Bishop right about short-sightedness of ignoring languages

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From: Don Alexander, Knab Road, Sheffield.

HOW right the Bishop of Bradford is about the importance of languages, and our short-sightedness in ignoring them. I would say to any youngster – learn a language or two, you never know where it can lead you (Yorkshire Post, October 12).

I was lucky enough to go to Firth Park Grammar School in Sheffield from 1949-56 where, after teaching French in the first year, they gave you a choice of GIRLS in the second (German, Italian, Russian, Latin or Spanish).

With As in Spanish and French, then a degree in Spanish, the Army then sent me on a Russian language course (I was only accepted on this during basic training at Pontefract with KOYLI, whereupon the sergeant major classed me as a “buckshee linguist”. If I made mistakes on the parade ground he’d bellow out “You, Kruschev!” Symptomatic of the Englishman’s attitude to languages – but very funny.

The Russian course was intensive – big monthly tests and any failure meant return to the infantry – but its completion led to a year in Berlin listening in to the Red Army manoeuvres and our first daughter’s birth at the British Military Hospital in Spandau.

My wife and I picked up some German while in Berlin and, on demob, this knowledge got me a job in Park Gate Iron & Steel in 1962, selling steel into Europe.

Leaving the heavy trades for the light trades in 1983 – opening a shop selling Sheffield cutlery, pewter and silverware – led to conversations almost daily with French, Spanish and German visitors, and occasional Russians.

The biggest single sale was £4,000 of gold-plated cutlery to a Russian, also called Alexander, who didn’t speak English.

“Where did you learn Russian, Alexander?”, he asked.

“V shkolye, Aleksandr”, I replied (“At school, Alexander”)

He then rattled out in Russian: “You are lying to me, Alexander. You learned it in the British Army!”

We became friends.

My wife and I keep up our languages into our 70s. She goes to U3A French conversation classes and listens to French radio. I read the occasional French, German and Spanish newspapers and read books from the library.

A recent one, Im Westen Nichts Neues, (Nothing New in the West), was the classic All Quiet on the Western Front, seen from the German trenches.

Eighteen-year-old “lads in grey”, old at 20, see coffins being made in a forest: “They’re for us”. They are always hungry, having only turnips and marmalade, and long for English corned beef. Their major fear is of Tommy’s artillery, especially gas shells.

There’s nothing unpatriotic in having sympathy for these German lads. As Nick Baines, Bishop of Bradford, says: “We can only understand our own culture if we look at it through the lens of another culture.”