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May 27, 2004

It’s Called a Dunk, Pitt Prof Teaches Basketball Players at Asian Seminar

A Pitt linguist took center court teaching “basketball English” to 50 elite young Asian hoopsters during a unique clinic held in Shanghai May 20-24.
Associate professor Alan Juffs, linguistics department chair and director of Pitt’s English Language Institute, was the lead language instructor during the first-of-its-kind camp, sponsored by Adidas.
It combined playing instruction by National Basketball Association players, college coaches and Adidas representatives with teaching of elementary, basketball-related English: jargon such as “hedge,” “bump” and “pick-and-roll”; conjugation of the verb “to be,” and pronunciation drills.
In an e-mail from China, Juffs told the University Times he paid special attention to final consonants. “If they yell ‘pick’ and get the last consonant wrong, they may say ‘pig’ and the opposing team player may think it’s an insult,” he wrote.
As for intentionally insulting other players (i.e., trash-talking), Juffs wrote: “We teach them what it is, but we don’t encourage them to use it. We try to convey to them that they need to be self-confident but not arrogant.”
By the end of the camp, each player had attended four 45-minute “basketball English” sessions designed by Juffs, who is fluent in Mandarin (as well as German and French) and has over 20 years of experience in teaching and researching English as a second language. On the final day of the camp, students showed their best on-court moves to fellow campers while explaining the techniques and their benefits in English.
Language learning is most effective when instruction is linked to specific real-world tasks that learners must carry out, noted Juffs, whose areas of specialization include linguistic theory, second language acquisition, syntax and semantics, and working memory and sentence processing.
The 50 players at Adidas’s Asian camp included top prospects from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia. Players’ pre-camp English skills varied considerably, and Juffs said he tended to use the native-English-speaking Aussies as models during instructional sessions.
“I did my own interpreting in Mandarin. However, there were also Chinese coaches, whose English is excellent, who interpreted for the NBA and NCAA coaches,” Juffs added.
In addition to receiving on-court training, each camper got a CD and instructional information to help with future English learning. The camp’s goal was not just to teach language skills but also to help bridge the cultural gap for Asians who may one day play in the United States, or at least against English-speaking opponents.
Lawrence Norman, head of global sports marketing for Adidas and co-creator of the Asian camp, told the Boston Globe that there are 10 million-to-30 million basketball players in China between the ages of 10 and 20 – and most cherish hoop dreams of following in the (very large) footsteps of countryman Yao Ming, the NBA’s first Chinese-born superstar.
English is the lingua franca of international basketball; a basic knowledge of the language is vital for foreign players seeking to play on a U.S. college or pro team. NBA analysts say the only reason that teams shied away from choosing Brazil’s Leandro Barbosa until the 28th pick of the league’s 2003 draft was that he spoke no English at the time. Barbosa, a guard with the Phoenix Suns, has since become “almost fluent” in English, according to Norman.
An Adidas news release said the Shanghai camp was “part of Adidas’ broader goal to find, nurture and build relationships with the world’s best basketball players by teaching skills that they can utilize both on and off the basketball court.”
Juffs, an avid fan of Pitt Panther basketball, declined to predict whether any of the Asian players he taught last week will wind up playing in the NBA.
“They are very tall, and good,” he e-mailed. “But don’t take my word for it. I am a linguistics professor, not a scout. ;-)”
– Bruce Steele

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