I went to an Extra Virgin Olive Oil Master Class and had an o-lively time.

The event spontaneously popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. Half joking, half intrigued, I put myself down as “interested.” When a friend also expressed curiosity, we decided to book our tickets and give it a try.

All we knew was that it was an “extra virgin olive oil master class” led by Dr. Alfredo Marasciulo and hosted by ITMAW UK at Emmanuel College; canapés and wine were promised to follow. With the exception of these few details, our first impressions would be completely uninformed. We were immediately greeted with the sight of dozens of unlabelled miniature olive oil vials, ranging in colour from opaque jade and clear gold to almost black. We were also greeted by the sound of animated spoken Italian; all of the organisers were native speakers, as well as about half of the audience. Others were simply Italophiles. As an MML student, I considered my participation a part of my academic approfondimento, a word used in Italian schools that literally signifies “deepening” but is more similar to our concept of extra credit. A warm welcome was provided, and, of course, complimentary Prosecco.

Once the master class began—in true Italian fashion, at a languid tempo and
only after a convivial introduction—Dr. Marasciulo began to speak of the importance of extra virgin olive oil with authority and pride. Truly knowing what defines the quality of olive oil, he emphasised, was a skill that many pretend to have but do not actually possess. He even admitted to playing a plainclothes game in grocery stores, innocuously asking fellow shoppers for their advice on which olive oil to buy. Often they gave confident responses, without actually knowing what features made an olive oil so good. For example, unlike wine, the newer the olive oil—the more recently pressed—the better. In the first hour of the lecture, Marasciulo broke down the audience’s misconceptions of olive oil, discussing qualities such as acidity, grades, and pressing. We then moved onto the tasting portion of the class. We had expected to accompany our samples with bread; Marasciulo told us that the true hardcore way of tasting olive oil was in its pure form.

And, just like the importance of quality in extra virgin olive oil, this was no quick process. First, the sample cup had to be warmed up, which can be done most easily between the palms of one’s hands. Then we had to smell the olive oil: not a quick whiff, but rather a proper inhalation. Finally, to taste the olive oil, it had to be “aerated.” Aerating the olive oil is more or less equivalent to slurping it in through the teeth, an act which Marasciulo said may seem, “come si dice… maleducato?,” but nonetheless necessary for true degustation.

We sampled eight or nine shots of pure olive oil, and then – as a reward for our stamina – four more with bread. We tried everything from three-day-old presses to a 1997 lampante, an extra virgin olive oil unsuitable for consumption. We looked for notes of cut grass and for a slight burn in the throat, all signs of freshness and high quality. Marasciulo memorably described one slightly older, but high quality sample as “an old, but beautiful, mature lady.” Inevitably, as the class progressed the atmosphere became more and more relaxed. There was something comical and surreal about collectively slurping olive oil, to then nod emphatically in agreement that “this one had the aroma of a newly cut lawn.”

And yet here we were, exploring what was perhaps, along with wine, one of the most frequently associated images of Italian culture: freshly pressed olive oil as a ubiquitous and vital part of Italian food or, more broadly, the nation itself. As cliché as it may seem, the Italian synonymy with olive oil reflects a greater pride in the artistry and craftsmanship of national produce – an attention to detail that can be seen throughout in the Italian traditions of art, fashion, and food alike. From Florentine leather jackets to the meticulous technique of the Venetian school or, of course, a bottle of olive oil produced by a small grove in Puglia, Italian products have a longstanding tradition of precision and artisanal quality. Marasciulo’s emphatic remarks echoed this sense of national dignity, just as our seemingly amusing evaluations stemmed from a genuine respect and awe for the Italian qualità di vita.

When the session came to a close, we had become completely immersed in the jovial atmosphere of olive oil tasting, alternating between conversations and comments in Italian and English. It was an intense three hours of detailed information that I could not have previously imagined; lampante, for example, is a word I would have never thought to affiliate with the pungent musty scent of a clear, black and inedible oil. It was a Saturday afternoon well-spent: one that celebrated a shared experience of Italian culture and language, the kaleidoscopic range of olive oil samples, copious chilled white wine, and, of course, a passion to learn.

