SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Two things drove Diamondbacks outfielder David Peralta to learn English: Food. And love.
“One (of the motivations) was my (now) wife because I wanted to talk to her and say, ‘Hey, what’s up, girl?’ I forced myself to do that,” Peralta said.
Peralta’s suaveness worked and he later tied the knot with former college softball player Jordan Laria. For many Latin players, it takes learning English to acclimate to a new culture and team.
When Peralta arrived in the United States in 2005 from Venezuela, he didn’t know the language and had to learn basic tasks like ordering food at restaurants. He remembers one specific trip to McDonald’s with friends. One ordered a meal and the others, not knowing English, said, “Me too! Me three!”
“Sometimes you have an embarrassing moment, but we were all laughing and the people taking our order were laughing, too,” Peralta said. “They kind of know that they don’t speak English. That was kind of fun.”
Learning English was not easy for Peralta’s fellow Venezuelan teammates Eduardo Escobar and Wilmer Flores, nor was it any simpler for well as Ketel Marte of the Dominican Republic. Flores arrived in the United States when he was 16 not knowing the language, but he was fortunate to have people around him who helped him learn.
“I was lucky that I had a lot of Latin coaches at that time. They helped me a lot. My first year was tough,” Flores said. “I think when I turned 21 is when I started speaking English. I understood everything people were saying, but I just couldn’t speak it.”
Like many athletes trying to learn the language, they turned to television for help, particularly one popular show.
Give Monica, Joey, Ross, Rachel, Chandler and Phoebe an assist.
“My favorite TV show is ‘Friends,’ ” Flores said. “I watched it a lot with subtitles so that way I learned what they were saying.”
Peralta, too, relied on the sitcom for help.
“It’s funny. I still watch it … every day and my favorite character is Joey,” Peralta said. “He’s the best. He’s the funniest guy and everything. I liked the way they did their stuff.”
Escobar came to the United States from Venezuela in 2008. He didn’t speak English but needed to speak the language to communicate. “It’s hard, especially when you’re coming from Venezuela, you don’t speak English,” Escobar said. “You come in every day. When you go on the field, everyone is speaking English. … The thing is, I know my English isn’t perfect right now, but I think it’s much better.”
And Escobar has a confident two-word answer when asked about the fear of making a mistake.
Marte took English lessons five days a week when he began professional baseball in the Dominican Republic. But speaking with teammates and coaches was the main avenue for Marte to improve his communication.
“If you want to learn English, you got to bring attention to your teammate and try. Try,” Marte said. “If you got a good teammate, somebody is going to help you.”
The Diamondbacks have one of the most diverse clubhouses in Major League Baseball, featuring players from eight different countries. Peralta said it’s beneficial to have players with different backgrounds because they can share their many challenges.
“It’s really important, especially here. This is a team where we have people from everywhere,” Peralta said. “You get together to communicate, you learn about each other and all this kind of stuff. We’re learning about each other’s cultures. I think that’s the best part.”
Peralta learned early not to rely on a translator. He used to bring his roommate who was bilingual along when he first started dating Laria. But when he noticed the two had started talking and laughing in English a lot, he quickly stopped having a wingman.
It was the right motivation to learn the language.
Sam Ficarro is a senior majoring in sports journalism at Arizona State University. This story is a part of a partnership between Sports Illustrated and Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.