In this article, I’m not promoting sports as a calorie burning activity (for those who know me, burning calories is the most boring-to-death motivation to get me to join in). On the contrary, I see sports rather as a social experience, a unique way to meet local people (and who knows, make a new friend?) and one of the most memorable language adventures you can enjoy when staying abroad!
This article is dedicated to the O’Regans family, for taking me to this epic orienteering course in the Cotswolds, England. It was twelve years ago and I will remember it as one of the most memorable language immersions I ever experienced. Merci Liz et Graham!
“Le Sport est l’Espéranto des Peuples,” says French playwright and diplomat Jean Giraudoux. In other words, like Espéranto, sports is a universal activity that crosses political and cultural borders. Giraudoux also implies that, like Espéranto, sports is a language of its own that crosses linguistic differences; you can play a game without speaking a common language because sports, the field and the game have their own implicit rules that don’t require verbal communication. However, I don’t totally agree with that second implication. If you think common sports games such as tennis, volley ball, crossfit or climbing, they put us and the other players in a situation when we have to interact, to cooperate, and to talk A LOT! It is actually language immersion.
“Plus tonique, monsieur votre posture s’il vous plaît !”
When you join a sports club, expect to have 3 to 4 unique sources of communication. There’s the instructor who gives the coaching and verbally corrects the participants’ performance. Plus tonique, monsieur, votre posture s’il vous plaît ! <= Believe me, you’ll want to understand her when she’ll address you in person to help you improve your posture. Then there’s the staff. You’ll have to say Bonjour and exchange a few words every time you enter the club, and maybe sign a contract. You’ll also have an occasion to talk with the other members, before and after the session. Maybe you’re shy and you don’t want to join in changing room discussions, but what if someone starts talking to you and you just want to be polite and chat a little! Also if you choose a team sport, you’ll likely have to communicate with your team members during the game itself.
Imagine, you’re at a tango class in the XVIth arrondissement in Paris, and you are so focused on reproducing the right step, that when you hear that familiar voice saying “Ecoute mieux le rythme…” then you focus on the music, change your step, and you turn to your teacher and say “C’est mieux comme ça ?” You are speaking, not for the sake of speaking French, but for improving your tango step technique! That moment, you realize that you are no longer a student of French – but a French speaker, speaking French to learn dancing.
Team Sports or Solo Sports?
As we say in French, Il y en a pour tous les goûts!. Team sports like handball, rugby soccer, and basketball require more personal investment within the club, and for that reason they may be better suited for expats who stay all year in the city.
On the contrary, solo sports like yoga, dancing, and crossfit might require less commitment to a particular team, and you can go there only once. If you’re on leisure travel, it could be a great option
Experiences that I will remember all my life (and that my second languages will remember all their life too!)
- 🇩🇪 🤸♂️ Yoga, Mitte, Berlin: It was mostly crowded and all the instructor did was shout instructions across the room. What I found interesting though is that it was always the same series of postures, so after several times coming to the class I could recite by rote the instructions! How many body-related words do you would learn, if you tried a yoga class in French?
- 🇺🇸 ⛰ Arlington, VA : indoor climbing. Climbers are such a welcoming and open-minded community. It was mostly a social experience when session after session I got to know the people of the club. I also learned English words related to belay devices, yuhu!
- 🇺🇸 ⛸ Arlington, VA : ice-skating.
- 🇬🇧 🏃♀️ Cotswolds, England: orienteering. I was lucky to be invited to join a race and had to use English with my team to navigate in the area and decipher a map together. Unforgettable memory, and a lot of fun!
- 🇫🇮 🏒 Helsinki, Finland: ice hockey. Be reassured, I did not play hockeythere. I just saw a game at the arena. Finnish songs, cheerleading, supporters channelling for their teams. Who ever said that Finnish people were shy?
- 🇪🇸💃 Valencia, Spain: flamenco class. Learned some Spanish phrases about dancing and chatted with Valencian people. Did you know that they speak a regional language called Valenciano?
- 🇩🇪 Pétanque, Kreuzberg, Berlin. Ah, this sport is maybe the closest to French hearts. How could I imagine last time I stayed in Berlin that I would find people playing it? C’est pas un sport, some may say, but who cares after all. You don’t have to burn calories to enjoy a game. All that matters is that it is fun… and that it gives you a pretext for conversation!
Have you ever joined a sports class when travelling to France or to another foreign country? I would love to read your stories! Feel free to share it. If you write it in French, Spanish, German, Mandarin or Russian.. I commit to answer in that language too!
p.s: on this map you can find the best sports club that I have tried. Can you add a good sports club that you know in your own city? International travellers might find this map useful.