New book – order details

Western European Languages – A Reference Guide is now available online in all markets.

“It occurs to me that there should be a copy of this book in every household.”

“An easy book to tip into as well as read more thoroughly.”

“An exploration of these languages not just as they are spoken in Europe but across the world.”

Average 5* reviews on Amazon, Google and Loot.

“My new book, Western European Languages – A Reference Guide, is now available in all major markets online, including in:

UK & Ireland

United States

Canada

Japan

Germany

France

Italy

Spain

Australia

South Africa

However, if you are in the UK, do contact me directly and I can save you the postage costs.

Can you learn one language through another?

If you know German, you will notice that you can understand quite a lot of Dutch; if you are proficient in Spanish, you will have spotted that you can read Portuguese fairly well. So can you just go ahead and add that extra language via the one you already know – a kind of “two for the price of one”?

As ever with these linguistic questions, the answer is “it depends“.

Language tutors will generally tend towards the view that no, in order to learn any particular language you have to start with the basics and go from there. However, “polyglots” will be quick to make the contrary point that of course knowing one language will help with learning a related language. Both are (sort of) right.

The reality for me is that there is no point in starting at the absolute beginning when learning a language related to one in which you are already proficient, not least because you will soon get frustrated with the sense that you are covering ground you already know. However, nor is there any room for complacency – Dutch is a separate language from German and Portuguese is a separate language from Spanish; learning them even to a reasonable level means recognising that it is not just a matter of “tuning in” and noticing the odd difference (as it might be for a different dialect or variety of the same language).

This is one instance where, unusually, Duolingo may be your friend – it is typically an inadequate way of really getting to know a language, but in this case it may prove an efficient way of picking up divergent basic vocabulary quickly. The important thing, however, is to ignore the initial competence test and start right at the beginning. This way you will soon pick up that Portuguese speakers tend to use achar rather than creer to say what they think, or that the Dutch say altijd not immer for ‘always’; more importantly, you may pick up that even the same words will be used differently (compare Portuguese acho que ele gostava de jogar futebol with the really quite different Spanish creo que a él le gustaba jugar al fútbol ‘I think he liked playing football’) or just have outright different meanings (Portuguese apenas clearly means ‘only’, whereas Spanish apenas tends more towards the quite different ‘hardly’).

It can also be helpful to learn about the new target language, more so than it usually would be. It may be helpful to know that Dutch has abbreviated pronoun forms or that Portuguese maintains more preposition-pronoun/article combinations (pela, dele, àquela, nestes etc.) early in your learning. This will, however, vary from learner to learner and it is certainly not essential.

Perhaps the best way to think of this is like a window. Spanish offers a window to Portuguese, and Dutch to German (and, no doubt, Irish to Scottish Gaelic, Czech to Polish, Zulu to Xhosa and so on). Nevertheless, it is only a window – you can see quite a lot but you are not yet in the same room.

Ultimately, the key point is that there is no need to vary the language learning process for a language which happens to be close to one you already know. Fundamentally, the way to learn any language is through comprehensible input. It is inevitable that this process will be faster for languages related to those you already know, but the process is to all intents and purposes the same.

Quite how much you use the language you already know will also depend on what your objective is. If, for example, you are already proficient in Spanish, it would simply be a shame not to explore a little Portuguese too – but if a little exploration is all you are after, using Spanish as your base for a lot of guesswork when you come to write or speak Portuguese is not unreasonable. Conversely, if you are moving to a Portuguese-speaking country to live and work, in fact your objective will probably be to end up with your Portuguese being more advanced than your Spanish – in which case, it is probably best not to look through the Spanish window for very long and focus on Portuguese absolutely on its own merits. That is really why, in the end, it just depends…

“Exploring” languages makes a lot more sense

Learners of English, Spanish and Portuguese (perhaps even French) will sometimes ask “Which variety of the language should I learn?”

English, Spanish, Portuguese and to a lesser extent French (and indeed a very scant extent Dutch, but we will leave it aside for now) are all languages which are “pluri-centric” and “trans-Atlantic”; that is, they have distinct forms (including distinct standard versions) on either side of the Atlantic. So if we are learning them, which one should we go for?

The answer, as so often with linguistic questions of this nature, is again “It depends“.

Notably, English, Portuguese and French each have roughly three quarters of their native speakers (i.e. people who grew up and live with the language in the home, as opposed to those who may be fluent in it and use it regularly for other reasons such as living in a country/area where it is the prime administrative or trading language) in a single country – the United States, Brazil and France respectively. Therefore they have a clear focal point, even if in some cases other issues make the choice more difficult. Life is not so easy with Spanish; the country with the most native Spanish speakers, Mexico, still accounts for barely a third of the total and no other country alone accounts for more than 10% – Spanish, alongside Arabic (although its sociolinguistic situation is markedly different), is the most genuinely pluri-centric language on the planet.

