How Not To Learn A Foreign Language When Playing Football Overseas
WORDS BY LAURIE BELL
As usual, it was the white, handheld tactics board that proved my primary source of information. My eyes tracked the penny-sized blue and red magnets as they whirled up and down the black markings of a small-scale football pitch. Meanwhile, my brain rattled as I tried to understand any of the foreign words that shot like bullets through my eardrums.
Above the tactics board stood Sammy, my coach, delivering his teamtalk entirely in Swedish. Which was fair enough, really. I was, after all, sat in the video room at Karlslunds Arena, in the city of Örebro, midway between Stockholm and Gothenburg, and preparing for a Division 2: Sodra Svealand league match.
So the Swedish made sense. Just not to me.
"Okej, bra, killar," Sammy wrapped up and my teammates clapped, cheered and rapped knuckles against white IKEA tables. Whatever he'd said had quite the effect. Players filtered out to the changing rooms to put on their warm up gear, hollering "kom igen!" and "gor vi!" "Come on then, lads!" I joined in, enthusiastically. Sammy grinned my way.
"You understood all of that, didn't you, Laurie?" he said in his unique, thick-accented but flawless brand of English.
"Glasklart, Sammy," I replied. Translation: clear as glass. And total bullshit. But it at least amused everyone left in the room. Our assistant coach Jonathan had taught me the phrase at training the previous day. He chuckled, then asked what, if anything, I had interpreted. My understanding wasn't glasklart, but I could proudly repeat some of the teamtalk's highlights in a dialect locally known as Swenglish.
"Well, today is en stora matchen (a big game), isn't it?" I began. "And I tell you now, we'll need mycket fokus (high focus) and mycket bättre avsluta (much better finishing) than last week to win it. But if Motala set-up in a tre-fem-två (3-5-2 formation), it could play right into our hands."
Sammy seemed impressed and slightly shocked and filled in the rest of the blanks for me and the three fellow English speakers on the team. I still owed much to magnets, but in the final home game of the 2016 season, after seven months in Sweden, bits of the language were finally sinking in.
Out on the pitch, I flaunted my newfound grasp of football terminology. I directed midfielders "höger, vänster, upp, upp, upp." To my surprise, they followed orders. When I yelled "LUGN", our strikers abandoned a high-press and relaxed into a deeper defensive line. I hadn't mastered the Swedish for "someone put a fucking tackle in," but judging by Liridon's next challenge that one needed no translation.
Even mid-match, I reflected on the strangeness of it all. Here I was in central Scandinavia, yelling at a squad full of Swedes in their mother tongue. Sammy quickly snapped my focus back to football, though. "Laurie! Balans! Nu!" he screeched from the touchline. I understood all too well. I darted back from my rare break forward, and resettled in the balans role in front of our defence, where I obediently remained for the rest of the 1-1 draw.
It's fair to say my Swedish had come on since my first training session in the country. I arrived in March of 2016, ready to prove myself in Scandinavia after five seasons in America, where I played first on a university soccer scholarship then professionally for Tulsa Roughnecks in the USL. Only an expired US work visa had forced me out of a country where I had a long-term girlfriend and plans for my professional career.
Months later, while I was playing for Hyde United on a temporary contract, a Facebook message from an old contact in America put me in touch with Karlslunds IF HFK, a Swedish Second Division club who were after a midfielder, fast. The club emailed me a spelarkontrakt offer, written entirely in Swedish. Complications like these offered an insight into why such a high-proportion of British footballers who do venture overseas tend to cluster in the English-speaking countries.
Still, I was up for any new challenge, and via Google, I semi-legibly translated the contract's terms. They were modest but agreeable, not that I properly understood them. More than money, the club's allure was a return to full time-training, a platform to climb a new football ladder, adventures in Scandinavia and flatter playing surfaces than English non-league pitches. And, hey, maybe I'd even learn a second language.
Sweden: Not a bad place to live and play football. Image: Laurie Bell
A week later, in my first session on Karlslunds' state-of-the-art synthetic training pitch, I had a question for one of my new teammates. We were in a possession drill and my group were struggling to win the ball from our opponents. So during a water break, I decided the issue was communication, and I committed myself to learning my first words of Swedish beyond "one coffee, please" in order to fix the problem. So I turned to Linus, one of the youngest members of my team but who, I thought, had a pretty decent grasp of English.
It was a warm day, but Linus wore a black fleece neck warmer rolled up to his eyeballs, which should have been a warning sign. Straight off the plane from the Evo-Stik North, I sported only a short sleeved shirt and shorts. I clearly didn't fit in around here yet. That much soon became embarrassingly obvious.
"Linus, how do you say 'together' in Swedish?" I asked. "Like 'let's press together'."
