Watching Sports Improves Language Skills, No Really...

Watching Sports on TV Improves Language Skills, like go figure.

Posted Sep 19, 2008

Not too long ago, I heard an ESPN football announcer use the word: "Gi-Nor-Ma-Uge," an on-the-fly compaction of "gigantic" + "enormous" + "huge." But to fans of modern sport, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Sports' broadcasters have a tendency to do some funny things with language. In football announcing, for example, the word "defense" has become a verb, as in "he defensed that play all the way down the field."

Not that this habit has gone unnoticed. In his masterpiece of modern fiction, "Infinite Jest," the late David Foster Wallace depicts an overzealous high school tennis announcer who refuses to use the same adjective twice in the same broadcast. So instead of Peterson beating Hainsworth 6-3, 6-3 or whatever, we get Wallace's version:

"Lamont Chu disembowelled Charles Pospisilova 6-3, 6-2; Peter Beak spread Ville Dillard on a cracker like some sort of hors d'oeuvre and bit down 6-4, 7-6...while Gretchen Holt made PW's Tammi Taylor-Bing sorry her parents were ever in the same room together 6-0, 6-3...''

I mention this not because I think everyone should check out AOL's fantastic (and yeah, I can't believe I just used the words AOL and fantastic in the same sentence either) and ongoing "Who's the Worst Sports Announcer" (though you should), but because of new research that helps explain some of what's been going on.

Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, took a bunch of people put them inside an fMRI machine and looked at their brains while they looked at hockey. The people involved were hockey players, fans of the sport and a bunch of folks who couldn't tell a slapshot from a shot of tequila. What she found is surprising: the parts of the brain usually involved with planning and controlling actions is activated when they listened to descriptions of the sport, even when they had no intention of acting.

Okay, so this research really can't explain why anyone would think gi-norma-uge is a word, but it does show that adults have more cognitive flexibility than previously suspected. What these finding hint at is that parts of the brain that normally have nothing to do with language get involved with its comprehension during the watching of sport.

According to Beilock, these results show that playing or watching a sport builds a stronger understanding of language. According to me, while Beilock may be right, there seems to be a whole lot more going on than she's willing to say in public.

Why, for example, does this happen when watching sport and not cooking? How many other sports does it happen with? Where are the lines-does the brain actually recognize certain activities as worthy of this sort of cognitive expansion and others as unworthy? I think as these tests go along we might end up finding out that while language processing skills might be centralized in places like Broca's area, they are most likely much more diffuse than anyone previously suspected.

Are they defuse enough to explain why we "defense a play down the field?" Probably not. That may just end up being one of the great mysteries of the 21st Century.