The Cherwell Guide to Lingo


There is always a sense of excitement in the unknown. For most of us, going abroad is the easiest access to this excitement. The early-morning airport rush is all part of the holiday thrill; in that cool English 4am something waits, unformed, at the edge of consciousness, as we try to imagine the new lands ahead. Yet there is one element of the unknown which fills the traveller with dread. It is this: what am I going to say?

The more unknown the territory into which we venture, the less likely we are to have the required linguistic expertise to order a drink, haggle over prices in the market, or convince your new male/female friend of your credentials. The most trivial of GCSE option choices suddenly become fatal, as we encounter the limited options on the budget airline’s flight-planner. Most of us know our ca va when the time calls for it, but even in Europe the serial traveller can be thrown off by a sudden border crossing. They then reveal their panic in a series of ever more elaborate gesticulations, so that Avez-vous un chambre pour ce soir can become a career-defining piece of physical theatre just the other side of the Pyrenees, no doubt with a well-entertained audience to compliment it. Que dice el hombre? …no tengo ni idea.

It is for this reason that Cherwell brings you an invaluable guide to negotiating the perils of communication breakdown. There are ten points, because we feel that such clear organisation will be in some way comforting to the linguistically bewildered, who have lost all sense of grammatical structure. There are clear titles, because someone that has just been told about male and female nouns does not need content overload. So to those of you who have ever felt – or plan ever to feel – lost in translation, read on:


1. Always be eating.

Let’s face it, the first thing we want to know is how to order. Subsistence first, culture second. Besides, all national stereotypes are in some way food-related, and in encountering an unfamiliar language, any pre-existing vocabulary one possesses is likely to centre around foodstuffs. Even if not, picture menus are a handy alternative. Then you can try and work out what your fellow diners are on about.


2. Brands are your friends. Use them.

Even in deepest darkest Peru, Paddington still likes his Marmite. These days, anyway. Or more to the point, if you can’t remember ‘water’ when the Congolese jungleman asks you if you’re thirsty, just plump for a Coke instead. You know he knows what that is, even if he doesn’t want you to.


3. Sport is your friend. Use it.

Let us describe a very familiar scenario. Two individuals from different cultures meet, neither speaks the other’s language, and they are at a loss as to how to converse. There is suddenly a brainwave. One of the pair realises that in virtually every language, football means the same thing. Apart from when it means soccer. Anyway, there is a good ten minutes of opening conversation to be had. The thread runs thus:


(nods head)

Manchester United?

(nods head)

Wayne Rooney?

(nods head)


(shakes head sympathetically)

David Beckham?

(both pause, and then nod heads. much joyous exclaiming)

And even if the subtleties of ‘WAG’ as a Beckham-influenced acronym are not discussed, or the full innuendo of ‘goldenballs’ not made clear, progress has still quite clearly been made.


4. Don’t think that names are the easy part.

The soft lilt of an English village on the tongue is pure nostalgia for the world-weary, and yet such rosy memories can lull one into a false sense of security. Don’t assume you know how it should sound. Take an American for instance. The special relationship often doesn’t extend to a thorough appreciation of the counties, as anyone who has painfully sat through a voicing of Glah-cess-terr-shy-uh can attest. Watch what the locals do.


5. Release your inner child.

In developed countries, the aspiring linguist can make much progress even without the help of others. All they have to do is find a local bookstore and delve into the young children’s section. One ‘my first storybook’ later, and the reader has worked out some basic pronouns, verbs, colours, numbers and the names of several wild and/or domesticated animals. It was probably a cracking good read too. For the more confident, working out vocab from well-known passages in foreign versions of Harry Potter is an excellent option.


6. Music makes the world go round.

For the less sporting amongst us, a campfire sing-a-long similarly requires very little linguistic participation. There will almost definitely be some sort of hummable melody, and perhaps even a wordless chorus. Hey Jude has never looked so appealing. To the tone deaf in a tight spot – probably time to start brushing up on Ferguson’s latest acquisitions.


7. The internet is (unhelpful) cheating.

Anyone can type ‘thank you’ into Word Reference. It’s not big, and it isn’t clever. If you’re remote, you probably won’t have any signal. And if you have, you’re probably somewhere populous enough that you would have heard someone say the word a hundred times over anyway, if you hadn’t been checking your Facebook the whole time. Besides, anything more than single word responses are going to be pretty limited. The internet isn’t going to conjugate those infinitives for you.


8. Create a diversion.

So you’ve just met some boy or girl, and bought them some drink in some capital city, in some club down some stairs. The only thing that’s going to convince them that it doesn’t matter you have nothing at all to say, is if your dancing is absolutely exquisite. Think Park End relocated.


9. Keeping up appearances.

For the multi-lingual struggling in unfamiliar territory, why not try one of those languages you do know? You might strike lucky. There has to be at least one Mandarin-speaking German, surely. If this fails, then at least when the local offloads his contempt onto you it will be some other country looking ignorant. Conversely, for any linguists holidaying in Britain and indulging in slightly risqué activities, nothing says innocent like a supposedly nonplussed foreigner.


10. Hermetic benefits.

Well, you don’t have to talk to anyone. No-one’s forcing you.


So there you have it. Ten steps to blag your way to linguistic success. Print them, memorise them, save them on your phone, and with a bit of luck, and a flair for improvisation, you’ll soon know your sushi from your shinkansen. And let’s face it, anything is better than discovering you have the potential for yoga when only trying to ask where the train station is. Try not to get physical, folks. At this point Cherwell should probably wish you good luck in a variety of different languages, but we don’t want to make things too easy for you, do we?


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