Original artwork by the author.

Cray-cray but totes legit: totes is like totes grammats. For reals.

You’ve probs heard totes being used by like, people, maybe you, which is like totes norms, but what you probs haven’t realised is that forming totes words uses your knowledge of English grammar. In fact, every time you create a totes word, several rules of grammar come into play. Though I happen to think this is totes amaze, mabes you’re like whatevs, grammar is like sooooo boring.

Well luckily, even though totes is grammatical there’s no grammar to learn here: you very likely already know these rules subconsciously even if you don’t use totes yourself, but like, mabes you haven’t consciously thought about the phonology of totes before lolz. And as you can see, it’s not just totes: probs, fairs, deece, ceebs, and for reals are just some of the members of this class of words which end in an S or a Z sound. The earliest word of this kind recorded in the OED is obvs, appearing in the 80s, and now these words are appearing all the time, impervious to widespread but useless opprobrium. Amaze.

probably → probs
fair → fairs
definitely → deffs
joking → jokes
for real → for reals
maybe → mabes
mebbe → mebs
whatever → whatevs
lol → lolz
sorry → soz
totally → totes
CBA (seebeeay) → ceebs
same → sames
possibly → poss
decent → deece
amazing → amaze
delicious → delish
awkward → awks
later → laters

How to totes (for the lolz)

  1. Take all the syllables in the word up to the syllable carrying the main stress, in bold.
  2. Make the coda (final consonants) of the stressed syllable as large as possible using the onset (initial consonants) of the following syllable, in italics.
  3. Add Z to the coda unless this makes an illegal (impossible) coda. If the coda ends with a voiceless sound (pronounced without the vocal folds vibrating) then the Z also becomes voiceless, changing to S.
  4. An adjective immediately after totes may well also undergo this process too lol.
  • In British English, Rs aren’t pronounced in codas, so we get soz, not sorz. On the other hand, why we get laters and not lates remains unclear (awks).

Lightbulb Moment

Lightbulb Moment
Compound nouns. In passing conversations on the German language there is no grammatical notion that causes more astonishment (read: polite interest) than the legends of single words spanning forty yards, rumoured to contain three different kinds of choking sound. Even here, in its vocabulary, German culture cannot escape the looming shadow of ‘efficiency’; it is somehow seen as unromantic to string words together so plainly, rather than providing each concept with an individual label that is supposedly concise, unique and autonomous (read: derived from Latin). In Lightbulb Moment, I explore the visual metaphors often employed in compound nouns across both German and English, in the hope of revealing the whimsy that is so often overlooked beneath the umlauts and consonant clusters.

Lost in Translation

A translation is often the only means we have of even standing a chance of understanding other people. Of course, by being able to read and understand this, you can sleep peacefully at night knowing that there are teachers, translators and interpreters out there who are being paid to adapt the world around them to you and the rest of the English-speaking population: we read literature in translation, we watch subtitled and dubbed films and TV shows. In many respects, we have become slaves to others’ interpretation of reality.

But this isn’t an attack on the existing English language bias, nor on the sense of complacency and reluctance of those who speak English when it comes to learning foreign languages. Even if you’re a polyglot turned YouTube sensation who can speak 20 languages, the chances are that, out of the 6000 or so languages that are spoken on our planet today, there will always be at least one (if not many more) that eludes you. So when the conventional, spoken language fails, as it inevitably does, we have to seek other ways of achieving mutual intelligibility between two cultures which don’t rely on verbal communication alone.

No film illustrates the struggle to overcome the language barrier in a more human way than Sofia Coppola’s 2003 comedy-drama, Lost in Translation. Bob and Charlotte, played by Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson, are at very different stages in their respective lives: the former is in a mid-life crisis shooting Whiskey commercials when he should be starring in feature films, while the latter is married and recently graduated from Harvard, but hasn’t a clue what to do next. Fate brings together the two strangers in the bar of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo one evening, and it only takes a glance for them to figure out that they are both as lost and far away from home as each other.

