Sport and languages - the Sandwell swimming venue for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games

Languages and Sport : Cast the Net Wide!

It’s not all about the languages. Sometimes, something else comes along to catch my attention, and this last ten days, it’s been sport. The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games have transformed my home city in a bustling hub of joy. And, as ever, there’s a way to bend it back to languages. Bear with me…

After a stint as a volunteer performer in the Opening Ceremony, I was lucky enough to have a games pass to attend the sports. Now, as someone who was rubbish at PE at school, I didn’t know where to start. Since those difficult childhood years, I’ve made up for it a little bit. I gym now and again. And of course, I do the obligatory big of flag-waving sport, when there’s a big international tournament on. Surprise, surprise – anything with flags gets the Eurovision fan in me going.

But beyond that, I haven’t a clue.

So, to make the most of my sporty fumblings in the dark, the approach I adopted was a bit of everything. The aim? To cast the net wide, and see what I liked. And I liked a lot… 3×3 Basketball, Beach Volleyball, Hockey, Powerlifting… it turns out that there’s a lot more to sport than school football and cross-country running!

The thing with ‘sport dipping’ is that it’s a lot like my approach to languages: exploration and dabbling. Like watching lots of new sport, you might call language dabbling a spectator-driven approach. You take in bits and pieces here and there to build up a very broad picture of what’s out there. After that, you can choose to go big and become a superfan of one or two, if the fancy grabs you.

In any case, I’ve come out of this week feeling vindicated in that approach to new things, whether sport or languages. My language brain is impatient for some attention, having been in maintenance mode during the Summer madness. But it can take it now and again.

It’s a good sport, after all.

Languages and sport : Beach volleyball at the Smithfield site for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games

Beach volleyball at the Smithfield site for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games : Birmingham and Rwanda gearing up for the bronze medal match on Sunday 7th August

Sport and Languages : Adam Peaty in the line-up for the 100m men's breaststroke at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games

Adam Peaty in the line-up for England in the 100m men’s breaststroke

3x3 Basketball at the Smithfield site for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games

Sri Lanka and Australia battle it out in the 3×3 Basketball at the Smithfield site

The futuristic shell of Selfridge, Birmingham. Brum hosts the Commonwealth Games 2022. Image by Rob Grace,

A Commonwealth of Languages : The Hidden Wealth of Brum 2022

International events are a touch-point for different languages coming into contact. No surprise, then, that I’m bursting with excitement and pride that my home city, Birmingham, will be hosting the Commonwealth Games this Summer!

It only seems like the life cycle of a midge ago that Brum was selected to host the next games. That, of course, was in the before… and so many things have happened since then. We’ve had a missed Eurovision, a year-shifted Olympics and Euros, and countless other disappointments as countries battled Covid.

But, touch wood, it seems like the Commonwealth Games are on track to bring that cosmopolitan magic to the city this July and August.

And what better way to welcome and respect our guests, than by learning about their many languages?

A Commonwealth of Languages

The Commonwealth is, of course, a smaller club of countries than Olympics-competing nations. So what languages might be coming to the city’s sports venues?

The answer is: potentially hundreds. Naturally, these include the cross-national lingua francas like English, French and Swahili. But in the mix is a wealth of languages each spoken by far fewer people, many of them endangered. I can’t possibly do them all justice in a short blog post – this excellent 2011 episode from the Talk the Talk podcast describes that fragile richness of tongues much more eloquently.

The Beauty That Hides

But the lesson for languages learners in all of this is simply to avoid generalisations when it comes to national languages. The fact is that supraregional, often transplanted tongues, like English in Australia, and French in Canada, obscure a picture of extreme linguistic diversity stretching back long before the introduction of those global comms conduits. And it’s a diversity that otherwise goes unnoticed on the international stage.

English and French are certainly not the only culprits; the spread of standard Swahili is impinging on smaller, local varieties too. Loss seems to be an inevitable outcome of globalising, commercialising languages, a topic covered in fascinating detail in Nicholas Evans’ Dying Words (well worth a read).

Doing Our Bit

So what part can we play in redressing the balance?

Well, just as the Commonwealth continues to modernise and deal with its own legacy, we can start by simply acknowledging that hidden wealth. When looking forward to a Brum of languages, deep dive. Peer behind the curtain of official languages, and shine a light on what is so rarely spotlit. What else is hiding behind those big languages of the competing countries?

In Tanzania, for example, there are over a hundred languages that coexist with Swahili. While there may be few resources to learn them (yet), just to know about them is a start in acknowledging the people that speak them.

It’s a small step towards welcoming Brum’s international guests with even more respect than ever.