Language fluency sometimes feels like an exercise in chasing ever-moving goalposts. You may have mastered all the textbook vocabulary and can confidently order dinner, but then your new foreign friend tells a story peppered with slang words, and you’re lost again. In English, we’d think nothing of rattling off a quick story like this, “He wanted to hang out, and I wanted to bail. He kept tapping his fingers on the table, and it was driving me up the wall. After this, I’m giving him the cold shoulder.”
A non-native speaker might be puzzled by the above story. What exactly is “bailing” and was the storyteller really in possession of a car that could “drive up the wall”? And how exactly does one give another person a “cold shoulder”?
Of course, English is not the only language with slang phrases. Anyone seeking fluency in a foreign tongue would benefit from careful study of the current slang in addition to the nouns, verbs, and other grammatical structures that form the basis of most language education. Here are some common slang words to get you started.
When wandering the streets of Paris, you may hear someone exclaim “Oh, la vache!” Taken literally, this translates to “Oh, the cow!” But it’s unlikely there’s a cow plodding past the Eiffel Tower. The phrase is similar to saying “Holy cow!” in English, yet without the corny connotation. It’s often used by people of all ages.
Another French favorite is “mon petit chou,” which translates to either “my little cream puff” or “my little cabbage.” However, the phrase has nothing to do with food and is actually a term of affection. It’s similar to calling someone “sweetie” in English.
If you do something particularly head-scratching, a native German might say, “Nicht alle Tassen im Schrank haben.” It might seem bizarre for someone to randomly inquire whether all your cups are in your cabinet, but the meaning is very similar to English slang such as, “he doesn’t have all his marbles.” In short, hearing that phrase means that someone thinks you might be crazy.
Another German phrase that might give you pause is “Auf dicke Hose machen.” Someone is asking if you have fat pants, and you’re not sure whether to be offended or start a new diet. In reality, the phrase has nothing to do with weight and everything to do with money. The “fat pants” refers to the conspicuous bulge of a wallet, and the implication is that a person with such pants is showing off their money.
If an Italian friend shouts “Mi fa cagare,” the literal translation, “it makes me poop,” might be somewhat alarming. The expression, though, is simply a dramatic way of saying that a particular restaurant, object, experience, etc is displeasing. Your friend hated the movie? “Mi fa cagare!” The restaurant served a limp salad? “Mi fa cagare!”
In Florence in particular, you might try to pay for the check, only to hear your friend chide you, “Ma, che sei grullo?” Literally, this means, “How silly/stupid are you?” But don’t be hurt. The phrase is similar to asking someone in English if they are joking/kidding.
If you travel to Spain and a native smiles and says you are “majo,” it’s definitely a compliment. The literal meaning of “majo” is a popular Madrid neighborhood from the 18th and 19th centuries, but the name lives on as a synonym for “nice.”
When you return from Spain, be sure not to slip up and call your parents “los viejos,” which literally means, “the elderly.” Young Spaniards typically talk about their parents this way to their friends, in the same way that English speakers might refer to their parents as “my old man.”
Whatever your language of choice, be sure to study up on the slang. Most of life doesn’t follow a script, and knowledge of slang will allow you to experience the effortless, spontaneous communication that truly takes down walls between people and cultures.