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Peter Wright

1953 - 1960

I was only a first former (are they still called ‘scruffs’ as we were in 1953?) when I decided to take French seriously. It had nothing to do with DHS where our French teacher Mr. Piper used to terrorise newcomers to the language. (Actually he was a very nice person who moved off to Truro soon after where he welcomed us warmly when we went there to play rugby – and lose invariably).

No, there was a more prosaic reason. One of our neighbours in our working class neighbourhood used to take in French boys every summer to earn a little money. I got friendly with them. They were all, unlike us, sons of doctors and lawyers which meant they had a bit of pocket money.

And because they were French they had a way with the girls. My French was appalling but in Plymouth in those days the girls’ French was even worse so they used to think I was French too. With great results!

So at an early age I learned that speaking French could be a useful asset. There was indeed a lot more to come!

I studied French at King’s College London after leaving DHS. I visited France every year and met my first wife there. She spoke little English so the family tongue was French even tho’ my two children were born in England.

Leaving King’s I was taken on as a trainee marketing manager by Unilever. Working myself up thru’ the ranks – and because I spoke French - I was chosen to take part in an exchange project with one of the company’s French subsidiaries.

Paradise in Paris! More pay, less tax (in those days), and all my wife’s family and friends to enjoy. I became bi-lingual in business and notably marketing French and English. A rarity in 1970.

After another move - to Japan – I returned to France convinced that the language market for business English was immense. Not least in France where’s years of De Gaulle inspired Anglo-phobia meant that too few managers spoke English and too many pretended they did on their job applications!

The Japan adventure had been a disaster for the company and along with others I lost my job. Sacked!

What to do? What could I do better than most French men – especially those highly trained graduates from France’s crack business schools?

Speak English you idiot – not just Shakespearean English, modern international business English.

I was lucky to meet a genius at this time by following up a tiny small-ad in ‘Le Monde’ – “Looking for an entrepreneur to develop in France a revolutionary new method for training English”. The name of the business was promising “Wall Street Institute”

I knew nothing about the training business in France which is huge because companies are obliged by law to devote some 1% of their salary mass to training. And a lot of this was going into language training.

I plunged in – and got a bloody nose! The Wall Street Institute method designed by my new genius friend Peccinini, an Italian, relied on computerised self training techniques which – I discovered too late – were not accepted by the legislation at the time! You had to have a teacher in front of the students – even if the teacher was useless and the classes too big to handle. And our method uses teachers only 30% of the time…

To stay alive I moved over to ‘language consultancy’. This involved helping companies, who were unable to present themselves in English thru’ lack of ability, to present themselves and sell or buy internationally. There were hundreds of them, big and small.

My linguistic ability and my own business experience with Unilever came to the fore and fitted well with our logo. We prospered.

Today Wall Street Institute, presided over by my son, is the biggest language business in France. Its advertising is everywhere as any user of the Parisian metro can confirm. There are some 40 centres in France – part of a world-wide network.

I’m sure my 6th form French master, the prim Mr. Mallinson, would be surprised to read my story. I wasn’t that good. My excellent head master Dr. Cresswell, a great ally at all times, might have said ‘I told you so!’ even if he wasn’t that sure himself!

Anyway next time you see those French kids milling around the Hoe it might be a good idea to go and say hello. And if you’re looking for a job as an English teacher in France, drop me a line.


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