One interesting aspect here is that when speakers of different varieties speak to each other – something modern technology makes much easier and a global pandemic in some ways makes more accessible (because it is now more likely to be done online rather than in person) – they often moderate their speech towards a common form, in fact making their conversation more accessible for learners. So these types of conversations can be very useful.

For example, the last episode in August 2021 of Ignacio Benedetti’s Mi Fútbol consists of the host, a US-based Venezuelan, speaking to Fernando Signorini, an Argentine expert in football preparation (who worked with Diego Maradona among others).

It lasts an hour and a half and is very accessible for even intermediate-level Spanish speakers, assuming they have an interest in football including at international level, for two prime reasons. Firstly, as they will be interested in the content, they will be less obsessed about the content linguistically and thus less inclined to put pressure on themselves to understand everything (pressurising yourself is the worst thing you can do in learning any new skill). Secondly, however, they are also evidently moderating and probably also slightly slowing their speech towards a common and emphatically clear Latin American standard, even while maintaining the best known features of their own variety (Signorini uses voseo throughout and displays the characteristic River Plate affricate pronunciation, similar to English ‘j’, in words such as mayoría ‘majority’; cf. Italian maggioranza). So this sort of inter-variety conversation may be something to look for, as it is (perhaps counterintuitively) likely to be among the most accessible content for learners.

For all this, I think the answer to the question is quite simple. If you are learning the language prior to moving to a country, spending time there regularly, or working with people from a specific place, then obviously aim for the version as spoken in that country – it does not matter that much (people across the English, Portuguese, Spanish and French-speaking worlds all understand those speaking other varieties fairly easily, at least in formal situations or where they are motivated to do so), but obviously it will save a bit of time and effort.

Conversely, if you are learning the language because of a general interest in the culture of those who speak it, or because you want to read literature or listen to music in the original, or because you want to access the language for potential business or leisure opportunities, then instead of focusing on “learning” the language I would emphasise that the objective is “exploring” the language – and becoming at least passively aware of its different varieties is part of that exploration and thus, ultimately, part of the fun.

The key point fundamentally is that if your interests are trade, sport and cuisine you are never going to need to worry about specialist terminology for ballroom dancing or online publishing. Your “exploration” will focus on your interests, wherever they happen to take you – if that is both to Argentina and Spain because you like football, so be it. In other words, there is variation in any language so do not be put off just because it happens to be between different countries or continents – just enjoy the exploration!

Ronaldo even teaches languages…

After Wednesday’s match against Ireland, which he had settled with a goal in the last minute of regulation and another in the last minute of added time, new all-time men’s international record goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo was asked in English by Irish television if missing a penalty early in the game had put him off. His word-for-word response was “That’s football. Sometimes you score, sometimes you mistake.

That alone teaches us three things about languages.

First, it is in fact an error in the English language. In English you cannot “mistake” (except in the sense of mistaking someone or something for someone or something else); you can only “make a mistake“. Did you notice? Probably not. Did you care even if you did? Absolutely not. So the next time you mutter a sentence in a foreign language and suspect it may not quite sound perfectly idiomatic to the native speakers you are with – particularly when you are being asked to speak it suddenly having just spent hours using your own language – remember that they probably didn’t notice and certainly didn’t care.

Second, it is genuinely very hard to switch languages suddenly, even for someone perfectly used to doing so. The single and relatively common Portuguese verb errar does mean “make a mistake”, so the sentence probably sounds and works well in Ronaldo’s own native tongue – he may even have used it on Portuguese television. It could be simply that he had already started the sentence in English before realising it didn’t work quite so well. Had he tried it in German he would in fact have had the reverse problem – German has irren for as a single verb for “make a mistake” (even if it probably suggests a greater level of outright madness rather than just error) but lacks a single obvious verb for “score” (in German you literally “aim successfully” or just “make a goal”). This sort of thing happens all the time.

Third, and most importantly, he missed a penalty and was entirely unbothered by it, delivering victory regardless. This is exactly how language learning should be. We will make mistakes – we will forget words, get genders wrong, start sentences which we can’t really finish – but the trick is to be unbothered by it. It is, after all, possible to become the greatest goalscorer in the history of men’s football without scoring every penalty; likewise, it is possible to attain proficiency and fluency in a range of languages without nailing every sentence we utter.

If the great Cristiano Ronaldo can “mistake”, so can we…

Language “maintenance”

In the same way that YouTube and other social media platforms are full of how to lose 50kg in a month, they are also full of how to learn a language in seven days. Of course, these ploys are essentially clickbait and they would not work if they contained absolutely no truth whatsoever – but, in the same way you are not going to lose 50kg in a month and keep it off (barring truly exceptional circumstances including a very high starting weight), you are not going to attain fluency in a language from scratch in seven days and keep it (even if you define fluency fairly loosely and devote the entirety of those seven days to the task, itself a practical impossibility for people in the real world).

