Meet Chris Wray: A man who learnt a language to serve his country

A member of Babbel’s PR team speaks with retired British soldier Chris Wray about learning German and serving in the armed forces.

Megan, a member of Babbel’s PR team, speaks to fellow Brit and Babbel user Chris Wray about his experience learning German.

Meet Chris Wray. Chris lives in rural Dorset in the UK, and is enjoying retirement with his family after a career in the British Armed Forces. Between June 1968 and December 1983, he was deployed to Germany three times for a total of 10 years as part of military operations. For almost six of those years, Chris didn’t speak German outside of the classroom. When he finally did, he realised that there was more to a country than just being there.

In 1968, Chris moved with his Army unit to Dortmund, Germany, without knowing any German beyond “hallo”. Unconcerned, he was looking forward to an adventure overseas. He settled into his new barracks on the Dortmund military base and enrolled in a basic German course. These exciting few years came to an end in 1972, when he was recalled to Northern Ireland during the country’s turbulent years.

After Northern Ireland, Chris trained as an Army helicopter pilot. According to him, it was the best decision he ever made. He accepted a posting to Detmold, Germany, and at the airfield where he trained, there was an especially beautiful, kind and funny teacher. Friendship evolved into a love story. They married three years later, and just last month celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary. The newlyweds enjoyed married life for three years in the UK before Chris was posted to Germany for a third time in 1979. Together, they moved to Bielefeld, a small city in the north of Germany.

During his first two postings, Chris had never needed to speak German. Day-to-day life took place in English on the military base. This changed in Bielefeld. Chris was responsible for negotiating with local farmers during exercises, asking their permission to store military equipment in their barns. Chris had previously taken German classes and had experience learning German; however, this was his first opportunity to use German in real (and important) conversations. Jumping into the deep end, such controversial requests required Chris to gain the trust of the farmers quickly. Although the classes had taught him much of the lexicon he needed, he realised that class-taught German and real German were entirely different.

The next few months challenged Chris’s resilience and willpower. At times, he missed England’s green pastures, cider, and sarcasm. He would stutter and forget words, but his persistence earned him respect and he quickly built the required trust. Through the smiles and gratitude he received when he told the farmers about what the army was doing in Germany, and through what he learned in return about their livelihoods, Chris saw that there was more to being abroad than just living there. Being abroad is about getting to know the people, culture, forming relationships and understanding what drives people to think and act they way they do.   

A recent study of Babbel users revealed that over 80% of British users believe speaking another language helps them to meet new people and explore new places. Chris agrees. People are the heart of a country — to get to know a country, you need to do more than just live there. Speaking the local language during his third posting enabled him to delve deeper into a culture and to really get to know the people and way of life.

After moving back to England in 1983, Chris’ wife achieved an A in General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) German, and together they helped twin two local English towns, Chippenham and Shaftsbury, with the German towns Augsburg and Lindlar, respectively. Chris continues to learn German with Babbel — that is, when he isn’t travelling, gardening, enjoying theatre and opera, and taking a weekend spin in his 1992 BMW 320i.

Chris enjoys using the Babbel app for a number of reasons, one of which is that it enables him to learn without the expense or hassle of travelling to classes — which from rural Dorset can be expensive. He encourages family, friends, and neighbours to use Babbel too: “I recently persuaded a relative who is a musician and lived in Zurich for a number of years to use Babbel. She has also become an advocate for language and the app.” When the couple return to Germany, they use their refreshed knowledge of German to meet new friends, visit old ones, discover new places and learn more about Germany outside of the military.

“I still feel an affinity for all things German. I look back fondly on the time we spent there. I would really like to be proficient in German because language is essential and makes travel far more interesting. Whenever we go back to Germany, it feels in a strange way like going home. I also enjoy the intellectual stimulation that helps to keep the grey cells going.”