Article Details

Article Details

Melville Petrie

Notes: Director of PAI Ltd

Melville Petrie

What languages did you study at school or university, if any?

I studied French up to Higher level and used to groan about it, but I haven’t forgotten how to conjugate French verbs! I got very frustrated that I could not communicate in French. I would have loved to have learnt Latin.

Why did you choose to take up Mandarin?

I joined the Royal Navy and a ship deployment to the Far East really sparked my enthusiasm for languages. I won a place at the prestigious Ministry of Defence Chinese Language School in Hong Kong to study for two years to become a Chinese interpreter. It was a very tough course and not all of us finished it, and a friend in the US Marine Corps failed completely on the final exam. The oral part of the exam was a nightmare as a tropical rain storm was beating down on the corrugated iron roof of the classroom and it was well-nigh impossible to hear anything at all!

What persuaded you to learn Arabic?

Spurred on my success with Mandarin I discovered that I was actually quite good at languages – having been a bit of a mimic in my teens. I was running a global shipping company in Dubai and as so often in business we hit legal problems. As all court cases in the Emirates are conducted in Arabic and I wanted to be sure I knew what was going on and I knew I needed to learn enough to get the job done.  

Like Chinese, the ability to speak the language of the country in which you are working opens so many doors. It gives you a much richer appreciation of what you are doing, and the land in which you are working, than you would ever dream about.

Have you lived or worked abroad?

I was lucky enough to travel the world (apart from South America and the Antarctic) when I was a Supply Officer in the Royal Navy. Later I worked for Coca-Cola in Hong Kong and China. I got that job because of my Mandarin and could not have travelled around central China so effectively without being able to communicate with the managers and staff. I have run a business in Kosovo and was able to pick up enough Albanian for day-to day business, and as I mentioned earlier I worked for a number of years in Dubai. On one occasion I was contracted to do an in-depth appraisal of Mombasa Airport in Kenya, had to stay in a 5* beach resort close by and learnt Swahili in my spare time – now that did make people sit up and pay attention!

How do you use your languages now?

I have three main languages - Mandarin, Cantonese and Arabic - and use all three in my business interests in the Middle and Far East. In addition I also run inter-cultural courses for Chinese people coming to the West to do business – conducted in Chinese which they find really helpful. I also run training for Westerners doing business in China and the Middle East. In all cases the foreign language helps you understand the culture.

What role do languages play in your life?

Languages now play a huge part in my life at work and in everything else. They have opened my eyes to the nuances of other cultures and ways of thinking and decision making.

Are there any occasions where not knowing the language became a barrier for you?

In my role as a General Manager for Coca-Cola in China my new boss thought that because I spoke and wrote Mandarin, my Cantonese would naturally be as good. They are as different as Norwegian and Italian! Both readily identifiable as Chinese languages, as Norwegian and Italian are European languages, but mutually unintelligible. I had to work very hard and very fast on my Cantonese to satisfy my boss.

What would be your message to inspire young people to continue with their study of languages?

I would advise young people to examine what it is that really interests them, find out where it is happening, and pick a language. This could be a love of Italian culture (which led my daughter to study in Bologna – the oldest uni in Europe), a passion for the great Russian novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, French cuisine or indeed Caledonia, where learning Gaelic would unlock so much of the history of the Scottish Highlands, and go such a long way to keeping the tongue alive and healthy. The first foreign language you learn is likely to be tough going but the next will be much easier. Most importantly of all, learn a language as soon as possible because the brain quickly becomes less receptive to language learning – even in your late twenties. And it will be a lot of fun too!

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