Matt Dunham / AP
Sports
Matt Dunham / AP

What language does soccer speak?

Audiences around the world often struggle to find World Cup commentary in their native tongue

Late last year, the Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) of the small Mediterranean island of Malta decided against transmitting the matches of the 2014 World Cup in the Maltese language. Instead, the tournament will be shown in English commentary beamed live from stadia in Brazil. Many of Malta’s inhabitants are multilingual, fluent in English and Italian, so the broadcaster reasoned it could save the expense of offering commentary in the national language. It wasn’t just penny-pinching that motivated the decision, but sheer embarrassment: Maltese commentators, PBS suggested, were just not up to the job.

During two previous major football tournaments (Euro 2012 and the 2010 World Cup), commentary on the public broadcaster was littered with errors, odd digressions, and fuzzy ideas. A source inside PBS complained to Malta Today – an English-language newspaper – of the typically "poor quality" of Maltese commentators, who tended to "blabber on without describing what is going on in the pitch." One match announcer was under the illusion that the country of Yugoslavia still existed. Sitting in studios far away from the action, the commentators seemed to be demonstrating their remove not only from the matches they were summarising, but from the world itself. These gaffes cost Maltese viewers the chance of hearing the 2014 World Cup narrated in their own language.

Speakers of large international languages (like English, Arabic, and Spanish) can take for granted their immediacy and ease of access to the World Cup. The tournament is lavishly packaged and expertly delivered to them in their own tongues. For speakers of small languages – particularly those that share media space with bigger languages – the experience of accessing a major event like the World Cup can be comical and frustrating. Sometimes, it can be even a wounding reminder of their own smallness. George Micallef, a much-respected Maltese sports journalist, protested PBS’s decision to scrap commentary in his language. "I am hurt by this decision," he said. "I do not expect the national broadcaster to ignore the Maltese language in such a blatant way."

The love for football and the World Cup crosses all boundaries of ethnicity and speech. The tournament wraps itself in claims of universalism and harmonious inclusion, championing football’s ubiquity. But in its transmission and reception around the globe, the World Cup can often help impose one language over another.

Malta is one of the world’s tiniest countries and Maltese one of the smallest tongues of Europe, but language remains an emotive issue in much bigger countries as well. In Turkey, with its long history of the repression of the Kurdish minority, language is still a fault line. Though the public broadcaster TRT has a channel dedicated to programming in Kurdish and other minority languages, the World Cup will be broadcast only in Turkish.

Efforts are being made to preserve and rejuvenate the Andean languages still spoken in significant numbers in Peru and Ecuador, as well as indigenous languages such as Nahuatl in Mexico. All World Cup games in those countries will be broadcast in Spanish. In Indonesia, the World Cup will be broadcast in English and the national language Bahasa Indonesia, but not in large regional languages such Javanese (which boasts the twelfth highest number of speakers in the world), or in any of the local tongues that pepper the archipelago nation.

Resources and political imperatives play a large part in determining both the demand and supply of the languages that will narrate the World Cup. While the Maltese language may lack the financial backing to stake its claim on the tournament, certain states have a vested interest in promoting commentary in their own national languages.

When broadcast in Kyrgyzstan, Word Cup matches are divided into 18 or more five-minute blocks of commentary, moving back and forth between Kyrgyz and Russian. The dizzying rotation serves to maintain the balance between the country’s two official languages. Russian was once the lingua franca of Soviet Central Asia, but the independent countries of the region have sought to encourage the use of their native languages in building their young nation-states.

The balancing act doesn’t succeed in gratifying viewers. "It pleases neither Kyrgyz speakers who don’t understand Russian nor Russian speakers who don’t understand Kyrgyz," says Chris Rickleton, editor of Global Voices Central Asia and a journalist based in Kyrgyzstan. For the many Kyrgyz who understand both languages, the level of commentary leaves much to be desired. "Bilingual folks tend just to moan about the quality of the commentary, since most of the announcers are somewhat short of match practice." According to Rickleton, such is the general poverty of the match announcing that some Kyrgyz fans are glad for the regular switches between languages. "A journalist friend, Askar, tells me that 'when you listen to our commentators, after five minutes you’d be happy to listen to anyone else, even if it is just another one of our commentators.'"

