Letters: Foreign languages

British employers are foolish to think languages 'unimportant'
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The Independent Online

Sir: The findings of the survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, in which employers rated "competence in a foreign language" to be "unimportant" (Philip Hensher, 12 July) make sad reading. Perhaps they explain why British industry today is led by multi-lingual foreigners.

Hensher hits the nail on the head when he implies that the less we learn about the different cultures of the world, the worse the world grows. We shall never know if John F Kennedy understood the pun of his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. It didn't matter. The Germans laughed at the joke, and the tension of the Cold War eased for a few hours.

Prime Minister Churchill on a visit to Paris in May 1940, was staggered to learn from the then French Government that there were no reserve forces to halt the Blitzkrieg onslaught though France. How was he to convey this vital information by open telephone line to the Cabinet in London without alerting the enemy? Answer; he had a general officer in his entourage who spoke fluent Hindi. Now the chances of the super-efficient Wehrmacht having a Hindi-speaking officer were of course remote. So Churchill's general phoned London and reported this vital information in the language of Mahatma Gandhi to a fellow ex-Indian Army colleague, thus gaining vital hours of time to save the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force.

If British industry recruiters really have this attitude of underrating language competence among potential employees, then I say they need their heads read. Perhaps that is why most of British industry today does not play in the premier leagues of the international business world.



Bloodshed will never defeat terrorism

Sir: What an unholy mess! ("The wrath of Israel", 14 July). Yet again the politicians of a rich and powerful country justify the violent and wholesale punishment of the citizens of another state on the grounds of the renegade actions of an extreme minority. Yet again we hear sanctimonious speeches asserting the inevitability of a military response. Yet again we hear that a state has passed judgement on individuals and will administer an executive sentence. And yet again we hear that terrorism justifies all means to defeat it.

But moving on from semantics who is perpetrating terror now? Regardless of the provocation do two wrongs really make a right? It is all too easy to confuse winning with righteousness, but winning depends on armoury. The ability to vanquish is not inextricably linked with superior insight or the moral high ground.

Bush and Blair have long masqueraded on the world stage as crusading saviours. They have a lot to answer for. Their assertion of authority through violence will be emulated for decades to come. The truly good and civilised persevere with negotiation and conciliation. They do not resort to shedding blood.



Sir: In 2003, much to the embarrassment of the European Union, a poll found that many Europeans consider Israel the biggest threat to Middle East peace. The totally disproportionate response by Israel to the capture of its soldiers shows the truth of that poll. A country which destroys the civil infrastructure of life for more than a million Gazans while proceeding to attempt "to bomb back Lebanon by 20 years" shows itself to have all the features of a dangerous, erratic rogue state. Instead of constructing fantasies around an Iranian threat, the international community must face up to the fact that it has an aggressive, nuclear-armed state which is rampaging throughout the region without sanction.



Sir: Surely Israel would be better off building bridges than blowing them up?



Proud to be veiled, Muslim and British

Sir: Having read the responses to Deborah Orr's article, I have to despair of the west and Islam's lack of understanding of each other. The veil was never meant as a form of oppression; it was meant as way of protecting oneself from molestation and as a way of distinguishing oneself as a believer. The latter is most important, these days especially. I am proud to be a Muslim and British, despite my religion being associated with terrible terrorist atrocities, which I condemn, and despite my country being associated with drunken hooligans and "loose morals". I detest stereotypes being bandied about on both sides of the debate.

Although I give the west's unhealthy obsession with beauty as being one of the main reasons I cover myself, my religion was never meant to offend anyone. I would urge my Muslim sisters, while here, to keep the veil to a headscarf or a half covering of the face and to shake hands with men when it's offered to avoid causing offence and embarrassment. In the meantime, I think some sort of education is needed for this country in Islam; maybe converting Peggy Mitchell to Islam in Eastenders is an idea. But before that happens, I urge your readers to talk with the next veiled woman they see, and ask her for her opinion on whether she is oppressed. Just because we have our faces covered, it doesn't mean we can't talk.



Sir: The recent correspondence regarding veiled Muslim women reminds me of John and Yoko's bagism in the late 1960s. At one press conference in 1969 John Lennon, speaking from inside a large bag, explained that this represented "total communication". As his listeners couldn't see him, they couldn't be distracted by his appearance and had to concentrate on what he was saying.

I feel quite sympathetic to this approach. Having not been blessed with good looks, I often feel that it would be better if I only left the house with a bag over my head. If we all did this then questions of beauty, or lack thereof, would become irrelevant.



Sir: Whether the wearing of the hijab imprisons or liberates women may be the subject of debate, but what's undeniable is the fact that it is a uniform. As with all uniforms, wearing one is a sign of belonging, of status and of conformity; it's also scary for people who don't wear the uniform (which is one reason why political uniforms are banned in the UK).

Once Muslim women start to wear the uniform, it's difficult for them to stop wearing it; to do so is to say they feel they don't belong, they don't like their status, and they don't want to conform. It also snubs other women who still wear the uniform, so there is added pressure not to abandon it. If you want them to stop wearing it, you have to offer alternative ways of delivering what the uniform does.