Number of languages

The other claim a group known as “polyglots” is becoming notorious for is just how many languages they “speak”. “Polyglot speaks 24 languages” or whatever is of course again good clickbait, but even the most talented linguist using the most effective methods is not going to maintain 24 languages (or anything like that number) at anything like fluency. It may of course be possible to mutter a couple of selected sentences in that many, which provides good entertainment but scant real linguistic value.

Some in the online language teaching business do perhaps drift just to the right side of the “dubious clickbait” to “polished marketing” spectrum, although it is hard to be objective about exactly where the boundary between attention-seeking and knowledge-seeking lies. In one case, for example, a linguist says specifically that he has “learned to speak” 20 languages in addition to his native tongue, and that is an impressive but probably reasonable claim – of course, he is not saying that he (currently) speaks 21 languages, nor even that he ever attained real fluency in that many.

Notably, in one video, pushed to speak Portuguese it becomes obvious that he is (not entirely unreasonably but not quite fluently either) accessing the language via Spanish. Is this really “speaking Portuguese”? Again, it is hard to determine objectively. There are numerous examples of this even among major European languages – to some extent you can also try accessing Dutch via German, Czech via Polish and so on; and if you speak any Scandinavian language you will at least be able to read the others (is that “speaking” them, though?)

Languages are like apps…

Nevertheless, I read the other day a note that someone was “preparing linguistically” to meet a Japanese friend – in other words, she was dedicating time to restoring her Japanese and putting it to the forefront of her brain in advance of meeting up. This makes a lot of sense.

To me, in some ways you can compare “speaking” or indeed “having learned to speak” languages to apps on a smartphone. There will be the one that is running in the foreground; one or a few running in the background; others downloaded on your phone but not currently running; still others perhaps that you once had downloaded but deleted (so you can access them again easily via the app store but they are not current); and then of course thousands that you have never downloaded, even if you maybe once or twice checked them out before opting not to.

This is all important because again it challenges some of the wild assertions made on social media. Even having spent time at school on a language – however inefficiently – will in fact have installed some knowledge of it in your brain similarly to an app you once used but have long abandoned. Go back to it and a surprising amount will still be there, or at least will reappear in your general awareness, after a short time.

Maintenance

Ultimately, therefore, for all this talk about language “learning”, an equally important issue is “maintenance”.

It is worth emphasising here that the fact you need to “maintain” a language (like you need to “maintain” a road once you have built it) means that it is pointless trying to learn languages just so you can say you speak a certain number of them. There will only be so many you can maintain at any one time.

My own personal approach is fairly scattergun. Generally I make sure to read or listen to some German, even 10 minutes, every day; I will generally also have a Romance language on which I am focused, to which I will probably dedicate half an hour – remember, this is not time “lost” because it will be spent reading a book I wanted to read anyway, watching a sport I want to watch anyway, learning a dish I wanted to cook anyway, catching up with a documentary I was meaning to check out anyway, etc. If I watch a series in English I will still put on subtitles in the Romance language of focus (unless it is unavailable in which case I will choose another); I will also favour series in one of my other languages in which case that “10 minutes” or “half an hour” can be easily extended. I will try to circle around the major Romance languages to give each of them time, but the truth is my preference is for Italian followed by Spanish as those are the ones I personally am likeliest to use. Occasionally I will spend a week or so focusing on videos or news reports in Dutch or Esperanto to keep those “up”, although they are not really a priority for me as I have little interaction with people who speak them – that said, I did happen at relatively short notice to have the opportunity just before Covid at relatively short notice to visit a friend from Canada who was visiting the Netherlands, and in advance I then shifted all my foreign language activity to Dutch for a few weeks (this “maintenance” option always remains).

This leaves me, like any other language enthusiast, with a couple of languages which are priority and therefore, at least to some degree, instantly available; and then others which are lower priority (even if temporarily) which need in effect to be rebooted before I can really use them. For example, I would not want to do a radio interview this lunchtime in a de-prioritised language, but I would be happy to do a panel discussion in a fortnight’s time – that would give me time to reprioritise all my foreign language activity so as to “reboot” them for that purpose (and, in any case, a panel discussion is easier as there are other people present so the share of time actually speaking is lower).

So that is what I call “language maintenance” – beware those who suggest, however implicitly, that you can speak some massive number of languages without dedicating considerable time to maintaining them!

Spanish overtakes French in NI – good or bad?

The media missed a rather curious moment in Northern Ireland’s educational history when in 2021, for the first time, there were more GCSE entries [the public examinations taken at age 16 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland] in Spanish than in French. This is not yet the case across the whole of the UK but, on current trends, it is only a matter of time.

