A few days ago, I gave myself a new listening exercise. Instead of the cartoons and children’s shows I normally listened to, I decided to try a football match. And the specific match I chose was one I had already heard “in translation” and knew I would enjoy again: the World Cup 2014 semi-final between Germany and Brazil [Weltmeister 2014 Halbfinale, Deutschland gegen Brasilien]. (Link)
I was working full-time as an English trainer during this World Cup, and virtually all of my learners had a national team playing for the cup [der Pokal]. Even those who were normally not football fans had football fever — and it was certainly contagious! For the weeks leading up to the final, I felt the enthusiasm of my French learners for the France’s national team, my Italian learners for Italy’s national team, my one Belgian learner for Belgium’s national team, my one Brazilian learner for Brazil’s national team, and of course, my German learners for the Deutsche Fußballnationalmannschaft.
And on the weekends, I sat next to a very passionate Fußball fan in my German classes who loved how well the players from her beloved FC Bayern München were doing on the world stage.
All these memories came into play as I watched the match again, this time with German commentary. But I wasn’t the same person I was two years ago. It was fascinating to note the differences between my old self and my current self as I relived the old match.
“Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit . . .”
One notable change is that I can now sing the Deutsche Nationalhymne. Some weeks ago, I told friends that my German obsession included starting each day with the German national anthem. I thought it was obvious I was joking, but they all believed me! It made me worried that someone would test me in the future, so I learned it anyway. The lyrics videos were the most helpful at first: I could play them over and over, using the text to sing along. But when the lyrics started feeling familiar, I wanted to practice with some “living German” — which were mostly videos of football players singing the national anthem before international matches. This may be where I got the idea for this sports-themed listening exercise.
In any case, when the German Spieler lined up before the match to sing, I was able to sing along with them! And this was when I noticed something else new.
Back in 2014, my Austrian friend was curious whether I thought the German players were handsome. I had to confess that I didn’t. While I didn’t find them bad looking, neither did I see a potential crush. But this time, as the camera spanned their faces during the national anthem that we were singing together, I found myself thinking: “Toll! Those are some fine-looking men!”
“Tor für Deutschland!”
Listening to the commentary was a very fun exercise. I had looked up some terms before starting, so I knew which important words to expect. It was probably not necessary, because the Kommentator was very clear . . . and because I could look up new words quickly online. I had worried that having to look words up would break my focus, but it only helped my understanding.
It also helped vocabulary retention, thanks to all the repetition. I heard “Tor” or “Trifft” at least seven times — and “gegen” or “im Duell mit” whenever two Spieler fought for possession of the ball. Sometimes the Kommentator would say his own comments twice, just for emphasis.
Context can also make words “stickier.” After one shocking development, the Kommentator cried: “Was geht denn hier ab?” And now I know what to say if I ever see things spiraling out of control! It seems like a common expression, and I probably read it somewhere before this and then forgot it. But here I was hearing it, mimicking the sounds, figuring out what sounds the words made, and connecting them to the context. It was the perfect way to learn it!
If you watched this match, you remember that Germany took the lead very early and widened it so quickly that, half an hour in, it was clear that Brazil would lose. (One of my German learners told me about running to the bathroom after Germany’s second goal, then hearing his friends going crazy outside — not just once, but twice. It happened that quickly. And it still wasn’t over.) By the second half, some Brazilian fans were so disgusted that they were leaving . . . and some German fans were singing their national anthem again. I joined in — but only for the practice, of course!
Bonus: Post-Game Interviews
Something else I had wanted to do was revisit the post-game interviews. Back in 2014, I watched one with Thomas Müller and understood exactly one word: “unglaublich” — unbelievable. I would have wanted to hear it again, but it doesn’t seem to be available! But there are other post-game interviews from the Weltmeisterschaft 2014 to help me make my point.
Sports announcers speak very clearly, but the different players (and the coach), with their regional accents, can be another sort of listening challenge. I find the national coach [der Bundestrainer] Joachim Löw very easy to understand. And at least one of his interviews on the Halbfinale is available.
But my two favorite players, Müller and Miroslav Klose, are more of a listening challenge — for very different reasons. The Bavarian Müller is very expressive but has a thick accent, while the Polish Klose, who speaks more neutrally, is kind of shy.
I found a clip of an interview with Müller that inexplicably cuts off right after the reporter asks him about the match with Brazil. Even stranger is that there don’t seem to be any interviews with Klose about the Halbfinale, which is when he set a new record for World Cup goals. But if you like him too, I highly recommend the documentary Miroslav Klose — Eine unglaubliche Karierre.
Language Learning through Sport
In conclusion, sports fans have a great advantage in language learning. They can practice their listening with “living media” that they already enjoy. The luckiest learners are those whose favorite sport is also very popular among those who speak their target language.
If you are not a fan of a relevant sport, you can always reverse engineer it. That is, look up the sports that are popular among those who speak your target language and make yourself like one. Pick a team or athlete to support and keep track of their matches, endorsements, and news appearances. Follow their local fans on social media. To take it to an even higher level, reverse engineer a crush.
Now it occurs to me that my grandmother did this back in the 1950s, when she wanted to perfect her Spanish. That is, she became a genuine fan of bullfighting. I recall that she knew many celebrity toreros by name, though that was one more part of her world I was never able to enter. (Read more about a remarkable woman and language learner in Spanish with My Grandmother.)
What I recommend is football. I find it the best sport for this strategy because of all the momentum you can get from the World Cup alone. Not only will it be exciting to study your new language, but also you’ll have lots of new “living media” to study. If you are learning a European language, you can get really excited every two years: in between the World Cups are the Euros! And when there are no international football championships, you can simply follow a local club.