Sir: Alison Farlow writes (13 July) that when in Iran she donned a hijab "as a mark of respect to Muslim sensibilities". In fact she had little choice in the matter, as the Iranian state forces women to cover their hair. Her argument that Muslim women in Britain should in turn have to uncover out of respect for "our customs" is simply the flipside of an unjust and repressive Iranian law. Individual freedom of choice is what needs to be respected, not restrictive local sensibilities or customs.



Sir: When I lived in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s the garment I found most useful was a long kaftan-style robe. I wore it everywhere and it never raised an eyebrow, despite the fact that it was really a Marks & Spencer nightdress. It often struck me as odd that I would not dream of going out in my nightie in Britain, but in strict Saudi Arabia it was perfectly acceptable.



Levy affair increases voter apathy

Sir: Steve Richards surely misses the most serious consequence of the arrest of Lord Levy (Opinion, 13 July). In 1997, filled with a new idealism I, and many others, hoped for a renewal of political involvement from the population of the UK.

Surely it is obvious even to this Government that it is just such revelations as "cash for peerages" that turn people off voting. Only when the sleaze, the sidelining of Parliament, and the centralisation of power to Whitehall are replaced by a meaningful local democracy, which the electorate feel that they "own", will the numbers voting start to recover.

But then, perhaps this Government feels that an apathetic electorate is easier to deal with than one which is informed and interested in the decision-making process.



Happiness measure is deeply flawed

Sir: I can't help thinking that the citizens of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador - a substantial number of whom are so content with their lot that they risk life and limb to travel to the USA - might take issue with the NEF/ Friends of the Earth "happy planet index" (12 July). Neither would my friends in El Salvador, without running water and living on less than the legal wage of $4.79 per day be particularly interested in their "ecological footprint".

And why on earth should they? Whatever equation used to measure it seems to have overlooked fundamental problems such as groundwater contamination, deforestation, rapid urbanisation and the ever-increasing gap between wealthy minorities and the impoverished masses. In neglecting issues such as an epidemic of violence against women, gang warfare, access to healthcare and education and the continued marginalisation of indigenous peoples, it demonstrates an almost imperialist ignorance of the socio-economic realities of life for the vast majority of Central Americans.

It makes a pleasant change to see Salvadorans portrayed in a positive light; however, the "happy planet index" gives an image of simple communities in a pre-lapsarian paradise, contented with their lot, whereas nothing could be further from the truth.



Hare-spotting in Oxfordshire

Sir: I hope I can cheer Peter Marren a little ("Hare today, gone tomorrow", 13 July). In midsummer I sometimes get up around dawn and go for a motorcycle ride around the local countryside. I did so last Saturday and, looking over hedges, saw a variety of wildlife that disappears by the time that the mass of humans starts blasting around. Last Saturday, I was rewarded with the sight of three separate hares within the space of an hour's gentle motorcycling.



Le deuxième feminist bridge

Sir: I have to disagree with John Lichfield's assertion about the new and rather lovely Simone de Beauvoir bridge that "Paris can now claim the world's first feminist bridge" (13 July). As any London river tour-guide will tell you, Waterloo Bridge's simple, graceful curves, although designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, were constructed by a mainly female workforce during the Second World War, proving that sisters had done it for themselves, God and country, four whole years before Le Deuxième Sexe was first published.



The Iraqi death toll

Sir: In a report of 13 July you state that 2,550 US troops have died since the invasion of Iraq, while "the death toll among Iraqis may be five times as high". Pardon? According to Iraq Body Count, a minimum of 38,960 Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of military intervention. Others estimate the figure to be as much as three times greater.



Gifted children

Sir: Writing as a former gifted child (IQ 156-plus) I wish to state that most of the nostrums on offer for the "treatment" of gifted children fill me with horror (The Big Question, 12 July). The idea of "accelerated learning" is appalling. Some have even suggested that the gifted should have their fees paid to go to notable public schools. Monstrous idea! I quote Schopenhauer: "The man of talent is like a marksman who can hit a target others cannot hit. The man of genius is like a marksman who can hit a target others cannot even see."



Ten best English castles

Sir: The Ten Best Castles to visit (13 July) were nothing of the sort. The nearest one to me was more than 100 miles away and furthermore the list ignored such gems as Caerffili, Raglan, Harlech and Edinburgh. There again, if you ask a guy from English Heritage for his opinion it is not surprising if he only selects English castles.




A common error?

Sir: The Independent of 12 July tells us that Asperger's syndrome "is four times commoner in boys" (than girls). I was told at school that the word "commoner" was only to be used to describe the general public (the dictionary states those not of nobility) and not as a description of frequency, but I have seen "commoner" and "commonest" being used more commonly (sorry) recently.


Superman's origins

Sir: Perhaps it's a minor issue to many, but to an expat American who grew up reading Superman comics, until Marvel Comics got its act together and started producing characters who were multi-dimensional, I must advise Anthony Quinn (14 July) that Marvel Comics would never have produced a character as dull as Superman. Kindly give blame where it's due: Superman was created by DC Comics.



Send Cooper home

Sir: Cooper Brown (13 July) should be told by the editor of The Independent that he has now arrived in a civilised country where we dislike people who talk about women in degrading terms, or brag about membership of exclusive clubs, ownership of expensive equipment, and acquaintance with "celebrities" or wealthy layabouts. He must be invited to return forthwith to LA, or further away if possible, taking his T-shirts with him.