By Rob Rains
One of the challenges facing baseball players who move from Latin America to the United States when they become professionals is trying to learn English, as Mariano Rivera detailed during his Hall of Fame induction speech on Sunday.
Paul DeJong has never been to the Dominican Republic or Venezuela but he can see the difficulty someone who has spent all of their life in those and other countries in Latin America has when they are suddenly thrust into a new culture with a different language.
That’s one of the reasons why the Cardinals’ shortstop is trying to do something to help out his Spanish-speaking teammates, such as Yairo Munoz.
For the past two seasons, DeJong has been teaching English to Munoz while Munoz has been helping DeJong try to improve his Spanish.
“I figured we could be symbiotic together,” DeJong said. “I just wanted to communicate with my teammates and learn another language. It’s definitely a valuable tool. I always want to be learning and growing. This just fits right in.”
DeJong had an advantage over Munoz, who is from the Dominican Republic, when their language exchange program began because he had taken four years of Spanish in high school. Munoz’s previous English lessons consisted of one summer of classes with his rookie league team in Arizona, when he was in the Oakland organization.
When Munoz was traded to the Cardinals and arrived at spring training in 2018, he heard DeJong speaking Spanish and the bond between the two naturally grew from there.
“There were some things that I wanted to say in English but I couldn’t, so I started to talk to Paul about how to say it,” said Munoz, who still uses a team translator when he is doing interviews. “We just started to talk and teach each other words in the other’s language.”
DeJong’s Spanish conversations are not limited to his exchanges with Munoz. The Cardinals have seven Latin players on their current roster or disabled list, which gives him plenty of opportunities to practice.
He has even done several interviews on the pre-game show for the Cardinals’ Spanish language radio broadcasts.
“That’s always fun,” DeJong said. “Usually they send me the questions beforehand (in Spanish) so I can kind of think of my answers, which is helpful.”
DeJong also has been helped by where he sits on the team bus when the Cardinals are on the road. He and Munoz usually sit together.
“We’re about halfway back,” DeJong said, “on the border between the Latin players and the Americans. I hear the music and conversations every day. I like listening to the music and it has been helpful to me to learn the lyrics.”
For years the Cardinals have offered English classes for their Latin players at every level in the minor league organization. The team’s youngest teenage players, who are based at the team’s academy in the Dominican Republic, have English instruction built into their regular weekly classroom sessions.
Manager Mike Shildt said the organization has discussed ways to go beyond that, perhaps offering instruction in Spanish for those who were interested.
“You’d like to think maybe we should have them for staff,” Shildt said. “I have a very rudimentary ability to speak the language and I try to be intentional about continuing to improve it. It doesn’t come easy for me and I wish it did.
“I love the fact that Paul and Yairo are doing that. I think it’s a wonderful bonding thing. I really appreciate that both have a willingness to work on each other’s language and understand how to communicate. There are challenges with a language barrier.”
DeJong, at least for his part, is trying to break down those barriers.
“He (DeJong) is way too smart,” said Jose Martinez. “Talking to him you feel like he’s one of us, a Spanish guy. He understands it, even though Dominicans speak really fast and Venezuelan’s speak another way, he understands. It’s fun to chat with him and speak the same language.
“When I first met him after he was called up he said he was going to learn Spanish because he wanted to be able to talk to us. It’s a big thing because we are a family here. He cares about us and our culture.”
The conversations between DeJong, Munoz and the team’s other players just happen naturally, DeJong said, whether it is on the bus, in the clubhouse on the field or away from the ballpark.
“If he says something wrong (in Spanish) I tell him how to say it,” Munoz said. “Just being here, talking, playing cards … if I don’t know what something means I will ask Paul and he will help me understand it. If I pronounce something wrong he will tell me how to pronounce it.”
DeJong said he understands much of what Munoz and his other teammates are saying, as he remembers his high school lessons, but has more issues with the grammar specifics.
“The vocab words come back over time and the rules about conjugating verbs,” he said. “Just practicing it in conversation has been the most beneficial.
“There are just random words I am missing, and I try to use the words I do know as opposed to the words I don’t know.”
Many of DeJong’s teammates who talk in Spanish didn’t realize for a time that he could understand what they were saying. Now, he said, “they are on to me.”
“When they speak fast and sometimes in their slang I just pick up words here and there, but for the most part I can get the gist of the conversation,” DeJong said.
DeJong has surprised some players on other teams when he has a chance to say something to them when they are on the basis, greeting them in Spanish when they didn’t expect it.
“I just want to continue my growth in Spanish and their English,” DeJong said of Munoz and his teammates. “It will never be perfect. I am sure they can learn worlds in English and I can learn better ways to speak Spanish. It’s a constant growth process.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports