Slip of the tongue Misunderstandings, confusion, frantic hand gesturing... a lighthearted look at language learning Mon, 04 Aug 2014 07:25:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Language jokes Fri, 04 Apr 2014 08:43:31 +0000 laughing


Q: How do you comfort a grammar nazi?
A: There, Their, They’re
A pregnant woman went into labour and began to yell, “Couldn’t! Wouldn’t! Shouldn’t! Didn’t! Can’t!”
She was having contractions.
Q: What is Grammar?
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Q: How do you comfort a grammar nazi?
A: There, Their, They’re

A pregnant woman went into labour and began to yell, “Couldn’t! Wouldn’t! Shouldn’t! Didn’t! Can’t!”
She was having contractions.

Q: What is Grammar?
A: The difference between knowing your shit, and knowing you’re shit.

The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.

A noun meets a verb at a bar. The verb sidles up to the noun and says, “Heeeeyyy, wanna go back to my place and conjugate?”  The noun replies, “I decline.”


A group of homophones wok inn two a bar.
Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
To who?
No, to WHOM.


“I’ve just had the most awful time,” said a boy to his friends. “First I got angina pectoris, then arteriosclerosis. Just as I was recovering, I got psoriasis. They gave me hypodermics, and to top it all, tonsillitis was followed by appendectomy.”
“Wow! How did you pull through?” sympathized his friends.
“I don’t know,” the boy replied. “Toughest spelling test I ever had.”


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The worst interpreter in the world! Tue, 04 Mar 2014 12:52:45 +0000 When you don’t speak a language, it’s difficult to hide it. Yet, comedienne Katherine Tate truly believes she can take up the role of an interpreter at the last minute.

Discover how a professional situation can turn very, very funny … Read more

When you don’t speak a language, it’s difficult to hide it. Yet, comedienne Katherine Tate truly believes she can take up the role of an interpreter at the last minute.

Discover how a professional situation can turn very, very funny due to a bad command of languages!

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The A to Z of language learning Sun, 19 Jan 2014 15:16:14 +0000 A is for… accent

The key to sounding good in a foreign language, a good accent comes with time and practice. Some people seem to have a natural aptitude for copying accents, while others will always sound “foreign”. There is … Read more

A is for… accent

The key to sounding good in a foreign language, a good accent comes with time and practice. Some people seem to have a natural aptitude for copying accents, while others will always sound “foreign”. There is no such thing as an “unaccented” version of a language, although some accents are perceived as more prestigious than others.

B is for… being Englished

That awful moment when you are trying to speak another language and the response comes back in English.

C is for… CEFR

The official European classifications for language levels, ranging from A1 (beginner) to C2 (proficiency). A useful marker for your progress.

D is for… declension

The inflection of nouns, pronouns, adjectives and articles to indicate number, case and gender. This is why “the” in German can be der, die, das, den or dem. English used to be full of declension, but it is relatively rare in the modern language, probably because of the strong influence of French after 1066 on the originally Germanic language (some of the harder parts of English were simplified as the two languages lived side by side in England).

E is for… errrrrrrrr

In the early stages of speaking a new language, this will be a major constituent of your sentences. As you improve, the volume of errrrrrrr (and its close relative ummmmm) will decrease, to be replaced by beautiful, flowing words.

F is for… flash card

Not glamorous like Flash Gordon or, errrrr, flashy like the Flash, these cards offer a tried-and-tested way to learn vocabulary. There are many different ways to make flash cards, or you can use a program like Anki to practise on a computer or phone.

G is for… grammar

Don’t be scared of it, because you cannot learn a language without learning its grammar. But you don’t have to learn grammatical terms to learn grammar, you have to learn the structures that hold a language together. If you can do it for one language, you can do it for another.

H is for… hand gesture

When you find yourself on the streets of a foreign country with limited language skills, it’s time to let your hands do the talking. But watch out: different hand gestures have different meanings around the world. For example, someone might make a v sign in Italy to ask for a cigarette, whereas in Britain the same gesture could easily be construed as a request to “go forth and multiply”.

