Blushing linguists

7th November 1997 at 00:00
The value of languages to business should go beyond the ability to understand and speak and should mean getting to grips with cultural differences, Hugh Morison, director general of the Scotch Whisky Association, told a workshop at the Edinburgh conference.

One former minister wooing businessmen in Tokyo forgot the etiquette associated with business cards. Picking up his host's card, which had been correctly put on the table in front of him, he started doodling on it and to mounting consternation from his officials tore off a corner and used it as a toothpick.

Dick Johnstone, a linguist and head of the education department at Stirling University, recalled the language priorities of his youth. He also revealed previously hidden fame: he is a nephew of rugby commentator Bill McLaren.

As a first-year Edinburgh University student, Johnstone found himself at Goldenacre the day before an international against the French. His uncle was observing the Tricolours at training and noting one exceptionally big forward said: "You're the linguist. Go and ask him how much he weighs."

Johnstone recalls that it was the first time he had to speak to a native of the country whose language he had been studying for years, and his immediate concern was whether in broaching conversation he would need to employ the subjunctive.

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