This is quite the change from a generation ago, when I literally could not do a Spanish GCSE at age 15 or 16 (as it was simply not offered). In Lower Sixth, a new teacher at the school asked for volunteers to take one on the basis of two terms’ worth of lessons twice a week after school. Most refused on the basis that it would ruin their perfect record of ‘A’ grades (there were no ‘A*’ back then) but, with nothing to lose in that regard, I stepped forward to become in fact the first pupil at the school to do a Spanish GCSE.

One other reason I chose to proceed was that my French teacher right at the start of school had in fact decided to teach us some Spanish as well, as a means primarily of establishing the concept of grammatical gender (which is marginally easier for English speakers with reference to Spanish rather than French because, in Spanish, the word ending often gives away the gender). He had also introduced us to the concept of the language family tree, and most prominently that five major national languages were derived from Latin but English wasn’t one of them, without waiting for the curriculum to ask him to do so.

I have hardly hidden my view that there is a case for not having languages taught separately at all; or, at least, for offering “Combined Language” similarly to “Combined Science”. Doing it the way we are doing sees GCSE entries in languages overall plummeting, even those pupils who do GCSE leaving schools without truly having acquired much competence (rather than just the short-term ability to pass an exam), and the general standard of language competence in the population declining. That so many pupils leave school believing themselves just “not good” at languages is shameful.

That Spanish has overtaken French in Northern Ireland is one very tiny flicker of light on the linguistic horizon, for two reasons. Firstly, it shows that change is possible – if we set ourselves the task of offering “Combined Language” as a GCSE option within a generation from now, we could clearly do it. Secondly, it is sensible – Spanish is an “easier” language at the outset (not just because genders are more identifiable but primarily because the written and spoken forms are much less divergent than in French or, for that matter, English) and it is more useful globally, so its predominant status in language teaching is likelier on balance to encourage pupils to keep going more than they would with French.

This small flicker of hope does not take away, unfortunately, from the fact that the overall numbers doing languages at all are atrocious. They are not to be blamed when, ultimately, the qualification does not set them up with real competence in the language. It really is time for change.

“Noticing” in language learning

Last week I wrote that the third of three qualities of a good language learner is “noticing”, something Steve Kaufmann speaks about on his YouTube channel which I warmly recommend.

What is “noticing”? I do not know whether this applies to other skills, but it certainly applies to languages.

If you have ever heard an American say where they are from in Spanish, you may well have heard “Yo soy de los Estados Unidos“, pronounced with “yo” as per English “yo”, “los“, “estados” and “unidos” rhyming with “gross”, and “unidos” stressed on the first syllable (like “unity”).

This is where there has been no “noticing”.

There are two and a half things here.

Firstly, a very minor grammatical point. In Spanish it is not necessary to say “yo soy” as “soy” is sufficient to clarify the meaning of “I am” (saying “yo soy” is emphatic, maybe more like “it is me who is…”) and, in the spoken language, it is also not necessary really to say “los” with “Estados Unidos” (the article may be used formally with a range of countries, even for example “la Argentina“, but typically it is omitted even with “United States” or “United Kingdom”). What has happened here is that the speaker has translated from English word-for-word without noticing that (spoken) Spanish does not typically do this with two of the words. It is not wrong to include them, but it sounds unidiomatic.

Secondly, words in Spanish ending in a vowel, -n or -s (the vast majority) are typically stressed on the penultimate syllable – indeed, a written accent is required where this is not the case. So why would “unidos” be like “unity”? It isn’t – as just noticing the basic rules of Spanish phonology would demonstrate.

Thirdly, “los” even if it must be included at all absolutely does not rhyme with “gross”; nor do “Estados” or “Unidos“. In fact “los” is more or less the same as English “loss”, and the others rhyme with that. Again, the insistence on pronouncing these to rhyme with “gross” rather than “loss” is evidence of not noticing how a language is actually pronounced. On top of this, Spanish consonants are much more lightly pronounced than in English – in common with most Germanic languages, English consonants are more plosive (more air is pronounced as they leave the mouth) than those in Latin-derived languages – a good learner will notice this.

Not noticing is inevitable; we all have biases towards our native language and any other languages that we know, and this applies even when we actually do know – when I go to say “sixteen” in Italian I still instinctively start with “di-” as in Spanish when in fact that comes later in Italian. Nevertheless, on balance, a good learner will notice things and adapt accordingly quite quickly.

What’s the “easiest” language to learn?

Aside from “How many languages do you speak?”, the single most terrifying question for any linguist is “What is the easiest language to learn?

It may indeed be more terrifying, as there is simply no way to answer it simply and the question is in any case largely irrelevant.

Definition

Firstly, of course, the question lacks definition. Leaving aside how you define a “language“, we also have to define “learn” (let’s not do that in this post – we’ll just leave it at “reaching the stage of being proficient enough to speak it without recourse to your own or another language”) and “easy“. So what is “easy“?