After bonding over their jet-lag and a shared sense of irony about the culture shock that they are experiencing, they begin to venture out into the open together and soon discover that a human connection is possible even in the absence of a common language: they end up in a Japanese friend’s flat singing karaoke after being chased away by an angry bar owner armed with a BB rifle. Several days later, while Bob is waiting for Charlotte to have an x-ray, he strikes up a conversation with an old Japanese lady who bursts into laughter when he tries to imitate her unintelligible words and gestures, to which Bob responds with a smile—a rare occurrence in the hour and 41 minutes that comprise the film.

It takes meeting someone who is experiencing the same level of alienation for both protagonists to see the brighter side of a lack of translation. Not only that, but Bob and Charlotte manage to connect with the people who form part of the foreign culture in the absence of a common language, proving that acceptance on a human level and mutual respect is more important than a heightened cultural awareness and knowledge of the language. Having lost themselves, they find themselves again by going beyond words, losing the translation in the process.

Living the Life of A Local

Crossing the road. I’d say that this is what separates the true Roman from the tourist. I’m sure there are many other ways to identify a local, but for me this is the best. It’s the steadily-maintained eye contact. The unhesitant first step out into the road. The way they own the zebra crossing.

Of course, holidaying with a local is about more than just being able to cross the road. It’s amazing how disinterested they can be about the widely celebrated tourist attractions; you can walk past numerous interesting, historical-looking buildings, ask them what they are and find out they never even realised they were there.

The Colosseum will probably barely feature on the radar of a Roman. It’s always been there, it always will be. Tourists come and go but the monuments stay and this is what makes visiting a friend abroad so interesting. Sure, you can take a thousand pictures outside the Pantheon, or spend hours savouring the view from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica, but you are unlikely to experience the ‘real’ Rome that way. Visiting a restaurant with red and white chequered tablecloths may be nice, but it doesn’t compare for one second to the smell of a home-cooked Italian meal diffusing through a home.

On a practical note, interacting with locals becomes much easier when you’re actually with one. Buying a street umbrella is suddenly several Euros cheaper, I’m sure your meals come quicker and your stay is instantaneously warmer and friendlier as a result. The danger of being ripped off (although still present) is minimised. And if, as happens to even the best MMLer, your language skills fail you, there is an instant back-up to avoid the mortifying return to English.

My favourite night in Rome by far was spent on the terrace of my friend’s apartment. His friends all came round, his mother cooked a fantastic array of snacks including onion pizza (much nicer than it sounds) and we saw the night turn into morning, drinking sangria and enjoying the one am warmth. Perhaps an experience that could have been had without a local contact – but it would have been a lot more difficult to come by!

So try to visit as many of your foreign friends as possible (if you haven’t tried to blag your way abroad already); you’re guaranteed to have a unique and, most likely, unforgettable trip.

I gave up on trying to order this ice-lolly in Portuguese!

I am standing at the till. I feel a bit like Eminem. My palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy (but don’t worry, on my sweater there’s no spaghetti). I have one shot, one opportunity to exchange a few words in Portuguese with a real life lisboeta:

“No, sorry, I don’t have any change”, “yes please, a bag would be great”. I open my mouth, but the words won’t come out. I’m choking, how!? Everybody, in the queue behind me, is joking now (while also getting very impatient). I stutter. But the clock’s run out, times up, over. The words that every language-learner abroad hates come tumbling out of the cashier’s mouth. “Don’t worry, I speak English”. Snap back to reality.

I have recently started watching a soap called Bem-vindo a Beirais to keep up my Portuguese. It’s about a man from Lisbon who moves to a village in the country to look after some greenhouses. As enthralling as that sounds, the main reason I watch it is so that I can pause and rewind the characters when I want, increase and decrease the volume when I want and, most importantly, the characters don’t stop and start speaking English when they discover how poor my Portuguese is. If only I could say the same for the locals I came across in Lisbon this summer. Practising your language abroad is a bit of a catch-22. You’re trying to improve by speaking with the locals but the locals, either to spare you the effort/embarrassment or because they can’t be bothered to deal with your feeble attempts at sounding authentic, find it easier to just launch into English. As I had daily classes at a language school during my week in Portugal, you might wonder why I didn’t practice with the other students. To get a general idea about the level of Portuguese amongst most of them, all you need to do is think back to GCSEs. Let’s just say that the only subjects we were able to approach comfortably were the weather and climate change. Not much of an Eco-warrior, I had little to say about both.

