Something interesting happened at the Denmark Open in October last year. After winning the mixed doubles title, one of their many in recent months, Zheng Si Wei and Huang Ya Qiong were being interviewed just off court. The interviewer said, “let’s start with you Zheng, now we know you speak pretty good English.”
“I am not speaking pretty good English, but I am so happy to be champion,” he said. Once he finished the answer, the crowd applauded. Zheng smiled and acknowledged.
To say that it got the badminton community on social media buzzing would be an understatement. The video below has nearly 3k likes. It’s a little step, but a significant one.
Zheng, who is now in New Delhi for the India Open Super 750 with Huang – as the top seeds, of course – once again showed the strides he has made in recent months while learning the language. Even with Denmark as the benchmark, it is quickly evident he has gotten much better in terms of the fluency.
Of course, no athlete has to learn a whole new language to communicate. They are sportspersons and their bread and butter is being on the court and doing what they do best. But, for Zheng, it was something that came from within. And for the sport as a whole, it could be a nice addition to the tour.
“I have a few reasons. One is, I want to use English to face interviews like these (smiles). Another reason is, now I was into the Athletes’ Commission (last year), I need to be meeting with other guys,” Zheng told Scroll.in after their second-round win on Thursday.
“I hope that many more can follow me and take the first step,” he added.
Huang, his partner, then nodded in agreement that she would love to follow him. One day earlier, she was asked about what makes Zheng a good partner... and she answered, “smart and very fast” without needing the help of the translator.
Zheng had said earlier that his English learning is through an online course twice a week. Then vocabulary through memory. “I have been learning since All England last year, about 300 days now,” he said.
Indeed, on Wednesday, women’s singles world No 5 He Bing Jiao actually asked the reporters in the mixed zone if she could try answering questions in English. “Can I speak in English,” she asked the translator present and went on to speak about trying a scooter at the hotel she is staying in, her fondness for PUB-G, and she even asked for Indian food recommendations from the reporters.
“I have a teacher in China for English,” the left-handed shuttler added. “Si Wei speaks very well, and also is a great player. So now we all want to speak it well and play good too. But it is difficult, because there’s no time given all the training.”
Zheng has clearly made an impact on his peers, and that is not lost on Hans-Kristian Vittinghus, the Danish veteran. Vittinghus had shared on social media that day in October, on why this was important.
“I think it’s an amazing development for the sport and it really can’t be underestimated how important it is to break down the language barrier that still exists in badminton,” Vittinghus told Scroll.in on Thursday.
“Not only is it important in terms of brining players and fans closer as players will be much more relatable, but also on the political side of the sport I believe this has huge value. If we want to move the sport to a higher level, we need to push for it together and for that to happen we need to be able to communicate better.”
In Denmark on that day, even Shi Yu Qi spoke in English. It is believed that the BWF also provided tutors to all those who were interested. Clearly, a conscious effort is being made and it can only be good for the sport overall.
“A few Chinese players who begin to speak English obviously won’t change it all in an instant, but they are paving the way for it to happen on a much larger scale,” Vittinghus said. “I really hope this will be the first step towards many more of our amazing Asian players, who are the leading stars of the sport, towards opening themselves up more.”
This is also a two-way street. It is no secret that one of the biggest superstars of the sport currently, Viktor Axelsen, has been learning Mandarin and getting good at it. Vittinghus, a former top 10 player himself, currently playing the last few events of his long career, has tried his hand at Indonesian and said that he regrets it a little bit that he started so late.
“It is comparable in some ways, I just think the Chinese (and hopefully even more Asians stars) learning English is much more significant for the sport as a whole,” Vittinghus added. “It could potentially make the sport take leaps ahead in its development, whereas a few European stars learning an Asian language will always only be small steps albeit still very positive steps and still a help.”
For now, it is clearly a move in the right direction with the likes of Zheng Si Wei, He Bing Jiao – two unarguably brilliant shuttlers – showing a keenness to not just learn the language but get better at it. In the end, Zheng joked that when he interacts with Axelsen, they still do so in Mandarin and that Axelsen is really good at it. If Zheng keeps going in this direction, one would imagine it would take little time for that scale to balance.