Structure

What I suspect most people are thinking of when they say “easy” in this regard is whether the grammatical and phonological structure is “complex” and, implicitly, whether it is “complex” from the point of view of their own native language.

To be clear, some languages, even objectively, are clearly less “complex” than others from a learner’s point of view, at least initially. Dutch and German are similar and closely related, but it is undeniable that the former (in its current standard form) is markedly less grammatically “complex” than the latter – Dutch makes little use of cases (whereas German has four for all noun phrases), for most purposes Dutch has two genders (as opposed to three in German), Dutch makes minimal use of any subjunctive mood (in German this is restricted but clearly present), and Dutch has two common plural forms (compared to German’s seven). For similar reasons, though the gap is much closer, Spanish is clearly slightly less grammatically “complex” from an objective point of view than the closely related Portuguese or Italian.

However, the questioner’s native language (or indeed any language they happen to know) will have a role. In English we are used to concepts such as word classes (clear distinction between noun, verb and adjective; Malay, for example, can essentially merge verb and adjective), singular and plural (but not dual; Malay generally does not mark plural at all grammatically at all, conversely Lithuanian also has a “dual” form), articles (“the” and “a”; most languages including Russian lack these), and past tense markers (again, Malay lacks these); so English speakers take little account that such things may be considered to add “complexity”. On the other hand, it makes minimal use of grammatical gender (generally only with reference specifically to a man or woman in the singular), case (to the extent that there is even confusion when case is applied for pronouns among native speakers themselves), indefinite plural articles (such as degli spaghetti in Italian or du pain in French), or the subjunctive (very occasionally used, particularly in British English: “it is essential that you be/are there tomorrow”); so languages which do have grammatical gender, noun cases, plural indefinite articles or a subjunctive mood in regular use can appear “complex” – but this is, essentially, not to do with inherent complexity but rather native language bias.

Phonological structure also matters and may be inherent to the question: languages with sounds which are unfamiliar from the point of view of the questioner’s native language will inevitably appear more “complex” (e.g. the range of affricates similar to English ‘sh’ in Russian, or the velar fricative ‘ch’ in German ‘Buch‘/’j’ in Spanish ‘encajar‘); again, the ‘th’ in English ‘the‘ is unfamiliar to speakers of many other languages but is not held to be “complex” by speakers of English itself.

However, the real issue is that grammatical structure is a relatively marginal part of any objective assessment of “easy”.

Vocabulary

Vocabulary has to be borne in mind also. Languages which are closely related will generally have a lot of “cognates” – essentially, similar words with similar meanings (even if the parallel is rarely absolutely precise). In this way, learning Dutch provides access to German, Spanish access to Portuguese and Italian, Russian access to Ukrainian and so on. English is of course an oddity, as a West Germanic language with an overlay of North Germanic and, from a vocabulary point of view most obviously, (Norman) French. Therefore a lot of core vocabulary will be shared with German (hier ‘here’), as will some other vocabulary if we know the patterns (vergeben ‘forgive’; also haben ‘have’, verloren ‘forlorn’ making the pattern more apparent); but a lot of more recent vocabulary is shared with French, particular for abstract terms (‘civilisation’, ‘detest’, ‘possible’). Therefore, from a vocabulary point of view, it is sometimes the nominally more “distant” Latin-derived languages which appear initially “easiest” to English speakers.

Common vocabulary is in fact a bigger help than common grammatical structure – grammar can be acquired over time but vocabulary gives a real head start.

Yet, even combined, the pure structure (whether in terms of grammar or vocabulary) is not perhaps the key aspect of what makes a language “easy”…

Exposure

Perhaps the most important thing which makes a language “easy” is exposure to it.

We learn from that exposure – a system known by linguists as “comprehensible input”. The more opportunity we have for that input – be it YouTube videos, Netflix/Prime audio, online newspapers or whatever – the “easier” the language will become.

It is that simple.

Therefore a language like Spanish, which is in regular use for documentaries, TV series or as a written language online, becomes “easy” because it is easy to find opportunities for exposure to it. Its global role as a mother tongue of half a billion people, a significant European language and indeed as the first language of an eighth of households in the United States only enhances this.

Compare this to even to a fairly prominent, closely related and grammatically/lexically “easy” language such as Dutch and we can see the difference. There is less likely to audio in Dutch on your average TV stream; there are fewer online documentaries or papers; Dutch simply is not as prominent as Spanish globally because far fewer people speak it (either natively or as a second language). Even upon visiting a Dutch-speaking country, exposure is limited by the natives’ undeniably excellent English. Dutch has a marvellous word for ‘easy’ (who cannot like gemakkelijk?) but from an exposure point of view it is quite hard, certainly versus a language like Spanish.