Returning home from my trip was bitter sweet as it made me wonder how helpful travelling really is for a language learner. But maybe that’s missing the point of the trip altogether. I came back with about the same level of Portuguese as I had when I left (although I had somehow mastered a fusion of Portuguese and Spanish known as portunhol, which was spoken by most of the students at the school). I did, however, manage to catch glimpse of how true lisboetas speak. I can pore over lists of vocabulary and verb conjugations to my heart’s content at home, but if I hadn’t gone to Lisbon, would I have known that “muito giro” is no longer the cool way of saying “cool” in Portugal? Or that in Brazil, these words would be met with utter incomprehension and condescension as they are simply not “legal”? You can imagine my confusion when my surfing instructor nicknamed me “bifana”, pork sandwich, before I knew that in Lisbon, it is slang for “fresh meat”. It’s much harder to lose yourself in a foreign culture than it might seem. So, if you get the rare chance to speak Portuguese in Portugal, you better never let it go.

Hitchiking to Morocco and reflections on Language Learning


I am convinced that the only way to truly become fluent in a language, for you to speak it (perhaps not always flawlessly) without hesitation, is to put yourself in a situation where you have to use it as opposed to merely studying when you feel like it. Nothing will force you to use a language quite like being stranded at a French petrol station in the middle of nowhere, knowing your only way out is to convince someone to give you a lift…

It’s no secret that at Cambridge, in MML the emphasis is placed on having a sound grasp of the written languages you are studying, knowing the ins and outs of its obscure grammatical features. (L’imparfait du Subjonctif in French anyone?) For our lecturers, this is more important than a solid grasp of colloquial usage. If your aim is to read medieval literature and philosophy, great! But not so great if you aim to actually speak the language fluently. Reading fluency and oral fluency are two separate phenomena. This is perhaps the biggest complaint I’ve heard (and made) to my peers studying MML at Cambridge; some have even said that their oral French/Spanish has gotten worse since coming here. But hey, that’s what the year abroad is for right?

I’m not bashing the fact that Cambridge is often more concerned with literary forms of language than the colloquial forms; I’ve just come to accept that gaining colloquial fluency has to be something extra-curricular. On a life changing two week trip hitch-hiking though France and Spain to reach Morocco, I came to appreciate what a gift speaking a second or third language fluently truly is.

In April 2012 myself and Leah Knight, both of us Language Freshers at Girton (me French and Arabic, her French and Spanish) and both eager to actually get some speaking practice in before our dreaded oral exams, decided to embark on the trip of a lifetime. We signed ourselves up for Link Community Development’s Charity Hitch-hike, and chose Morocco as our destination. The months flew by and before we knew it we’d raised our money, both through legitimate fund-raising and badgering friends and family, and were on a ferry bound for Le Harvre. Let the adventure begin!

Le Havre, our first sight of France
Le Havre, our first sight of France

Okay so we didn’t get off to the best start. Le Harvre was a wet and miserable place when we were there and we had to walk half a mile outside the city centre in the drizzling grey mist that enveloped the town in order to even stand a chance of getting a lift. To add insult to injury there were two other groups participating in the same event, both headed for Morocco. We had chatted with them on the ferry, and felt a quiet sense of smugness upon finding out that we were the only group that actually spoke the languages of the countries we would be hitching through. Upon arrival in Marrakesh we met up with one of the groups again, and their stories of how great it would have been to understand what was going on half the time confirmed to us what an ace we had up our sleeves being linguists.

However, when you’re standing outside a petrol station beside a busy road trying to thumb a ride, it doesn’t matter how good your French is, and the other two groups were picked up first. Demoralised and soaked, after a couple of hours we had begun to give up hope when a slightly bemused commuter stopped and offered to take us a few miles down the road. We came to realise that lifts like this weren’t always the best idea as we ended up stranded in an even worse location with even less passing traffic. But hey, we got our first lift and more importantly we had our first conversation in French. (maybe we could do this after all?)

