Musings on Romance Languages: Multilingualism on the European Soccer Field

Category: Language

Have you ever wondered how some European soccer players so effortlessly transfer from club to club, country to country, without spending at least a semester in intensive language immersion? France’s Zinedine Zidane, for example, played for Cannes and Bordeaux, then Juventus, in Piedmont, Italy, and later Real Madrid, in Spain. In crucial moments of the game, was he able to come up with the right translation for, “Pass the ball now!”, without a split second of hesitation?

If you’ve watched any post-game interviews, you know the answer to this. These professional soccer players are not only amazing athletes; they are also gifted language learners. Several of the Brazilians who play for Spanish teams, for example, have only the slightest accent as they recount the critical game plays to the Spanish press. How do these world-class players have time to study the language of their club? The secret to their quick language acquisition in this case is the Romance language advantage.

There is so much overlap between most Romance languages that speakers of one can gain a vocabulary of several thousand words in another with minimal study. And some languages are so close phonetically that they are intelligible on a rudimentary level to non-native speakers. For example, Italian and Portuguese speakers will claim to “understand” Spanish, without ever having cracked a book. Common vocabulary and cognates make learning a second, third and even fourth Romance language relatively simple on a conversational level.

Ronaldo is a good example of this Romance multilingualism. He began his career in Brazil, later played for Barcelona (where Catalan is spoken in addition to Spanish), transferred to Milan for a few years, returned to Spain to play for Real Madrid, went back to Milan for a year and finally moved home to Brazil to join the Corinthians. His field language went from Portuguese to Spanish to Italian to Spanish to Italian to Portuguese over two decades’ time. Seems like an amazing feat, but let’s look at a few similarities across these languages to demonstrate how Ronaldo and Zidane were able to change a few letters here and there to communicate on the field in each new club:

To love (soccer, of course)

French: aimer

Spanish: amar

Portuguese: amar

Italian:  amare


French: football

Spanish: fútbol

Portuguese: futebol

To play

French: jouer

Spanish: jugar

Portuguese: jogar

Italian: giocare

To pass (the ball)

French: passer

Spanish: pasar

Portuguese: passar

Italian: passare

To block

French:  bloquer

Spanish: bloquear

Portuguese: bloquear

Italian: bloccare

To score

French: marquer

Spanish: marcar

Portuguese: marcar

To win/lose

French: gagner/perdre

Spanish: ganar/perder

Portuguese: ganhar/perder

Italian: vincere/perdere

The ball:

French: le ballon

Spanish: el balón

Portuguese: a bola

Italian: il pallone

So you see, acquiring essential soccer vocabulary in another Romance language is really not that complicated. This is, of course, a simplification, but you get the idea.

For those of you who enjoy learning languages and want to become conversational in as many as possible, studying Romance languages will prove to be rewarding and practical, both on and off the soccer field.

Stay tuned for more musings on Romance languages later this month.

Photo attribution: svenwerk