Does mandatory English make the WBC unfair?
International Barista Coffee Academy founder, Patrick O’Malley, offers insight into the importance of language skills at the prestigious World Barista Championships.
The World Barista Championship (WBC) is one of the most prestigious coffee competitions of the year.
It brings national barista champions from around the world to a two-day event, in which they must present their coffee skills and carefully planned routines to four sensory judges.
Since launching in 2000, the WBC has been key to igniting trends and bringing attention to some of the most exciting developments in the industry. For example, 2015 winner Sasa Sestic caused a stir when he used a carbonic macerated coffee for the first time.
“WBC competitions drive innovation, technology, and knowledge,” says Patrick O’Malley, the founder of International Barista Coffee Academy (IBCA). “The knowledge-gain is massive; and the participants walk away with a lot of respect to compete at that level.”
Over the years, the competition has attracted a diverse group of competitors, with winners hailing from 13 countries, including Australia, Taiwan, and El Salvador. The current champion, Diego Campos, made history when he became the first winner from South America.
However, despite the diversity of competitors, they are all required to perform their routine in English whether or not it is their native language. So is this fair?
The format of the WBC has remained largely unchanged since launching more than 20 years ago. Over the course of three knock-out rounds, competitors must present a 15-minute routine in which they prepare and serve four espresso drinks, four milk drinks, and four “signature” espresso-based cocktail drinks to each of the sensory judges.
The routine typically involves a story about the coffee and its provenance, while often being built around a novel concept. During the 15-minute window, the aim is for competitors to prepare and serve each coffee with a narrative that engages the judges. In most cases, this means speaking English.
However, competing on centre stage can be stressful, with a number of different components to manage. Juggling a routine in your non-native language is an extra hurdle, with additional pressure. It’s possible to lose your train of thought or forget words in English.
“The competitions started as English-speaking events,” Patrick explains. “There can be other ways to do it, but then it comes down to the financial aspect of competing. Namely, if there are alternatives provided, who pays for it?”
The costs associated with competing can add up: coffee, glassware, scales, cloths, and clothes. If baristas have to pick up the cost of a translator, is that fair?
“I don’t think speaking English should be mandatory,” Patrick says. “If you have a competitor coming from El Salvador, Honduras, or China, and they aren’t privileged enough to learn and speak English well, it excludes a lot of people that would like to compete. At the same time, for those who practise their English, it makes them an asset for future jobs.”
For example, Diego Campos is Colombian and used Colombian coffee, yet he spoke English throughout his routine. Despite winning, some could say he was at a disadvantage competing in his non-native language.
“Baristas come from a different financial background, and while some have an opportunity to learn and practise English, others don’t. It can be unfair,” Patrick says.
“A good majority of my staff is Spanish-speaking, and while they have worked and lived here many years, they can still struggle to find the correct words in English,” Patrick says. “It happens.”
What are the alternatives?
English comprehension varies greatly for countries that don’t use it as a first language.
The Nordic countries, which had winners from six of the first seven competitions, are known for their English comprehension. According to the Eurobarometer report commissioned by the European Union, 86% of Danes and 90% of Norwegians speak English.
The picture in Central and South America is quite different. According to the global Education First English Proficiency Index, 53% of Guatemalans and 63% of El Salvadorians are estimated to speak English; in Colombia, an estimated 5% speak English. Some might say the odds are against citizens of those countries.
Reviewing the winners of the WBC for its first 20 years, champions have come from five continents, with eight winners from English-speaking countries.
“There can be changes that still keep the integrity of the competition,” Patrick says. “A translator is maybe the first step, which could afford the competitor the opportunity to speak in their native language and see if that helps.
“Competing in English should be preferred, but they could get a translator if they don’t speak English. Think about it: if there isn’t a word for something, they can’t make it up. That’s a challenge.”
“Other areas of competition can be improved as well,” Patrick says. “I think it could be fairer. For example, the competitors should be given the same coffee. Some competitors spend $500 on coffee,” he says, “but that’s a conversation for another day.”