Texas Tech University

Working to Eliminate the Language Barrier

Doug Hensley

October 6, 2023

Texas Tech’s Stefanie Borst is helping staff members of the Kansas City Chiefs learn German language, culture and customs.

Sometimes, the coolest gigs seem to fall out of the sky and right into one's lap.

In some ways, that is exactly what happened for Stefanie Borst, associate dean for recruiting and retention in Texas Tech University's College of Arts & Sciences. But the opportunity that knocked on her door had more to do with her expertise in a foreign language, and that is how Borst soon found herself on regular Zoom calls with staff members of the NFL's Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

“Someone from the Chiefs reached out to Texas Tech and the chair of our department,” said Borst, who is also an associate professor of German and Applied Linguistics in the Department of Classical and Modern Languages & Literatures. “They wondered if someone at Texas Tech might be interested in teaching German to the staff of the Chiefs.”

Stefanie Borst
Stefanie Borst

Uh, yes.

The NFL has worked in recent years to showcase its product with various franchises playing in the International Series at venues in England, Mexico and Germany. This year, the Chiefs will face the Miami Dolphins in Frankfurt, Germany, on Nov. 5. Kansas City is also scheduled to play in Germany next season with a game against the Carolina Panthers set to take place in Munich.

“I ran into my department chair a few days later, and I said I would totally do it,” said Borst, who has been at Texas Tech for 19 years. “That's how it started. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity. This is a real-life example of a highly visible business expressing that they value language learning That is exactly why we do this.”

Before anyone starts thinking Borst's pupils include star quarterback and Texas Tech alumnus Patrick Mahomes or any of the team's players or coaches, that's not the case. Classes are reserved for staff members and support personnel, most of whom will be responsible for making sure the team's logistics and travel to Germany run smoothly. The number of staffers who attend the online classes varies each week with class time usually consuming between 45 minutes and an hour – depending on class participation levels.

Borst prepares weekly lessons ahead of time and makes materials available to Chiefs personnel via a dedicated website. They have a virtual class meeting once a week, and she has also prepared audio recordings of German for the staffers to listen to while on their own time. The bulk of their language lessons is focused on possible everyday conversations and interactions that might occur during their stay. With the regular season having started recently, Borst's lessons have since transitioned from the group setting to individual meetings on a remote basis.

“One day we talked about what it would be like if they went shopping at a market or if they went to a restaurant and had to order,” she said. “I would model the phrases for them and then ask them to repeat after me. Sometimes I have a big group and sometimes it's just a few. It depends on that day and how busy they are, and if it's a game week.”

Typically, the team will send a contingent of support personnel to the international site days ahead of the game to work behind the scenes and prepare for the rest of the traveling party's arrival. They also stay longer than players and coaches, whose total stay might only be a couple of days.

“They shared with me that the staff who go earlier are the ones who will have to do the most communicating while they are there,” said Borst, for whom German is her first language. “They will be the main contact. I approach it from a point of imagining what they're going to do during those five days and how I can help them enjoy the trip, fit in and explore successfully.”

The keys to successfully learning another language are repetition, practice and attention to detail. 

“In addition to audio recordings, I make visual aids that include vocabulary lists and PowerPoints of all of our lessons,” she said. “Engaging in as much communication as possible is how we learn best. It is a lot of work, but it has been a lot of fun, and I feel really lucky it fell into my lap.”

Borst shares more than just her knowledge of the language with her students. She is also sharing expertise about the country and what makes it special.

“I want them to know what is acceptable behavior in a foreign country in terms of how to be friendly and respectful,” she said. “That includes things like what to expect in the subway and going around the market. I am also teaching them about specific places in Frankfurt they might want to visit and how to get there.”

It hasn't been a one-way learning experience either as Borst has acquired some knowledge about one of the NFL's highest-profile franchises along the way.

“I have learned that the Chiefs organization does a lot in the community and gives a lot back,” she said. “There was one week we couldn't meet because they were all involved in a huge event in Kansas City. I am really proud of being able to do this because it demonstrates that what we do in academics matters in real life.”