Penn’s English Language Programs Teaches Philadelphia Union Players

The English Language Programs at the University of Pennsylvania often teaches in traditional classrooms, but, in a unique situation instructing international professional athletes, the language laboratory is sometimes on a soccer field. 

Twice a week, ELP instructors travel to the Chester, Pa., training facility of Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union to work with international players to improve their English skills. 

The team’s 28 members hail from many parts of the world, including Brazil, Cameroon, Colombia, the Netherlands and Switzerland as well as the United States. 

In soccer, a lot of what the team does on the field is based on the verbal cues the players send to each other according to the moves that the opposing team is making, so speaking the same language is vital to the team’s success. 

“It’s important to be able to think quickly and pronounce the words and get it out fast to get the alarm bells to go off for the rest of the team,” says Jim Curtin, head coach. “For the coaches, being able to get messages across to the players and not have anything lost in translation is critical.”

The English language proficiency of the seven students who are taking the classes range from beginner to intermediate.

During the hour-long sessions for the beginners, the instructors go over basic terms that players would need to know to quickly correspond with teammates on the field.

In one class session, the instructors partnered with an assistant coach to hold drills on the team’s practice field to demonstrate the action that’s required for words such as “step,” which means to move forward together with the defense, and “behind,” which alerts a player to turn around to cover a teammate or to turn around and play the ball back to him. 

“It’s one thing to be able to learn a word sitting down at a table, but it’s so much better doing it physically, having someone pass a ball to you and yell something to you,” says Christy Shea, an ELP instructor who teaches the beginner class. “The player would yell at me and say, ‘Behind,’ and I would turn and look back. Actually doing it makes it stick.”

When Fabio “Fabinho” Alves joined the team in 2013, he didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand what his coaches and English-speaking teammates were saying. Now, the left back can comfortably communicate with his teammates during the game, giving verbal cues such as, “drop,” “close down the space” and “retreat.”  

“Right now it is more comfortable because on the field everybody uses the same language,” says Alves. “I know what I have to do.” 

“Fabinho has really taken off,” says Curtin. “He was shy and hesitant and didn’t speak to anyone. Now he is the center of our locker room. He keeps everyone together, keeps everyone laughing.” 

The ELP instructors created a customized curriculum to suit the needs of the players. 

When one of the players was injured in a game, the instructors knew that he couldn’t communicate with the team trainer, Paul Rushing, so they scheduled a session with him to learn about basic questions he asks injured players, such as, “Where does it hurt?” “Can you stand up?” “Are you dizzy?”

“It’s just basic questions, but if you don’t know ‘dizzy,’ that’s hard to express,” says Shea.

The instructors used role playing to help the players learn to how to describe an injury to the trainer.

“This is not stuff that normally comes up in an English as a Second Language program, but as the needs come up, both from the questions they ask in class and from what we see, then we focus on that,” says Shea.

During one class, some players shared that they had trouble understanding Curtin in the coach’s pre-game and post-game talks, so now the coach’s talks are recorded so that the instructors and students can view the video together in class to help students learn what he’s saying.

“Now I can understand what he wants,” says Alves. “I know what the coach is saying about when we make mistakes and when we play bad and when we play good.”   

“His ability now to problem solve, process things on the field, and his performance on the field is at his best level,” says Curtin. It’s no coincidence that that side of the field for us now is one of our strongest.”

For the players who have a higher level of English proficiency, instructor John Cotton brings reading materials such as news and sports articles for students to read aloud, followed by a discussion of issues related to the stories.

“We want to teach them English beyond what they would need for their job,” says Cotton.  “English is going to help them just live their lives. What are they going to be doing after their career ends? Is it going to be something in an English-language medium? -- coaching, for example, in which case a general level of English is necessary for that, not just context specific vocabulary." 

Midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta from Switzerland speaks English at an intermediate level but didn’t always feel comfortable expressing himself for fear of using the wrong word or saying something grammatically incorrect. Through the ELP classes, he has developed more confidence to speak up when he has something to share about what happens on the field.

“If I see something, now at halftime, I will talk to my teammates and I’ll say, ‘You’ll have to step up,’ or ‘You have to drop,’ or ‘We have to switch sides quicker,’” says Barnetta. “When I first came here, I saw the same things, but I didn’t say anything because I thought maybe they would laugh or not understand me.”

Since the beginning of the relationship with the Union in April of 2015, the ELP instructors have continually evaluated parts of the team’s organization where there could be miscommunication. 

One of the areas was in television and radio interviews. They brought in the team’s television interviewer to the class and did mock interviews with several team members. 

“It gave the players an opportunity to talk without the pressure of being in front of a camera and so they could build a relationship,” says Cotton.  

The English Language Programs, a part of the College of Liberal and Professional Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences, offers a variety of academic, business, and general English courses. This is the first time that ELP has worked with professional athletes.

In the fall of 2014, Jack Sullivan, ELP’s director of programs and a soccer fan, noticed that the Philadelphia Union had many international players and he contacted the team. 

“This was a kind of a workplace type of English,” says Sullivan. “We are always looking for teaching English for specific purposes, and I thought it might be an interesting project for us. I sent a letter to the team, and they kicked it around a bit and then responded.”

The ELP began working with the team during the 2015 season for just one day a week. The team decided to bring in the ELP instructors twice a week for the 2016 season.

“I got greedy and wanted more,” says Curtin.

Curtin considers working on language skills an important tool for his team. 

“There are so many financial resources put into sports medicine, the physical performance of these guys, and sports psychology is becoming bigger and bigger,” says Curtin.  “But language is so powerful, and I think programs like this should grow. I’ve talked to a bunch of other head coaches, and they’ve already hinted at how they could get hold of a program.” 

Alves is grateful for the program because he now feels comfortable speaking in every situation.

“Last year, I could not talk to the referee because I cannot speak English,” says Alves. “This year I can talk to referees. Sometimes the coach says I talk too much to the referees, and sometimes they give me a yellow card.”

He jokes with his teammates and shares amusing stories. On Aug. 16, he did his first live broadcast interview on WIP Radio’s “The 90th Minute Show.”

“We’re very appreciative of the instructors,” says Curtin. “We consider them part of the Philadelphia Union team. They’re a part of our success when we win or when we lose. Just like the coaching staff and the players, they’re in with us. It’s been special.”

Through the program, the team has developed stronger bonds on and off the field.

“As a coach, I want to get to know them as people, too,” says Curtin. “I can battle through my bad Spanish, but to actually feel comfortable talking to them and to have them feel comfortable now introducing their wives and kids to the group, it’s so powerful.”

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