Chartered Institute
of Linguists

John Worne meets Chris Dennis

The sports journalist and broadcaster explains how his knowledge of French, German, Spanish and Mandarin gives him the edge in a brutal industry.

Could you tell us a bit about your language background, Chris?

Well, it’s pretty unremarkable actually, John. I’d have loved to have been raised bilingually, or had a parent from another country, but they were both British and there was no other language in the family. I was born and raised in the north of England but I seemed to really enjoy and click with foreign languages.

A key turning point was not only enjoying French and German at school, but starting to do better than the otherwise unbeatable top student of my year group. She was brilliant across all subjects – the undisputed brain box of my year – so when I started getting better grades than her in French and sometimes German that flicked a switch! I knew from quite an early age that I wanted a job where I could use foreign languages, but I had no idea what that might look like.

Amazing! And was there a teacher who made a particular impression on you? 

Mr Hytch. I will never forget him. I loved his classes, particularly literature, and he must take a lot of the credit for my becoming a linguist.

That is a common feature of the people I talk to who thrived in languages at school. Then you chose to study French and Chinese at university – I guess that was a more unusual combination?

It was. It was 1982. The obvious thing would have been to do French and German. But after one or two evenings round the dinner table talking about “what young Chris was going to do at university”, my godfather, who was very well travelled, brought up Chinese. It was just a throw-away remark but it seemed to chime. The university I chose – Leeds – was one of the few to offer Chinese at the time.

I was the only person in the whole year doing French with Chinese as a subsidiary and it created a bit of a logistical problem, not least because they didn’t know what to do with me in terms of spending time abroad for Chinese as well as French. In the end, I financed myself to go to China in the third summer of university. That was in 1985, a very different China to the one you see today. It wasn’t easy – and my tones were awful – but I did get good enough to be understood, and I managed to travel around China on my own for a month.

Since then I’ve been back many, many times, and I’ve used Chinese every time.

Even though it’s 40 years since I started my degree, it’s amazing how much of it is still there. Indeed, I was using Chinese this year at the London Marathon, and I was amazed I could interact with the interpreter who was on hand to help me interview a Chinese athlete.

You studied German and Spanish too, and worked in international business before becoming a broadcaster. Would you say languages have enabled a varied career or been a by-product of it?

After university I lived in Paris for a while, and when I came back to the UK, I was still trying to answer that question: “How am I going to use my languages?” I ended up working for 15 years in the language and cultural training industry, working for consultancies, helping companies communicate more effectively with their clients, suppliers and partners. That went very well until 2000, when the first dot.com crash disrupted the world of business.

It felt like a good opportunity to take stock and do something different. So I applied for a broadcast journalism post-graduate diploma course which has produced lots of well-known journalists – people like Carole Walker and Mark Pougatch, who also works in sport.

Having got that qualification, I decided to try my hand in the freelance world. I had a strong interest in sport and worked for many months at the BBC unpaid, doing all the night shifts nobody wanted to do. I was something of an oddity: a 38-year-old ‘work experience’ chap. Eventually the BBC World Service said: “Actually we really like what you’re doing; we’d like to start giving you some paid shifts.” And the rest is history.

Within three or four years, I was broadcasting on the BBC Today programme on Radio 4, and I still do. I then went into commentary, which I’ve come to specialise in. Now I mainly concentrate on athletics and tennis, as my two chosen sports, and most of my year is spent travelling and commentating on track and field athletics or tennis.

For many, yours would be the dream career. Is it as fantastic as it sounds?

For the most part it is. I never fail to remind myself how fortunate I am. I get paid to sit in tennis venues and athletics stadia all over the world. I’ve covered Olympic games, world championships, Wimbledons and the other Grand Slams, but it’s also the communication and contact with people that is hugely satisfying, and the fact I can use my languages is the icing on the cake.

Am I sent and selected to do these things because I’m a linguist? Probably not. But those additional skills have definitely played a part in being selected for certain events. It’s an extra capability that people really like. Broadcast journalism is a brutal industry, particularly as a freelancer. You are highly dispensable as the supply is far, far greater than the demand. Having a language string to my bow has genuinely set me apart.

So has there been a special moment that your languages made possible?

Yes. Several. One highlight was interviewing a Togolese footballer who was shot on his way to the Africa Cup of Nations in 2010. The tournament was being held in Angola and the team had decided, for financial reasons, to go overland. Tragically the bus was attacked and three people were killed.

The goalkeeper was shot twice. I interviewed him several months later when he was still recovering. He wanted to tell his story but he had two conditions: 1) he didn’t want to be interviewed live, and 2) he wanted to be interviewed in French – his second language – as he didn’t feel confident in English. I went to Brittany, where he was based, and spent a day with him. It was one of the most moving days of my life – and the interview was possible only because I could do it in French.

Another nice example was back in the days when I covered football on a regular basis and used to interview Arsène Wenger, the former Arsenal manager. Every Friday, before the big match on Saturday, he would do a general press conference. Then there would be a TV huddle and a radio huddle. At the time I was working for the BBC and a couple of French radio stations. I would ask my two or three questions allowed in English, and stay behind to do two or three more in French. I was the only one left in the room with him at the end doing the French, so we got to know each other professionally pretty well. I think he quite enjoyed that and was a little more generous with his answers as a result.

I spend a lot of time in press conferences with major sports stars on the top table. There are usually different sections in different languages, and being able to stay beyond the English questions – for the questions in French or German or Spanish – gives greater insights.

I bet you get a different quality quote…

Yes, exactly. Many times I’ve come away from the press conference, filed something on TV or radio, and a colleague has messaged me saying: “I was in that press conference, so where did you get that from Roger Federer? He never said that!” And I’ve said: “He did, but it was in German after you’d left the room…”

Great example! I know you speak at schools all the time, but what secret sauce’ would you recommend to hook a younger person on languages?

I don’t think there’s a magic bullet. One thing I hear in schools is when young people have a sense of what they want to be – a doctor or a lawyer, say – and feel they can’t fit languages in, even if they quite enjoy them. So my answer is to not see language as an either/or; to see it as extra. Imagine being a Spanish-speaking doctor, a French-speaking lawyer or a German-speaking architect! You become much more interesting and employable, and you have lots more career and life options.

One final question, Chris: what do your colleagues make of your languages?

Well, I’m by no means the only broadcaster to have a language background, but I do have a bit of a reputation as the pronunciation police! That’s the great thing about having ability in different languages: even if you’re broadcasting in your mother tongue, you have a greater appreciation of what your words mean and how they will be understood – especially for an international audience. Languages are such an asset in life.

Chris lives in London and speaks regularly in schools about the value of languages. See more about his work at www.chris-dennis.com

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