When Athletes Can’t Speak English in Post Race Interviews

On Thursday, September 3, 2020, Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o was awarded the Catalonia International Prize for literature. The most amazing thing he did, though, was to give his acceptance speech in Kikuyu, one of Kenya’s 42 ethnic languages. For those who have been following Ngugi’s work on language, this is hardly a surprise. However, the most popular sentiment from Kenyans on Twitter that arose from his speech was “why don’t Kenyan athletes do the same?”. 

While English is one of Kenya’s official languages, the majority of athletes grow up in rural areas where their mother tongue, usually an ethnic language, is the first language they learn, then later Kiswahili and then English. English is particularly difficult for athletes who haven’t had the opportunity to further their education. Athletes have been shamed for not understanding journalists’ questions, have been incorporated into comic animations targeting their poor English communication skills, and have even made fun of themselves

The comedy surrounding this issue, however, doesn’t take into account, for instance, the intimidation of being in a foreign land (for first-timers or junior athletes), questions from journalists with foreign accents, and the difficulty in piecing together your thoughts in English, which often involves translating your mother tongue to English simultaneously as journalists ask multiple questions and cameras flash on their faces. And doing all of that while totally exhausted after winning a race. 

Thus, Prof. Ngugi wa Thiongo’s speech is monumental because he has paved the way for others, in other fields, to feel comfortable speaking the language they are most familiar with. He didn’t ask for permission, he just spoke.

As we work with Kenyan athletes, that’s the message we continuously drive home. The message, specifically, is “Be You.” In the arena of life, moments of intimidation will come, sometimes accompanied by confusion, and sometimes they’ll be just as plain as day. Your best bet is to rely on your confidence in what you have built so far that has brought you to this place, and the knowledge that all these people are here at this moment because of you or to speak with you. It is, therefore, ok in such a moment to pause and react in a way that works for you. For athletes, it’s ok to ask for a translator, or give a short prepared speech or simply just say “I can’t communicate properly unless you find someone that can speak in my language.”