My parents went to live in London when I was 18. I didn’t go with them as I considered myself quite capable of looking after myself. The belief at that age is you can handle anything. Nothing fazes you. But the reality, when it sinks in, is quite different.
I started my working life dressing window displays for Curtess shoes. I covered the North East and Cumbria. I travelled everywhere by public transport with my little tool kit. This comprised a staple gun, a pair of pliers and some double-sided tape.
Next I worked in a department store in Newcastle, also dressing window displays. I felt quite trapped during this time, as I was barely earning enough to pay my bills. My weekly wage came to £70. I decided learning to drive was my way out to a better job and, hopefully, a career.
I took a second job at Brough Park Stadium to earn the cash needed to learn to drive. It took a while as one lesson a week was about £12, and working all weekend at the dog track only earned me £18 extra. Hey! Got there though.
After applying for many jobs I landed a merchandising job in Worcestershire, working for a flooring company in Stourport. I shamefully lied through my teeth to get the job. When asked if I could drive a long wheel-based transit van, the thought in my head was an article I had recently read where an actress had lied about being able to ride a horse and she got the gig.
How hard could it be? A transit was the same as driving a mini – right? I’ve also believed always that the “proof is in the pudding”. If I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t last long anyway. I did last, and after that I moved to a job in sales within the same industry, but with a Belgian firm. The job was very high pressure and the company had your life. It was work, work, work! I decided to move to an unknown company in Middlesbrough, again in the flooring trade.
It manufactured most of its products in Poland. I sold these into retail, covering the North East and North West of England. I built the area up from nothing to the highly successful area it is today. It has the highest turnover in the country within the company.
After a few years there I started to feel unfulfilled and really needed something to challenge me. I looked into starting my own business, going quite a way down a few different lines. But nothing quite worked out.
In January 2009 I went ski-ing. It gave me time to think. I returned with a plan. I made an appointment with our managing director. I told him I had decided to move on. The company had other ideas, however. Having attended courses in Spanish and Polish and would like to develop these further.
Would you recommend every company keen to export to take a linguist onto the staff? Either that or develop the skills of existing employees. This alternative can also raise employee satisfaction and motivation. We underestimate the importance of language training in the UK and always assume others will speak English. I can’t count the number of French and German customers who’ve told me how impressed they are that someone from the UK can speak to them in their own language, and how they don’t often experience that when dealing with UK companies. By speaking, or even trying to speak, the other person’s language we gain a better reputation in Europe. It has certainly helped our company to do more business.
Which language did you find most difficult to learn, why, and how did you master it? German probably, due to the grammar. It helps if you can spend some time overseas. This is when you really learn a language. Following A Levels, I spent some time with a company at Werdohl, Derwentside’s partner town in Germany. Even now I try to read German magazines and watch German TV when abroad. The internet too gives access to a lot more help with language training. As part of my degree course, I spent my third year in Reims and Heidelberg. Both placements were very enjoyable for different reasons. I made good friends and am in touch with them today. Recently I’ve joined a German society that enables me to meet other German speakers living in the area.
Which sources benefited you? After the A Level French and German I continued these languages along with international marketing at Northumbria University. Now I travel in my job so I get the opportunity to practise my languages abroad.
What would you reply to anyone who says: “I’ve never been any good at languages”? It’s never too late to learn. There are so many ways nowadays. You needn’t just rely on teachers at school or audio courses.
When did you first get interested in languages? At school I always obtained good marks for languages. I may also have been influenced by my parents having lived in the Netherlands for a couple of years before I was born. When they returned to the UK my dad also travelled a lot in his job. That possibly made me develop an interest in travelling, new languages and cultures.
Fewer children take any foreign language at schools now; have you a message for parents? A foreign language gives you more opportunities in the workplace. The world becomes your oyster. If I had children I’d teach them languages very early on. I’ve a number of friends currently bringing their children up to be bilingual - a great idea. Part of the UK’s problem is that we don’t learn a language at school until we are much older. I was 11 before I started learning French and it wasn’t until a year later I started learning German. In continental Europe training in English starts much earlier. I always encourage people to persuade their children to choose a least one language in their options. As far as I’m aware it isn’t necessary for students now to study a language to GCSE level. I don’t know if the Government will change this, but the number of students studying languages to A and degree levels has dropped dramatically, and some courses aren’t available now as demand isn’t there.
You run company tutorials in language and cultural skills to help reception and administration staff welcome foreign visitors; you also create signage to help international lorry drivers calling. What’s the response to language learning from other staff members? Most are happy to have a few stock phrases to use if I’m out of the office. Many of our team members already have some knowledge of at least one other language. Merci et danke, Julie. Julie, from Shotley Bridge, wasn’t lost for words during a recent holiday with her partner in Mexico, either. She said yes to an engagement!