"Umm, ahh, you say tillsammans," he replied. Apparently. Beneath that thick neck warmer of his I couldn't lip read and all I heard were a couple of faint squeaks.
"Sorry, could you say that again, Linus. Tizz-mass?"
I lunged in close - too close - to try and hear him.
"Tillsammans," he squeaked again even higher-pitched, probably a bit frightened by my aggressive invasion of his personal space. But man-marking the skinny teenager had worked, because this time I thought I repeated him perfectly: "Tillzassmuss! Yes?"
He shook his head, no.
"Till-samm-ans," he muttered a final time under his soundproof fleece. But again I heard nothing. And for a second I panicked, fearing I'd asked language advice from the only mute in world football. What a first impression. I did my best to end the painful interaction, fast.
"Ah! Thanks, Linus. I've got it now!" I lied. "TIZZUMMUNS!"
Linus burst into a chuckle. I thanked God the boy could make a noise.
"Yep, tizzummuns boys," I clapped. "Let's all press tizzummuns now."
Most of the lads were laughing now, wondering who the hell this English was. I think we all realised we were in for an interesting season. Well, I might not be able to communicate with this lot, I thought, but at least I can make them laugh. As Linus prepared himself for a final translation, another teammate called over.
"Laurie. Please just say press together. Everyone speaks English here."
To my relief, I have discovered that statement is broadly true. I can muddle through trainings and matches blurting only English when I need to, and team chemistry survives.
No such luck for Fabrice though. The giant French trialist found out with great difficulty that Swedes aren't much good at Franska. Suffering from an insurmountable language barrier (and an inability to pass a football straight), the poor fella lasted less than a week. It put in perspective how difficult playing sport must be in a country that doesn't speak your language, which is the case for so many footballers who arrive in Britain every season.
Scandinavians are the considered the best in the world at speaking English as a second language though, meaning no such troubles for me. However, my Canadian housemate Zak and I were determined to master Swedish and made an early season resolution to practice together every day. Embracing a wonderful aspect of Swedish culture, we took fika together (coffee and a pastry) every afternoon, just like the locals did. Meeting in various independent cafes across town, we connected our iPhones to wifi, loaded Duolingo (a language learning app), and each completed our three daily challenges.
Pastries polished off, we chatted together in broken Swedish using phrases we had learned, then dared one another to try them on coffee-sipping blonde girls at nearby tables. As studying goes, this method was pretty civilised. But our routine lasted only about three weeks. Zak took a part time job to make some extra cash and I worked on writing projects on my computer, drinking just as much coffee but beginning to ignore Duolingo's 3pm reminders.
Secretly, I was convinced that just by being in Sweden I would somehow absorb the language. I blame my Year 9 Spanish teacher for that, who once dubbed me "something of a natural" when it came to picking up a foreign language. With that in mind, I decided if I sat in these coffee shops for long enough - earthing myself amongst the Swedes - I would soon be fluent in their tongue.
This theory turned out to be utter bollocks and very expensive. I would convince my other teammates to join me for giant salad bowls or stacked sandwiches in town every day, though, and made friends with the cafe staff. So my afternoons weren't wasted, but I eventually realised that without constant, conscious practice, fluent Swedish wasn't just going to soak itself into my brain. Which was a bit of a blow.
As far as I can tell, when moving to a new country there are only two trusted ways to learn the language: sign up for proper lessons or find yourself a girlfriend. Now, I love my American girlfriend Sara dearly, I look forward to our daily FaceTimes and I'm counting down the minutes until she flies over here to visit, as we do our best to navigate the trickiness of a long distance relationship. However, having a girlfriend in Chicago has proved another successful method of how not to learn Swedish - something I am turning out to be uncannily good at.
Zak, meanwhile, is streets ahead in our language-learning race, having scored himself a private tutor. Last summer, while we sipped a cocktail at a popular outdoor bar in the center of town, Zak met Linda, a charming local nurse who he has since moved in with. Finding love is magical for so many reasons, not least, it turns out, as a language learning tool. So every day at training now, I discover Linda has taught him new phrases, rapidly accelerating his learning curve. At this rate, the man will be magnet-free by summer.
Which proved the kick-up-the-backside I needed to finally enroll in the state-offered Swedish for Immigrants classes last week. In my defence, I tried last season, but my lack of a Swedish ID card at the time meant my application was ignored. Still, I face a three month wait for classes to begin, meaning I'll have to take another stab at teaching myself first.
Life playing football overseas regularly throws up these kind of challenges, experiences I hope will benefit me somehow over time. To help out, my Karlslunds captain Anton has invited me to join him while he studies at his local university library. I may well take up his offer. But although Anton has the same long, blonde hair that Linda does, I can't shift the feeling that my old equal Zak has somehow come away with the better end of this deal.
Featured Image Credit: Laurie Bell/Twitter