The World Barista Championship (WBC) is one of the most prestigious events in the coffee industry. Not only is the competition a vehicle for innovation in specialty coffee, it also recognises the barista profession on an international level.
Each year, more than 50 baristas from around the world take part in the competition. Many of these competitors come from non-native English speaking countries, with previous World Barista Champions representing countries such as El Salvador, Japan, Taiwan, and Poland.
However, despite their nationality or native language, all World Barista Championship competitors must either perform their routine in English or use a translator at their own expense.
While there are several reasons for this rule, as an industry, we have to ask – is it fair to expect all WBC competitors to either speak English or pay for a translator? Moreover, given that so many coffee-growing countries are in Latin America, should the WBC also allow competitors to speak Spanish?
To discuss this issue further, I spoke with Eduardo Choza, Director of Coffee at Mayorga Coffee, Jenny Borrego, barista trainer at Degas Café, and founder of Alquimia Coffee Company and World Coffee Championship coach, Federico Bolanos. Read on for more of their insight.
You may also like our article on whether the World Barista Championship needs to change.
Why do so many WBC competitors speak English?
In the 2023 World Barista Championship Official Rules and Regulations, it states that:
“Competitors may bring their own interpreter at their sole expense. When speaking to the competitor the interpreter is only allowed to translate what the emcee, head judge, stage manager, or head runner has said. When a competitor speaks, the interpreter is only allowed to translate exactly what the competitor has said. No additional competition time will be allotted with the use of an interpreter. The competitor is judged based on the translation of the competitor, not based on the competitor’s spoken words.”
Essentially, this means that all WBC competitors need to speak English, memorise their routine in English, or hire a translator. In turn, this can create a number of barriers for competitors who don’t speak English as their first language.
Eduardo is a two-time US Roasting Championship finalist, another event organised by the Specialty Coffee Association which has similar rules on speaking English and using translators.
“I was there to represent not only myself and my company, but also my culture,” he says. “[During my routine], I made a point to highlight that I was competing for coffee farmers and for my Latino culture.”
He tells me that other participants at the event spoke fluent English, and that out of 24 competitors, there were only five or six people from Latin America.
Although there are many complex reasons behind the lack of Latino representation in coffee, Eduardo says language barriers are one of the biggest. He explains that he and his co-workers at Mayorga Coffee encouraged their Spanish-speaking roaster to enter the competition, but that he wasn’t comfortable presenting in English.
“Even if he did compete, some of his roasting knowledge may have been lost on the judges because of the language gap,” he adds.
Challenges for non-native English speakers
Federico is the first and only WBC coach to train three World Barista Champions (in 2011, 2019, and 2021), as well as training two WBC finalists and five semi-finalists. He has also trained 15 national Barista Championship winners from around the world.
He says that when a WBC competitor performs in their native language, they can memorise their routine more comprehensively. Furthermore, he adds that when speaking in English, it can sometimes be difficult for the judges to understand because of their accents.
“I have never seen a barista perform well at the WBC when using a translator,” he says. “It can be easier to misinterpret information, competitors might have to shorten speeches, and the judges aren’t able to develop a direct connection with the competitor.”
Jenny is the 2021 Mexican Barista Champion.
“[During your routine], you only have 15 minutes to talk about a coffee and a concept that you have been working on for months or years,” she says. “If you have to use a translator, it can reduce your performance speech by as much as half.”
When Jenny volunteered at the 2018 WBC, she was the timekeeper for the first round of competition.
“Two competitors used translators,” she tells me. “I couldn’t understand any of the translations.”
Is the translation rule unfair?
In order to understand the rule on translators more, we first need to look at the history of the World Barista Championship.
The first WBC was held in Monte Carlo in 2000. At the event, the majority of competitors were from European countries (including those which have a high number of English speakers), as well as the US and Australia. Up until 2007, the WBC was also held in the US and European countries.
“The WBC is supposed to be a global coffee competition, so why are competitors expected to speak English?” Eduardo says. “It’s disingenuous that we source coffee from countries [where English isn’t the majority language], but competitors must speak it during their routines.
