.

Wiemann then translates it into handy grammar exercises.

Unlike existing language books and materials that deal with complicated rules of German grammar and overwhelm the learner with theoretical content, Wiemann's steers clear of it.

The book keeps in mind that soccer stars don't have a huge amount of time to devote to learning a language, let alone do homework and grammar assignments.

At the same time, Wiemann is aware that foreign soccer stars in Germany aren't going to be terribly interested in issues unrelated to their professional field such as the folk songs and high-brow literary German names that one invariably finds in German language text books.

The result is a book splattered with soccer pictures and idols with witty sayings and easy exercises.

Getting to the point

Wiemann believes he can grab the attention of soccer stars by focusing on the one issue close to their hearts – namely kicking a black and white ball around a field.

"Everything in the book revolves around football," he says. For instance players have to learn the German names for positions such as "midfield" "striker" and "corner arc" and then learn to utter sentences such as "I play defence:"

Stars such as Oliver Kahn, Michael Ballack and Ronaldo make appearances in the book when it comes to making sentences in the second and third person. Fill in the blank exercises include players filling in verbs for terse orders barked out by the coach such as, "José take the shot!" or "Pablo watch out!".

Wiemann calls it a kind of "sprint grammar" where the emphasis is not so much on learning all the forms and nuances of German grammar, but rather being able to just pick up basic German that would help one get by in addition to the mandatory soccer jargon.

After all, most foreign players play in Germany only temporarily before moving on to clubs in other countries. But the language skills they pick up, the ability to integrate within their teams and their communities make them more valuable to future clubs.

"When a player is well-versed in the language in everyday life, he feels at ease. He’s better integrated, has more contacts and simply plays better. That increases his value," Ditgens told the German weekly "Die Zeit" this week.

Ditgens cites the examples of players Emerson, Paulo Sergio and Zé Roberto, all of whom transferred to other clubs for large amounts of money.

"Bayer 04 Leverkusen won money with the transfer of these players," he said.

German clubs a magnet for foreign players

Given the flood of foreign stars populating the Bundesliga this year, the demand for Wiemann's services will only grow.

Brazilian players are especially in vogue following the national team’s victory at this summer’s World Cup. Every top German club has at least two Brazilians on their books and there are a total of 25 of them playing in Germany's top league.

Most German soccer clubs have some kind of trainer designated to care for foreign players. Some foreign players simply hire their own private language teachers, according to Wiemann.

Oliver Büser, press spokesman for the club SC Freiburg says that foreign players who join their club have to mandatorily sign up for German language courses.

SC Freiburg has one language trainer in the club responsible for teaching German to the 6 to 7 foreign players on the team.

"She also helps them with bureacratic stuff such as registering themselves with authorites, trips to the income tax office etc," he said.

"But most of our players speak such good German that several don't need any lessons anymore, " he said.

"Soccer is a universal language"

But not all clubs are that attentive towards their players' linguistic capabilities.

One of Germany’s top league clubs, Hertha BSC in Berlin has some 15 foreign players at present, with the highest number from Brazil.

Press spokesperson of the club, Mr Hans-Georg Felder thinks that the fact that several foreign players don’t understand German isn’t such a big deal.

"Football is a universal language. When coaches scream, "run, come, go", players do follow in time," he says.

He concedes that some of the Brazilian players have signed contracts with their interpreters who usually speak several languages, to teach them German. "They should learn the German mentality, but we don’t want to force them to learn the language," he says.

He’s dismissive of Wiemann’s initiative of designing a new book.

"A book? I don’t believe in literary, flowery concepts. We’re pragmatists," he said. "We spend time with the foreign players from morning to evening. We do everything for them, from getting them a driving licence to taking their wives to the gynaecologists - that’s what counts!"

  • Date 24.09.2002
  • Author Sonia Phalnikar
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2gSW
  • Date 24.09.2002
  • Author Sonia Phalnikar
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2gSW