Motivation

However, at the end of all this, what ultimately makes a language “easy” is our own motivation. Here, we simply need to be honest with ourselves.

How likely are we, really, to put in the motivation to become proficient in a language (as per the above definition) – listening to it every day, reading it frequently, finding ways to practice using it?

That will largely depend on the language, and it does touch on “exposure” above. Will it be easy to get exposure, as per above? Will you want to, pretty much daily, over a period of years?

What makes a good learner?

The better question is: “What makes a good learner?

I would suggest three things.

Firstly, a willing guesser. You have to be prepared to try; you will get things wrong, but this is how you learn and is, in any case, for the most part irrelevant. If you go to Spain and order a “vino rojo” (literally ‘red wine’, but the Spanish and Portuguese are more inclined to say ‘vino tinto‘ for this) and you get a red wine, you have succeeded – sure, it wasn’t particularly idiomatic, but does anyone care? No. Did it matter? No. Did the waiter appreciate you trying? Yes. Did you get your red wine? Yes.

Secondly, motivation – we have covered that above.

Thirdly, noticing. We will come back to that…

What’s hockey all about then?

Once every four years the Summer Olympic Games take place which means that, once every four years, a number of people are confronted with [field] hockey on their TV screens who otherwise pay scant attention to the sport at all. Unfortunately, a wrangle over TV rights means that hockey may not be quite as prominent at these Olympics, but it is generally accepted in the hockey fraternity and sonority that the Olympics are their most prominent moment in the sporting cycle (and thus in the public imagination).

Clearly, this post is merely written from the perspective of a regular umpire of the game – my late father played it rather well but I did not inherit his talent!

First, fundamentally, hockey is a game played by two teams of eleven players which is about stick skill.

Second, as in [association] football and other similar sports, the aim of the game is to cause the ball to pass fully over the opponents’ line between the posts and under the bar of the opponents’ goal (for reference, the goal itself is half the width of a football goal but 7/8 of the height, though the posts and bar themselves are rather slimmer). However, in hockey, a goal is only scored if the ball has been played by an attacking player within the circle (more commonly known as the ‘D’, a near semi-circle of sixteen yards radius around the goal) and not passed outside it; in other words, the first objective is to get the ball into the opponents’ ‘D’, and then to play it into the goal.

Third, the basic rules of the game are probably a little more straightforward than they look – basically, 1) the ball may only be played with the face side of the stick (all sticks are right-handed so if the ball is to be played on the other side the stick must be ‘reversed’), and therefore neither with the ‘back’ stick nor the body (except for goalkeepers in some circumstances); 2) there may be no contact either with body or stick with an opponent’s body or stick; 3) there may be no dangerous play; and 4) there may be no obstruction. One slight issue is that those latter two basic rules can conflict with the first two – if the ball hits a player, for example, the umpire has to judge if an opponent caused it to by dangerous play or if the player played the ball with their body; or if a player hits another player’s stick with their stick, the question is whether that is contact with an opponent or if the opponent was obstructing a legitimate attempt to play the ball. How this conflict is determined is defined to some extent by the rules themselves (which, for example, to some extent specify what constitutes danger) and to some extent by convention (it is very rare that a ball played against an opponent above knee height, particularly at close range, will not be deemed dangerous although, conversely, high shots on goal are almost always permitted regardless of danger).

Fourth, the restart of the game is quite striking for those used to other sports. An offence penalised in a team’s own half or in the middle two quarters of the field will still result in what is still known as a “free hit”, but of note here is that the free hit may in fact be “self-passed” (i.e. dribbled); opponents must be 5m away and, if they are not, they must not interfere with any such dribble until the ball has moved 5m. However, if the defence is penalised for an offence in its own quarter (often known in the English language as “the 23” as it covers 23m from back-line to quarter-line) then three penalties may apply: a free hit for an unintentional offence outside the ‘D’ (but exceptionally for safety reasons this must go 5m before being played into the ‘D’); a penalty stroke for an offence in the ‘D’ which either stops a probable goal or is intentional against a player with the opportunity to play the ball (this is like a penalty kick in football but must be a push rather than a hit and is taken from 7m; notably, it is also a single one-off play at goal – there are no rebounds); or a penalty corner (which needs an explanation of its own…). Sideline balls are taken exactly as free hits from where they left the field by the team which did not touch it last; “hit outs” (when the attack plays the ball past the goal) are taken up to 15m from the back line in line with where they left the field; if the defence plays the ball behind their own back line unintentionally the restart is by the attack from the 23m quarter line in line with where it went off (this is a very recent change; it used to be taken from the corner as in football and is still often referred to as a “long corner”) but if they do so intentionally they concede a penalty corner (so we’d best get to those…)