Please stop!
Please stop!

As the day wore on we got better and better at hitching rides, and after having to reject an offer to stay the night in Nantes (too far off course to the west) we had somehow managed to make it all the way to the outskirts of Le Mans by mid-afternoon. This is where disaster struck. The next town on our planned route south from Le Mans was Tours (and putting Morocco on your sign probably wouldn’t get you very far) so upon arrival at Mans we got the biro out (note to self – bring permanent markers next time!) and scribbled ‘Tours’ on a shabby, damp piece of A4 Paper as legibly as we could manage.

Unfortunately for us, the Romanian lorry driver who would pick us up didn’t have the best knowledge of French Geography and thought we were lost tour guides! He was a lot of fun, blaring Romanian rap music and honking his horn whilst driving way too fast and showing us photos of his family, but unfortunately he was headed towards Paris, not south via Tours and before we had time to tell him and get out he’d turned on to the A11 towards Paris. He was such a nice guy, but unfortunately between his rudimentary English and our non-existent Romanian I don’t think we even managed to convey that we didn’t want to go to Paris but were heading south to Morocco; I think he just thought I liked drawing routes on maps. We managed to convince him to pull over at the next service station (which, thank god, had a bridge to the other side of the motorway for us to double back). He was sad to see us go – “in the you go? Ok 🙁 In the bye” – but going to Paris was sadly not an option.

Merde! On est où là?!
Merde! On est où là?!

So there we were, off course and disoriented, sitting in the French version of Welcome Break, sipping coffee and despairing about what to do next. Up until now, all the interaction had come to us. If someone stops to pick up a hitch-hiker, it’s usually out of curiosity or for company. They will more often than not be friendly and willing to talk to you. However, now it was a different kettle of fish. We were stranded and the only way to get out was to actually convince a French person to let two slightly soggy (although not yet smelly – it was only day one) English teenagers in the back of their car.

At first we were both reluctant to approach people, but we came to realise it was getting too late to be picky or shy and we plucked up the courage to talk to literally everyone who pulled up to refill their tank. Eventually, Leah managed to convince a reluctant woman from Le Mans to take us to the outskirts of her town. Persuading someone to give you a lift when you are stranded will certainly flex your language muscles a lot more than anything in French Grammar In Context, Third Edition ever could. She eventually warmed to us, after we assured her that her husband would not find out that she’d picked up autostoppeurs as she was adamant that he’d kill her if he found out!

Our 5 Star forest retreat
Our 5 Star forest retreat, just off the Motorway outside Le Mans

We camped by the side of the road that night (a tent is definitely a must for any hitch-hiker) and the next morning, after brushing off the light dusting of snow that had settled overnight (this was the year that spring got lost somewhere on the way, remember?) we parked ourselves by the side of the road, thumbs outstretched, smiling eagerly, patiently and hopefully waiting. Blanche DuBois was proved right, time and time again, you can always depend on the kindness of strangers.

Over the course of our 1800 mile adventure we were picked up by some amazing and diverse people, who we simply never would have interacted with otherwise. Single men, families, single women, ex-hitch-hikers and ex-gendarmes; teachers, builders and civil servants; we met them all, a complete cross-section of both French and Spanish society. We listened to their amazing stories, which I simply can’t do justice too in a short article like this one, all of which were in their native languages. That beats a 9am Use of class hands down! But after a while the fact that we were speaking another language almost became secondary; the important thing was that we were interacting with these people, sharing our stories with them and listening to theirs. For me, this is fluency. Fluency is not being able to conjugate obscure grammatical tenses that are barely in use today or being able to read centuries old literature. Fluency is being able to express yourself meaningfully and convey emotion – the basic goal of language – the basic goal of being a human being!

