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Gained in translation: Mandarin lessons for Viktor Axelsen

Viktor Axelsen, 21, is currently ranked sixth in the world and is taking part in the India Open.

Written by Jonathan Selvaraj | New Delhi |
Updated: March 24, 2015 9:53:25 am

During one of his matches last year, Danish badminton player Viktor Axelsen watched as the coach of his Chinese opponent gave some advice to his player. The coach made no attempt to give his suggestions discretely. Confident that Axelsen wouldn’t be able to understand, the coach shouted his advice in Mandarin. Unfortunately though, Axelsen’s ears had pricked up as he realised what was being discussed. “The coach was telling the player that he need to play quicker. I knew that he was going to try and play faster so I had to slow down the game,” recalls Axelsen, a day before the start of the Yonex India Open Super Series, where he is seeded sixth.

The 21-year-old from Copenhaen has been studying Mandarin Chinese for a little over a year now. It seems an obvious choice for the 6’5” at first. China dominates the sport globally with two of the players ranked in the top-3 of the men’s singles (Chen Long and Lin Dan) from the country. Axelsen seen as the most promising singles prospect from Denmark — he was the first European to win a junior world championship (in 2010), won a bronze at the senior Worlds’ last year and ranked 6th in the world is only behind Jan O Jorgensen (ranked 2) — would want to get every possible advantage to boost his game even further.

While it may help him with Chinese opponent’s strategy, that’s not the only reason Axelsen has been studying the language. “It is something I want to do for my future. But it is something that helps me communicate with a huge number of fans. It might help me get some sponsors from China and even help me out at the end of my career when I might be interested in coaching,” he says.

Natural progression

Indeed for Axelsen, learning a foreign language seems as natural as playing sport. “One of the main reasons you play is to improve yourself as an individual. I am lucky that I get to travel around the world playing a sport and meeting different people and cultures. Learning a new language isn’t any different than that,” he says.

Axelsen’s choice has helped to break down any barriers that may exist between players. While the Chinese are caricaturised as robotic and slightly distant, Axelsen insists its far from the case. “There is a saying that if you speak to someone in their second language, they speak from their head. But if you speak in their first language, then they speak to you from their heart,” he says.

“It isn’t that the Chinese players are aloof from the rest of the circuit. Once you speak to them in their language, they open up to you. For example in Switzerland GP Gold event last week I was able to talk to some of my opponents when we were coming down the elevator and we talked about the traffic. A lot of them are surprised when I speak to them in Mandarin but they appreciate the fact that I am able to do it,” he adds.

Axelsen has now taken his interest in the Chinese language to social media and has a Weibo account.

Support on Weibo 

“I have about 30000 followers,” says Axelsen who by contrast has 8558 followers Weibo’s English language equivalent Twitter. “Most of them are very supportive. They say they appreciate the fact that I am learning their language while others say they hope I do well,” says Axelsen.

Axelsen says he still has a long way to go to gain proficiency in Mandarin but says he now understands when Chinese fans cheer for him. “The most common chant you will hear is ‘jiao’ or ‘come on’” he says. As for motivating himself he still sticks to a very Danish ‘kommer pa’ . And while his eye will certainly be on the Super Series crown, Axelsen has another expectation of himself over his next week in New Delhi. “Maybe I can learn a few words here in India?” he says.

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