A penalty corner is essentially a power play – at the highest level, you would expect around a quarter to be scored. Essentially, the attack may use all its outfield players but the defence may only have five including its goalkeeper with the remainder starting beyond the halfway line. Things are made awkward for the attack by the requirement at the start for all its players bar the taker to be outside the ‘D’, for the taker to place the ball 10m from the goal on the back-line, and for the ball to have to pass completely outside the ‘D’ before a goal may be scored (this latter is a relatively recent change; as is apparent from highlights of past tournaments, the rule used to be that the ball had to be stopped dead but this could occur inside the ‘D’). There are also other technical restrictions (no substitutions, no high hits at goal as first shot etc) which make life awkward for the umpire but need not bother the casual viewer…

Goalkeepers may not leave their own quarter and essentially may use their body to play the ball but not to catch or cover it. As in ice hockey they may be withdrawn if a team is chasing a game and wants all eleven players outfield.

Tactics in terms of formations are not unlike football, although the similarity can be deceptive. Since the prime objective is to get the ball into the ‘D’, wing play towards the byline (catching the end corner of the ‘D’) can be prioritised by some teams; others will also be quite efficient at, fairly cynically, drawing fouls in the ‘D’ to earn penalty corners. A lot of the game is based on triangles, moving up field through short swift passes and quick dribbles (or trying to stop this happening); high balls are subject to restrictive safety rules, so they have their place but they are much less effective in general than in football.

Officiating is still “old style” – two umpires but no “linesmen” or “touch judges”. Umpires, always positioned to the attack’s right, generally focus on their half of the pitch although they may in practice cover their own sidelines and some agree to take priority for play towards them. They will naturally focus on play within the ‘D’ because that, ultimately, is where the big decisions (goals, penalty strokes or penalty corners) will be determined. Notably time is absolute – it is stopped for goals, penalty corners and penalty strokes (as well as injuries), but once time is up it is up (even if someone has just unleashed a shot at goal), though it is extended for penalty corners and strokes to be completed.

These days, the major professional field hockey leagues are in the Netherlands (the current women’s world champions), Belgium (current men’s world champions) and Germany. However, as with football, at international level these countries are often challenged by others. The current Olympic champions are in fact Argentina (men) and Great Britain (women); other regular challengers include Spain (both), India (both), Pakistan (men) and most obviously Australia (both) and now also very much New Zealand (both). Locally, the (all-)Ireland women’s team is playing its first Olympics after a fairytale run to the last World Cup Final; the men narrowly missed out for Tokyo having qualified last time. Northern Ireland players may also opt to play for GB – indeed two of the GB men’s team which won gold in Seoul in 1988 were from Northern Ireland.

Hockey is a hugely skilful sport with the particular advantage that there is a role for people of all sizes – nippy, smaller players can easily be as useful as strong, stocky ones. Its popularity among women in China and parts of the United States and among both genders in much of the Indian subcontinent, Australasia and Dutch- and German-speaking Europe in fact makes it the third most played sport on Earth (behind football and badminton – you wondered about the second, I’m sure…)

To be honest, my own view is that it is best seen at venues live to be fully appreciated, but the occasional TV barrage does no harm!

BBC’s “punditry” the real loser

There was no shame for England in losing a Final to a more experienced, more coherent and utterly cleverer Italian side which had lit up the tournament from the opening game. The young lads who missed the penalties in the shootout did at least have the courage to step up and take them, too, so no shame there either. However, there was one loser on the night – the BBC “punditry” team. A combination of too much sameness, a too general approach and an outright bias in focus rendered the punditry utterly pointless. We know it can be done better, because ITV did it better.

Firstly, on the game itself, the edited highlights show that, after the England goal, there was only one more highlight at the Italy end until Chiesa left the field late in the second half. This demonstrates just how complete Italy’s dominance was in both halves of normal time, while extra time was more even. This is backed up by the stats: in the first half, Italy had 62% possession and six attempts on goal to England’s one; indeed England mustered only six attempts on goal (and only one on target) in the entire 120 minutes, while the Azzurri had twenty (of which, in addition to the goal, five forced saves and five were blocked). So the story of the game is clearly one of England scoring early but then being pushed back and largely outplayed.

There is also no particular established advantage to going first in a shootout. In World Cups and European Championships combined, Italy’s win brings it to 26 wins out of 52 for the team going first… exactly half.

Hence the bafflement at the BBC pundits’ contention, particularly at half time, that all was well for England. It was quite obvious that the game was going the same way at the 2018 World Cup semi-final against Croatia, when England also scored early but were then gradually pushed back, could not get any respite through periods of possession in the opposition half, and conceded an equaliser midway through the second half. Yet the pundits all agreed that England were somehow “in control” (an inconceivable contention, given the stats above).

England remains the only European country to have won a men’s World Cup but not a European Championship, a status which has applied since 1972. Italy is one of only two other European countries (the other was West Germany) which won the World Cup first, and in each of those cases the World Cup triumph came before the European Championship even existed.

