‘Will Gary Neville's appointment at Valencia trigger a renaissance in Spanish learning in our schools? Here’s hoping...’

The uptake of modern foreign languages in schools has long been influenced by sportspeople launching themselves into foreign leagues, writes on MFL teacher

Heather Martin

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Footballers and football managers have probably done more for the dissemination of Spanish than anyone since the conquistadors.

I love it when an Englishman is offered – and accepts – a job abroad. It causes such a flurry of excitement. Justified, yet somehow comically disproportionate, admiration, shot through with just a hint of incredulity. It seems to take us by surprise every time. He'll never stick it out, of course, the bar-flies say down the pub. He'll miss the pies too much.

The latest to make the leap of faith is Mancunian Gary Neville. It's not exactly a case of going where no man has gone before, with the intrepid David Moyes having just returned from a short – and doomed – stint at Real Sociedad. (I remember his touching idealism at the outset. He praised the culture of his La Liga team, and of Spanish football in general. Presumably the very same culture that was also the culprit when he was sacked.)

On the radio, people worried about Gary's family: would they stay or would they go? "He'll have to learn the language, of course," they said, with a degree of solemnity, almost as if someone had just died. Others, citing Neville's renowned organisational skills and meticulous attention to detail, speculated that he might already have been swotting up with a view to just such a career move.

Someone with similar experience said it would make him a much better manager, seeing the appointment as a next step in his apprenticeship for the Premier League. But I particularly liked the reason given. Because his language would be limited, it was argued, he would have to be "succinct" and "concise", boiling things down to the essentials, distilling his methods into pearls of coaching wisdom. Perhaps we should ship a few more people overseas in order to cut down on the waffle in the world.

It reminded me of one of my own more esoteric arguments in favour of using Spanish as a second language in school; that limited vocabulary and fluency would curtail the capacity for argument and so make for a more harmonious environment.

A woman who had worked in Spanish football was consulted for her expert views on Mr Neville's move. Just one thing she said stuck in my mind. It was a humorous anecdote about how on the first day of her new job she was invited to join a major board meeting, with lots of big names in attendance. Surely not much point, she demurred, as she didn't yet have a word of Spanish. But no, it was insisted that she be there regardless. At the end, when she said she hadn't been able to understand a word, her new Spanish colleagues responded eagerly: "But you got the gist, no?"

This caused hilarity in the studio. But to me it seemed a little poignant. Clearly those Spanish people had empathised. They had learned English at school, they most likely didn't feel they were much good at it, were modest about their skills. But the idea of total ignorance? Almost inconceivable – almost anywhere but here.

Personally, I think Neville will approach Spanish with the same degree of commitment that another Gary approached the task of learning Japanese. Lineker became fairly fluent in the language during his two years in Nagoya, having derived justifiable confidence in his linguistic ability from his prior success with Barça. Famously, the original Gary was even bold enough to conduct an impromptu interview in Spanish with Argentine golfer Andrés Romero at The Open.

Despite this illustrious tradition, it doesn't always take. When Lineker was asked how his old England team-mate Paul Gascoigne was getting on with Italian (he was playing with Rome club Lazio at the time), he cheekily replied: "He hasn't learned English yet." Beckham, slanderously reputed to have mastered most Spanish swear words during his Real Madrid days, managed a magnificent "bonjour" when representing Paris St Germain, but since everything he touches turns to gold that was the footballing equivalent of a starred first at Cambridge.

In the meantime, we have Neville to thank for a minor miracle. When, quite by chance, I happened to switch on the radio on Friday morning, I could hardly believe my ears. Our complex, almost neurotic, attitude to foreign languages – and in particular our love-hate relationship with French – was the subject of Nicky Campbell's Your Call. I was moved by the earnest accounts of people who had given languages a chance: put the effort in and got something back, not aspiring to perfection, just willing to give it a go. And Campbell himself was keen to emphasise the affinity between neighbouring languages and cultures rather than any kind of alienating gulf.

By the time Gary Neville returns to England, in triumph or defeat, maybe if nothing else even that late-night presenter on Radio 5 Live will have learned how to pronounce the name Valencia properly, without the Italianate "c".

Not everyone can be up there with exemplary polyglots Arsène Wenger and Roy Hodgson. But it has always been a fantasy of mine that one day, one of my pupils would end up like "El legendino" (aka Tim Vickery), commentating in Spanish on football matches taking place somewhere in the Spanish-speaking world. With Gareth and Gary leading the way, perhaps this is not just a pipe dream.

Dr Heather Martin is a Spanish specialist and tweets at @drheathermartin

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