Chartered Institute
of Linguists

From toolmaker to entrepreneur – how language skills changed my life

By Gordon Southwood


Gordon Southwood ACIL

German to English


This story explains my motivation to learn French and German, subjects in which I have never taken any exams, but have made my way up to conducting business at boardroom level, in both languages, in the world of manufacturing. It was on this basis that CIOL awarded me membership at Associate level.

My approach to language studies took place whilst I was in my late teens. My parents and relatives fought the NAZI regime during World War II. In consequence, I wondered how these people felt about the liberators of Europe. Personally, I had studied to the level of “Third National Certificate” in Mechanical Engineering and had completed five years training as a toolmaker.

At the age of 21 and being employed in a drawing office/machine shop, I wondered what my future would be in order to earn a good living. I felt a mix of language and engineering skills would open up wider opportunities for me. I decided German was the language I wanted to learn and so I took myself off to Germany. After 57 years, this has proved to be the right decision, as I had steady work throughout my career.

I drove to the industrial area of the Ruhr, not knowing a single word of German. The Germans were quite amazed why an Englishman wanted to do this – I was just curious about their behaviour. In fact, I was quite astonished by their friendliness towards me, confirmed simply during my first night with snow everywhere and not reaching my destination, the local police gave me accommodation in their jail – but not with the drunks! People I met more than fifty years ago are still my friends.

During my one year’s stay in Germany, I earnt a living as a toolmaker while attending night school for technical and commercial German. Today, I receive a German pension for one year’s work in their country.

After my time in Germany, I did the same in France but not for such a lengthy stay; after only six months I decided to return home for a job interview as a European Sales Engineer with the CompAir Group – a UK manufacturer of pneumatics, air tools, air compressors, compressed air dryers and mining equipment. This activity took me around Europe, setting up European distributors, dealing direct with European vehicle manufacturers and working behind the iron curtain with Russian-appointed buying boards. These included ImportExport in East Berlin, Polimex Cecop in Warsaw, and Ferunion in Budapest. The Russians stated that if the required product was not manufactured in the Soviet Union, then the Eastern Block could purchase direct from the West, but not from the USA or West Germany.  Unbeknown to most people in the UK, the Russians were the best benefactors to UK industry with purchases of furnaces, turbines, mining equipment – the list is endless.

At the age of 31, I returned to the UK and set up my own company, GS Airmatics Ltd (product assembly technologist), in Kingston upon Thames, on zero capital and with just an overdraft. My firm ran successfully until I retired.

Without language skills, I could have been left as a redundant draughtsman or a greasy Joe in the unemployment queue. All I can say is: long live linguist skills!

Gordon Southwood ACIL


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