“I’m gonna get hammered by the lads when they see this. They probably think I’m mad but I like conversing with people in their own languages. Life is a learning curve and I like to be one step ahead. Having to learn another language puts a lot of players off, but I’d love to play abroad – and learning the language is all part of it.
Most of us just want to speak English when we go abroad. It’s just laziness, I guess – and being frightened to say something in case somebody says something in reply that you don’t understand. You feel a bit stupid. But unless you make that first step, you’re never going to find out where you’re going wrong.
My interest in foreign languages started when I was young. Every time we went away on holiday with my mum and dad they would buy us phrasebooks. Since then, I’ve enjoyed learning something about whatever culture I’ve been part of, be it France, Spain, Italy or wherever. And it’s a good hobby to have, especially as there are now something like 16 different nationalities at Manchester City.
I really enjoyed languages at school and you could say I was a bit of a natural, especially with German, which I’d say is my second language. I got an ‘A’ in my German A-level and I wasn’t too bad at French, either, which is handy because we’ve got a lot of French lads at the club, including Anelka, Distin and Charvet, as well as the Cameroonians, Foe and Mtomo, and Ali Benarbia, from Algeria, who are all French-speaking. Most of the lads, besides myself, have got a basic knowledge of French, and they’ll take the piss by saying they know things in French. I can get by in French but I’ve lost touch with it a bit recently because I’ve been concentrating on learning Italian.
Having Italian blood – my dad’s mum was Italian – was an incentive, and now I’m learning the language hopefully it will all fall into place. We used to drive to Italy nearly every year when I was a kid and I love it. It’s the one place I’d really love to play football if I ever got the opportunity. It helps that my girlfriend is fluent in Italian. She lived in Sardinia for a year and, when you live abroad, the language is much easier to pick up. We speak a lot of Italian around the house.
I suppose speaking a few languages is a bit of a winner with the ladies. That’s never been my motive, but it does sound nice when you can converse with someone in their own lingo. I was in Dublin on a stag do in the summer and a mate of mine who speaks some Italian seemed to impress this one Italian girl. He didn’t know much but I think it was simply the fact that he made an effort to speak in her language that impressed her.
My girlfriend is also fluent in French – she was at university in Paris for a year – and she speaks a bit of Spanish as well. I’m playing catch-up with all those other languages but, although she does speak a little bit of German, I’ve got one up on her in that respect – I’ve got some friends in Hamburg and when I go to visit it all comes flooding back. Conversational German isn’t too difficult to pick up, but grammatically it’s a very complex language. In most languages other than English, the grammar tends to be quite tricky, but German is probably the hardest of the lot. It’s not a flowing language either. It’s quite abrupt. In Italian, you know that if something sounds right then it’s probably being spoken correctly, but German isn’t like that. So grammatically I’m not always spot on but that only comes through practice.
Having played for Hamburg, Kevin Keegan obviously sprechens die Deutsch, but other than a bit of a rendition when we played them during pre-season it’s among the lads that I have most of my conversations about languages. Me and the gaffer don’t really have the opportunity to speak much about our interests off the field. Like me, he also speaks a bit of Spanish because he lived there for a while before he came back to England to manage Newcastle. I started doing an AS Spanish course when I was doing my A-levels but I dropped out halfway through. I still know quite a lot, though, because I’ve been to Spain a few times and it’s amazing how much you can pick up just by listening to people or even watching a bit of television. I’ll never forget my uncle Ian’s favourite saying when he went to Spain: ‘Muchas gracias, penis’, which he said meant ‘Thanks, cock’ – ha ha! But, seriously, if I can just get Italian in the bag then hopefully Spanish will follow, because they’re not too dissimilar.
But the one language I’d really like to learn properly is Chinese, because I know it would be a big challenge. Sun Jihai is my roommate and he’s always on his mobile phone, but it’s an impossible language to pick up because Oriental languages are nothing like Western languages. It’s not just different in what they say, it’s the pitch, the tone – everything. For example, you can take a saying, but if you deepen your pitch it can mean something completely different. It’s very difficult.
I try to base my Chinese on going to Chinese restaurants, and I always try to order in Chinese. A really good friend of mine owns a Chinese restaurant in Cheadle and every time I go in I try out my Chinese. He actually speaks Cantonese, which is a slightly different dialect to Madarin, which is what I try to speak, so he’ll always correct me in Cantonese. I’m hopefully going on a coaching expedition to the Far East next summer as part of my glove sponsorship, so I’ll have to learn a bit more than ‘One chicken chow mein, please’. Ha ha!