“I think it’s a result of colonialism,” he adds. “It’s expecting a person to act a certain way to have the equal opportunity to compete.”
Jenny agrees, saying: “If we question why English is the universal language of the WBC, colonialism is part of it.
“Expecting competitors from countries where learning another language is a luxury is elitist and not inclusive,” she adds. “As a barista from Latin America, I know that our salaries are lower than some Western countries, as well as the quality of and access to education.”
Moreover, for competitors who don’t speak English or feel comfortable to speak English in their WBC routine, the costs of hiring a translator can be significant. And considering that competing in the World Barista Championship can already be expensive, paying for a translator could deter non-English speakers even more.
Some previous WBC competitors have performed well by memorising their routine speech in English – most notably 2011 World Barista Champion Alejandro Mendez, who is from El Salvador. However, this can take considerable time, and not all competitors will have equal access to learn English.
“How much of their time do they have to spend practising just the pronunciation?” Jenny says. “And what happens when the World Barista Championship takes place soon after the National Championships? Will they have enough time to prepare?”
Jenny also adds that different accents and pronunciations can impact the judges’ assessment of a competitor’s routine.
“During my 2022 WBC performance, I really focused on trying to pronounce key words correctly to make sure the judges understood me,” she says. “My team and I spent three hours with a native English speaker in the lobby of our hotel in Australia to make sure she could understand my routine.”
However, even when they have memorised their routine speech, it can be challenging for non-English speaking competitors – especially if they need to improvise during their performance.
“Being on the WBC stage can be very intimidating, so some competitors become nervous and forget their speech,” Jenny explains.
While there are many reasons to allow competitors to speak their native languages at the WBC, Federico points out that this could create some difficulties for World Coffee Events – particularly when it comes to finding translators.
“The WBC is a global competition, and English is one of the most spoken languages in the world,” he says. “Ideally, everyone should be able to speak in their own language, but this would create significant challenges for the organisers.”
Should the WBC allow competitors to speak Spanish?
As competitors at the World Barista Championship have to speak English or use a translator, all of the judges must also speak and understand English to a proficient level.
Eduardo says this is because the costs of including judges who speak a number of languages would be too high, as well as creating a number of logistical issues.
However, if competitors can perform in Spanish, would this create a more even playing field?
Federico believes if competitors can speak Spanish, then the WBC rules must also allow baristas to speak other languages.
“If competitors can speak in languages other than English, then I would argue that we should allow the top 20 most spoken languages in the world,” he says.
Jenny agrees, saying: “The question should be ‘how can we create the same experience for a competitor when speaking in their native language as when they are using a translator?’”
One solution she suggests is including judges who are fluent in multiple languages other than English.
“This would make the WBC more inclusive, and create a more even playing field between English-speaking and non-English speaking competitors,” she says.
Will things change?
Eduardo, meanwhile, doesn’t expect the translation rule to change anytime soon.
“The competition is evolving, but too slowly,” he says. “It will take some time, and it will take more people to raise their voices, too.”
However, given the latest World Barista Championship rule updates which now allow the use of plant milks as part of the milk-course round, it’s evident that World Coffee Events is open to making more inclusive changes to the competition.
Federico believes that rather than focusing solely on speaking English, we should instead reconsider the format of the World Barista Championship altogether.
“Maybe including more languages is not the solution,” he says. “Speeches at the WBC are polished and rehearsed essays, so they only demonstrate the oral skills of the competitor.
“However, in a real life environment, baristas don’t recite speeches to customers,” he adds. “Instead, they talk about coffee in a more natural, improvised, and spontaneous manner.”
Although the World Barista Championship is one of the most revered competitions in the coffee sector, it is not without its criticisms – especially how exclusionary and elitist its model can be for certain competitors.
The unwritten rule on speaking English – as well as the written rule about using an interpreter if you can’t – is a significant part of this. However, the extent to which the WBC should allow other languages, including Spanish, is a question which still remains.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how sponsor changes will affect future World Barista Championships.
Photo credits: World Coffee Events, Boris Navarrete, Federico Bolanos
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