A Conversation with Alan Juffs 

Growing up in Devon, England, University of Pittsburgh English Language Institute Director Alan Juffs played much more cricket and rugby than basketball. His first real hoops immersion came in the early '80s -- in Changsha, China, teaching English to city kids crazy for the sport. This past summer, Juffs -- who is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, German and French -- was recruited to join pro players such as Gilbert Arenas and Detlef Schrempf in teaching "basketball English" (from "helpside" to "outlet") in Shanghai and Berlin at Adidas camps for teen-age athletes hoping to play in the States.

Is the English Language Institute typically sports-oriented?

This area of English language instruction actually has a name: It's called "English for specific purposes." In the past, we've trained a group of Saudi policemen who were gonna go into the Allegheny [County] police academy. We've had Japanese nurses. Every year we run a specific course for people that are interested in international politics and administration.


Why basketball now?

I think you probably noticed that Argentina beat the Dream Team in the Olympics. Serbia Montenegro is a major force. So there are a larger and larger number of players coming into the NBA from these different countries. Some of these players don't know English very well. And that is a disadvantage, because one of the things that's very important on a basketball court is that the players communicate with one another. So although the players may know a word, vaguely, what it means -- they may not pronounce it exactly the same, or they may not be used to using it on court.


The Chinese players would sometimes either not pronounce certain parts of a word, like "pick" -- so it would end up coming out as "pih" -- or, they would try and say it too strongly, and it would end up being "pig."


Americans assume everyone speaks English.

At the camp in Berlin, we had players from Burkina Faso; we had players from Senegal, who only know French, or French and Wolof. A lot of people learn English in school, but it doesn't stick, any more than everybody [in America] has a smattering of high school Spanish. Remarkably, one of the best players in the camp in Europe was a Spanish guy who knew no English. None. The Australian guys in Shanghai really appreciated us teaching English because they were getting hit from behind on a pick and roll, because they weren't being told that a pick was coming.


Was there some cultural instruction too?

We wanted them from a cultural point of view to be aware that being brash was maybe not a good idea. Recently there was a Russian player, a young player whose English was not very good, who said, "NBA want (whatever his name is)." And the media just trashed him because they said he was arrogant. So we tried to convince them that being self-confident was a good thing, but it was important not to translate that into coming across as being arrogant. We were telling them that although you may perceive American culture as being brash and in-your-face, trying to be like that and not getting the language right could seriously backfire.


Did you teach slang?

There was a suggestion that we teach some so-called slang. So you make a distinction between specialist terms like "pick and roll" and phrases like "get that shit out of my kitchen." And Detlef Schrempf didn't think we should do that. He said, "Sure, you'll hear it, but you don't want to encourage people to use that kind of language on court."


What were the on-court classes like?

It's no good telling someone something and then think they're gonna learn it. They have to go ahead and do it, practice it, get feedback, and interact. With the pick and roll, we'd have them do it. The second class was "ball, shot and outlet." We would have them practice defending the ball; when the shot went up they would have to yell "shot." Then they would have to get the rebound, and then run out and shout "outlet."


How helpful were the NBA players?

They were wonderful. They gave what we were doing base validity. The coaches, one of the big names is Scott Layden, who's the former manager of the Knicks. They really bought into it as well. And in their training sessions, they were very careful to reinforce what we were doing. They weren't saying, "Who's this professor guy?"



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