A goal in anyone's language

Joanna Snicker follows pupils to Chelsea Football Club to see how the game made them better Europeans

There is one aspect of life in Britain where foreign is cool: where minds are expanding and international borders fading. Football is getting into the Europe thing, on the pitch at least. Long regarded as a soccer backwater, isolated from the ways of wily foreigners, the British game has now opened its arms and its wallets for the sophisticated charms of people called things like Zola, Cantona, Ravanelli and Leboef.

Their arrival has been much publicised. The languages that they speak, however, maintain a rather lower profile among British school children. As Joanna Cross, a modern languages teacher at Kingsfield School in Bristol put it: "It is no secret. There is a negative, insular attitude in this country. "

Which is why she hired a bus and took a group of pupils to Chelsea Football Club - a club gaining prominence with its stable of high profile foreigners and intelligent play.

Whatever the talk of European integration, British children still do not have the foreign language abilities of their fellow Europeans. A 1996 survey by The TES and the International Centre for Language Teaching and Research (CILT) showed that only 34 per cent of state secondary schools made two languages compulsory and only between five and seven per cent of primary schools taught one. Of countries in the European Union, only the UK and Ireland allow pupils at secondary level staying on to the age of 18 to opt out of language study altogether.

"I thought the trip to Chelsea might be a motivating experience," says Ms Cross. "It would show that languages are useful in all walks of life, make it more real and boost their confidence by giving them something they can relate to."

Having got permission from the club last year, she launched a competition to select 12 pupils. Making sure the group was equally balanced with boys, girls, varying ages and mixed abilities, Ms Cross set about equipping them with the language skills needed to speak to their football heroes. She taught them to ask questions in Italian, German and French and how to carry on the conversation.

"I thought they might take notice of someone they idolise," she says. "They were very excited and there was a lot of boasting to others about the Chelsea trip.

"The girls were practising more than the boys. Part of this exercise was to increase confidence among the boys. But they tend to get more embarrassed than girls."

The likes of Ruud Gullit, Di Matteo, Leboef and Zola were on the Stamford Bridge pitch training as the school party arrived. When they walked back through the tunnel toward the dressing room, the Kingsfield pupils cornered them.

"Do you think foreign players are helping the British players or do you think there isn't enough room for the British?" asked one pupil in perfect Italian to Roberto Di Matteo. The international midfielder did not think there was a problem: providing the imported players were good enough. Gianfranco Zola, another member of Italy's national squad, felt the mix and match was a positive thing: "It's good because you can show each other something new."

Meanwhile, another pupil was spouting German to the much-travelled player-manager Ruud Gullit, from Holland. "Was it difficult learning foreign languages," she asked? "I speak German, English, Italian and Dutch," he said. "I'm very proud of the languages I speak and I think everyone should learn a foreign language because you should be aware of other cultures."

Back in the classroom the pupils said they had learnt from the experience as well as having enjoyed it. "I learnt that footballers can speak a lot of languages and that it is good to be educated if you want to play football, " said 14-year-old Ryan, one of the few Bristol City fans in the group. "I couldn't actually believe that I was next to Zola and it was great to go away knowing I understood what he was saying."

Asked to sum up the difference between Italian and English football, Di Matteo made a point that might have more general application: "There's a different mentality. The British players tend to go to the pub a lot after the game. I can't say that one is better than the other. They're just different."

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