A question for my fellow language lubbers: why is it that as soon as people hear that you study languages, they automatically presume you to have encyclopaedic knowledge of anything and everything non-English, ever?
Seriously, has this ever happened to you? Let me demonstrate.
You find yourself at a party of a friend of a friend of that guy with the hipster haircut, when suddenly, mid-mingle, you are drawn into conversation.
“So what do you study?” A young chap asks, drinking a beer with a straw. Who even is this guy?
“Modern Languages,” you confirm, with a hint of pride in your voice as you smile and nod modestly. Yep, that’s how I roll. You know it.
“Wow, that’s so cool. Any in particular?” He enquires. Honestly. Nope, I speak all languages in the world ever. Moron.
“Spanish and Italian mostly”, you nod with a casual shrug of the shoulder. No big deal really.
“Amazing. So you’re fluent then?” He nods back at you.
“Um, well I…” you begin, but it’s already too late.
“Because this one time I was on holiday and this guy comes up to me and says…”
Your stomach flips.
The unforeseeable yet inevitable is now staring you in the face. You now carry the enormous burden of understanding and interpreting to perfection whatever it is that comes out of this guys mouth, no matter how massacred the pronunciation nor how ridiculous the accent. It’s like a Mexican stand-off with a Collins dictionary.
It could be in any dialect from any part of the world meaning absolutely anything. If you don’t perfectly understand every single world of the following and in doing so, decipher it with confidence and flare, you are deemed useless. You’ve let your family down, your friends down and worst of all, you’ve let England down. You are a pitiful excuse for a linguist, now away with you.
Voices begin raging inside your head as you try to concentrate on what he’s saying, almost certain that the universe has chosen promiscuous pronouns, vile verbs and toxic tenses to form the bulk of the phrase, not to mention throwing in a cheeky imperfect subjunctive, nestled comfortably between false friends (frightfully fiendish, those false friends).
So what do I do? I hear you ask.
You, my friend, must do what every great linguist since time in memorial has done before you in a woeful situation such as this. You make that shit up.
Narrowing your eyes, you listen carefully to what he is saying, attempting a pensive expression as if your mind were meandering the forests of genius and wordreference.com…but the words tumble from his lips and land on the floor in a puddle of confusion. Was that even a word? And what was that? Chinese?!
Beneath your cool, reserved exterior, your interior, with clammy palms, fumbles for a sentence – any sentence – to pass off as a decent translation.
“I see, right…well, it sounds…um, where exactly were you when you heard this?” This looks like a blag…might as well milk it.
“Just outside of Naples,” he says. You continue to mentally scratch your head. The silence is growing, he’s on to you. Stall him.
“Ah, yes of course, it does sound rather…Neapolitan.” Oh, good work. His eyebrows rise slightly. He’s intrigued. Keep going.
“…yes, and I think the emphasis on that last expression could mean that…” Pause, but remain pensive. Calm, cool, a cucumber…
“…yes? What could it mean? Was it rude?!” The tension is building, the anticipation is killing him. Go for something scandalous. Make him want it.
“It sounds like, ‘I need somewhere to hide the body…'” Nailed it.
“What!?! Surely not, I mean…” He laughs nervously.
“Don’t look at me; I don’t know what you get up to on holiday! After all, what happens in Naples…” Turning the tables on him, nicely done!
“You aren’t seriously suggesting…” He looks incredulous now. Quick, separate yourself from the situation.
“Of course not, after all…I just speak the language”. OOOOOOOOHHHHH. Take that!
You see? Handled with flare, confidence and even a few idioms. Like a pro.
Your tutors would be so proud.