What is wrong? Firstly, the BBC’s team consisted of a presenter who used to play for England asking questions of three “pundits” who also used to play for England. There was no distinction between the pundits (you did not get one focusing on defending, one on attack play, one on coaching or whatever) and they therefore also fell subject to “committee bias” – once one claimed England were “in control”, it would have been socially jarring for another to dispute this even if he had wanted to. The whole format is a nonsense before you even get to the unremitting focus on one team rather than the other.

Out of interest, it is just a year until England can mount another assault on the European Championships for football – as it hosts the women’s version. The story is not dissimilar to the men’s, with even more frequent heartache in semis and Finals – perhaps the Lionesses will go one better? In that tournament there is of course another “home country” competing, the only one of the sixteen teams in the Finals appearing for the first time – none other than Northern Ireland!

It can be done better because, although far from perfect, ITV does it better. Its three pundits differ somewhat – Wright does emotion, Neville does coaching, Keane does the truth as only he can (with the added benefit that he is not English). Although it took until the end of the game, Neville did reference the Croatia game and indeed, rightly, made it central to his analysis – the game was not decided by who was substituted when or who took which penalty, but precisely by the fact England were unable to control the game (“the final piece in the jigsaw [of the development of this England team]”, to quote Neville).

Historically England might have been forgiven for thinking one goal would be enough, even in the second minute, as not since 2000 had both teams scored in a Euros Final. However, in a tournament averaging 2.78 goals per game, the highest in a major tournament for almost 40 years, in practice a second during the next 88 minutes was always going to be necessary.

There is also a natural human bias towards seeking someone to blame when things go wrong, and focusing on individual errors – the wrong substitution or the wrong penalty taker. Almost any blunder in any walk of life in fact has several authors. Post-game “analysis” on the BBC and social media turned to two penalty takers being thrown on right at the end by Gareth Southgate solely to take the penalties which, since they both missed, was seen as an obvious error – yet in the infamous 1996 semi shootout in which Southgate himself missed the deciding penalty, Germany brought on a player right at the end specifically to take a penalty and in fact then England manager Terry Venables was blamed for not doing so. The difference is, the German substitute (Thomas Strunz) scored – but it is all very easy analysing these decisions in hindsight; proper punditry will point this out, perhaps with appropriate historical reference to when the course of action which failed this time had actually worked in the past, rather than just going with the flow.

Greece (in 2004) remains the last team to win a men’s European Championship without needing a penalty shootout; so it is true that you will need to be good at those to win. (Greece did lose a group game, however – in fact you have to go all the way back to France in 1984 to find a team which won the European Championship while neither losing a group game nor needing a penalty shootout!)

The main issue, of course, is the incessant focus on England. Could it be, in fact, that this young England team played as well as it could, and its manager got as much out of it as possible, but in the end it was simply overcome (albeit having taken it all the way to penalties) by a better team? Could it simply be that Italy, on a run of 34 without defeat (conceding more than once just once in that period and being behind for just ten minutes over the past two years before yesterday), had developed a team which was always going to be extraordinarily difficult to beat, superbly marshalled by Roberto Mancini who has a raft of league titles and cups to his name as a manager and clearly knows what he is doing tactically?

It is worth banking on Italy, but not until World Cup 2026 or perhaps Euro 2028. Since 1994, Italy have reached the major Final of exactly every third tournament for which they qualify – the loss (on penalties…) to Brazil in the 1994 World Cup Final in Los Angeles was followed by a Golden Goal loss to France in Rotterdam at Euro 2000, a win on penalties also against France in the 2006 World Cup in Berlin, a heavy 4-0 loss to Spain at Euro 2012 in Kiev, followed by missing out on the 2018 World Cup altogether but then recovering and winning last night’s penalty shootout against England in London.

Sometimes the best thing to do is applaud the opposition. But as for the BBC punditry team – it lacked balance and depth and did not have the detailed knowledge of the game required to compete at the highest level, thus losing to ITV long before penalties…

Actually winning tournaments…

The record of the five European teams which have won men’s football World Cups, from the time West Germany was allowed back into the World Cup post-War

Ahead of today’s Final, it is worth re-emphasising the peculiarity that England are very good at reaching the last eight of tournaments but terrible at advancing from that stage, whereas Italy is more prone to early elimination but also to advancing further if that early elimination is avoided.

We can see also just how consistent (West) Germany has been until the last two tournaments, and how Spain and France emerge sporadically but can be very dangerous when they do. This year’s tournament was in fact Spain’s first elimination in the last four since 1950 – indeed only once since had Spain reached a semi and not gone on to win the tournament.

Not that such statistical freakery will determine anything today. What will determine it, I hope, is a touch of excellent. Che vinca il migliore!