Backpacking in Bordeux
Backpacking in Bordeaux

The trip has solidified my philosophy on language. Language is about communication, about culture, and both these things are about meaningful interactions and shared experiences with other people. For me, languages are not about grammar and phonology, interesting though these areas may be to many. For me, being multilingual is such an amazing skill because of the interactions it enables you to have with others who have completely different life experiences and backgrounds. Languages are a means to an end. Taking part in the Hitch was one of the most rewarding and interesting things I have ever done, both in terms of my language ability and my own personal development. So what’s stopping you from going on the adventure of a lifetime?

Link Community Development is an amazing charity who does some great work in Sub Saharan Africa. This incredible event began back in 1992 as the Cambridge-Casablanca challenge, but, believe it or not, myself and Leah were the only group from Cambridge to participate in 2012. And she only heard about the Hitch from her sister at the ‘Other Place’, where it is actually a popular event, akin to Jailbreak (although Hitch-hiking is arguably more meaningful, rewarding and difficult than using your connections to get free plane tickets to Hawaii or Australia). This year me and Leah are determined to get the Hitch up and running again in Cambridge.

If this hasn’t convinced you, here are some photos of what awaits you in Morocco! (Where, let’s not forget, they also speak French… hint hint, nudge nudge)

If Morocco isn’t your cup of mint tea, or perhaps if you’re studying German/Italian then maybe Croatia is the destination for you? The Hitch is of course open to any University student  with a sense of adventure who can find a partner, and navigating the language barrier is certainly very fun at times (see the bit about Romanian lorry drivers), so if you don’t speak the language don’t let this put you off! I just want to stress what an amazing and rewarding opportunity this is for us linguists to actually use our language skills!

Sign up today! You won’t regret it!

Click here to find out more about LCD’s work.

Bref. Je suis étudiante de MML à Cambridge.

‘Bref’ (‘In short’) is a popular French TV show, in which an anonymous,
unemployed thirty-something recounts aspects of his life in humorous three
minute clips.

Bref. Je suis étudiante de MML à Cambridge.

La vie, c’est super—je regarde des films avec des sous-titres, je lis des livres osés, et des vacances à l’étranger sont fortement conseillées. Tout ça, c’est du travail.

J’ai un gros dictionnaire Oxford-Hachette sur mon étagère. Je ne l’ai jamais utilisé, mais je le garde pour montrer à mes amis que je suis sérieuse. Quand je tape ‘w’ sur mon ordi j’arrive tout de suite sur le site de wordreference.

Il n’y a qu’un garçon dans ma classe de grammaire. Pendant le cours j’imagine souvent des Français fascinés par le rare et bizarre spectacle des Anglais qui se parlent en français. Dans ma tête, je sais qu’ ils se marrent de nos ‘petits accents mignons’.

Une fois, j’ai pris un café de la machine au premier étage de la faculté. Plus jamais. Ensuite j’ai essayé de passer au bureau du Year Abroad. Il n’était pas ouvert. J’ai réessayé le lendemain. Et le jour d’après.

À la fin j’ai choisi ma destination grâce aux photos facebook de quelqu’un qui y était l’année précédente. C’était un bon choix.

J’ai oublié comment former le passé simple pendant mon année en France. Pourtant, j’ai bien appris comment former des monacos, des kirs royaux, des ptits punchs…

Quand j’étais en France, les gens me demandaient sans cesse pourquoi les Anglaises se mettent en mini jupe lorsqu’il fait hyper froid. Je répondais toujours que c’était qu’un gros cliché, en baissant la mienne.

Maintenant lorsque je surprends des touristes français à Cambridge, je souris. Surtout quand ils sont en train de râler du froid, des prix d’entrée ou de la bouffe.

Des fois quand je cherche la définition d’un mot assez dur en français, je tombe sur le même mot en anglais. Ça m’énerve.

Je ne sais pas quoi faire après la fac. Devenir espionne internationale, vedette multilingue ou voyageuse professionnelle me plairait beaucoup je pense.

Mais en fin de compte, il y a plein de choses que je kiffe ici. Mes amis, la ville, même les cours (au moins ceux qui ne sont pas à 9h). Je serai très triste de partir… même si la vie de polyglotte mondiale me paraît bien tentante.

Bref. Je suis étudiante de MML à Cambridge.