Football fans around the world bemoan neophyte match announcing. For many fans raised on a diet of football in big international languages like English, it can be jarring to suddenly hear commentary in another tongue. When STAR Sports India began broadcasting certain English Premier League matches with Hindi commentary, it faced an immediate revolt from viewers. "Please spare us," one fan wrote, "get the English commentary back!" "You guys know how to mess up a good thing," tweeted another. In their view, the sounds of English commentary were part and parcel of the experience of imbibing English football. The neologisms, clumsy translations, and verbal explosions of the Hindi commentary were at best distracting. At worst, they amounted to blasphemous intrusions into the sacred space of top-flight English football.

Commentary is an integral part of the experience of televised football. In telling the story of a match, it completes the circle between the viewer and the spectacle. "If you’re watching TV and don’t understand the commentary, part of the experience is lost," says Ana Williams, a linguist and professor of Portuguese at Northwestern University. "Commentators involve whomever is listening, bringing them into the narrative. When you hear matches in your language, you feel more at home."

How easy is it to feel at home in a football match beamed from far away? In India, less than 10 percent of the population speaks English. Since 2012, local and regional broadcasters have made a concerted effort to deliver sports coverage in more of the country’s many languages. "In a digital world the consumer has the ability to access a variety of content in multiple languages," wrote Nitin Kukreja, president of STAR Sports India, in 2013. "Broadcasters would be doing a great disservice if they continued to use a cookie-cutter approach and did not use this opportunity to go deeper and serve the interest of all." For 56 matches of the 2014 World Cup, fans in the football-loving state of West Bengal will be able to watch for the first time a live feed of the tournament in Bengali. By screening international and local sports in Hindi, Bengali and other vernacular languages, Indian media corporations hope to find more viewers outside the major metropolitan areas, reaching an audience less circumscribed by class and English-language education.

Inevitably, the rapidly growing economies and media landscapes of large countries like India and Nigeria will bring the World Cup into more local languages. OSMI, the broadcast rights owner in Nigeria for the 2014 World Cup, will be introducing match commentaries in Pidgin English for the first time. Rotimi Pedro, OSMI’s CEO, was proud of the decision, noting that "this is a first in the history of sports broadcasting in the country." Pidgin is an unofficial language in Nigeria, an English-based creole spoken mostly as a second language across the nation. It transcends the various divisions of the linguistically diverse country. Now it will be used to deliver the World Cup in an accent and an idiom more readily familiar to many Nigerians.

In Kenya, radio commentary in local languages supplements the TV feed in English. "In some parts of the country, fans prefer to mute the TV volume and listen to Kiswahili commentary over the radio simultaneously," says Carol Radull, a Nairobi-based radio and TV sports presenter. "Kenya has a crop of very talented Kiswahili football commentators. Kiswahili is an animated language and the commentators are able to bring the drama to radio in a very expressive manner. More Kenyans are naturally conversant in Kiswahili than in English, so they appreciate the ability to listen to the game in their national language."

Kiswahili is a robust language throughout the region, but other smaller languages in Kenya are joining the fray. "Kikuyu commentary is also quite common and popular," Radull says. "Should radio stations begin to offer commentary in other languages like Dholuo, Luhya and Kisii, I'm sure they would find an audience."

As the experience of football is translated into more and more languages, there will inevitably be some of the teething problems described above in relation to Maltese, Kyrgyz, and Hindi. Ana Williams, the linguist, suggests that it takes time for a culture to develop its own fluent language of commentary. She is the author of O Jogo Narrado, a study comparing the function and style of football commentary in Brazil and France. Football was brought to Brazil by the British, so in its early days, Brazilian commentary was littered with English words: "corner," "referee," "football," "goalkeeper," "match," and so on. "When soccer fully impregnated Brazilian culture, these words were replaced by vocabulary in Portuguese," Williams says. She sees a similar process happening around the world. "In time, you’ll have what happened in Brazil. The more popular the game gets, the more the national language will assimilate the game."

That bodes well for a country like India, where the launch of vernacular-language commentary runs in parallel with the growth of a burgeoning football culture. But speakers of smaller languages – like Maltese – will still have to resign themselves to hearing the narrative of the World Cup in voices that are not their own.

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