I is for… immersion

When you don’t have any choice but to speak the language you are learning, you will make faster progress. Learning in immersion can be very challenging at first, but once you are past the basics, you will gain hugely from the experience. If you don’t put yourself in situations where you can speak English, you will not speak English.

J is for… job prospects

Foreign language skills are among the most desirable skills for employers. Speaking a foreign language makes you stand out from your competitors in the job market. Companies need language skills to take full advantage of globalisation.

K is for… keywords

All words are not created equal. Especially in the earlier stages of learning a language, you need to focus on the most common words, including the pronouns (I, you, we, etc), articles (the, a, an, etc) and common verbs (to go, be, do, make, etc). Once these are solid, you can move on to the more exciting stuff.

To put this in context, you could consider the linguistic concept of a lemma: the base form of a word. For example, does, doing and done are all examples of the one lemma do.

In English, just ten different lemmas (the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have and I) account for 25% of all the words used in the Oxford English Corpus. The 100 most common lemmas make up 50% of the corpus. This means that half of typical discourse is made up of the same 100 base words.

L is for… local media

The internet is absolutely brimming with resources for language learners and among the most interesting are local media. Reading newspapers in different languages gives you the chance not only to improve your vocabulary and comprehension skills, but also offers a different perspective on the news.

M is for… mistake

You can’t avoid them, so don’t feel bad about making them. But do your best to learn from them… if your mistakes go uncorrected during the early stages of learning a language, they are much harder to iron out later on.

N is for… “no entiendo”

If you are learning Spanish, you will both say and hear this phrase a lot. If you are learning German, it’s “Ich verstehe nicht”. In French, “Je ne comprends pas”. The less you say and hear it, the better you are doing!

See also “errrrrrrr

O is for… one to one lessons

Some people swear by one to one lessons as the fastest way to achieve fluency. If you are the kind of learner who eases off the gas during group classes, learning one to one with a teacher could be what you are looking for. It is an intense experience and the classes move at your pace. This means that the topic will not move on without you fully understanding it first. Hard work, but a great way to learn. The downside is that you miss the social aspects of learning a language in a group and one to one language teaching can be expensive.

P is for… plateau

One of the most maddening experiences when learning a language is reaching a plateau. This is the point at which new vocabulary is being turned away from your brain like a rowdy stag night in the queue for Berghain.

Plateaus are a normal part of any learning experience. Your brain can only take in and retain so much information at a time, and learning to speak a new language is a tough mental challenge. But you can do it!

Check out some tips for blasting through that plateau.

Q is for… questioning

Most languages are full of things that seem illogical. The simple truth is, in many cases, it doesn’t matter how a modern language came to be the way it is, all that matters is that you can work with the modern language.

For example, there are many reasons why English spelling is such a mess, but all a learner needs to know is that you can’t predict the pronunciation of a word from how it is written.

However, there are plenty of things that you should question, particularly when it comes to understanding grammar. Once you have the grammar, the words can follow.

R is for… romance

Is there a better way to learn a language than to fall in love with someone who speaks it?

Speaking languages is sexy, but if you can’t find someone to practise with over a romantic dinner, remember…

S is for… self-study

You can learn the grammar and vocabulary of a language from self-study. It’s all there in books, media and podcasts. But you will miss out on the experience of speaking and listening; one thing that only comes with practice is the experience of processing what someone is saying to you in real time and then responding. In other words, having a conversation.

The challenges of self-study are motivation and no error correction. Sometimes it is just easier to have an expert to ask.

T is for… travel

For many language learners, this is what it’s all about. When you speak another language, you will experience the countries and communities in which it is spoken completely differently than you would through the lens of English.

Travelling in Latin America, your experience will be transformed if you speak Spanish. You may be surprised at how many people cannot speak English. Even in Europe, where the majority of young adults now speak decent English, their response to you will be very different if you address them in their mother tongue.

U is for… umlaut

Much abused by heavy metal bands, umlauts, and their exotic cousins such as tildes and other accents, make other European languages look a little different to English. If you are a native English speaker, your brain may not process them automatically but ignore them at your peril as they tell you how to accurately pronounce words.

V is for… verbs (reflexive)

Another exotic structure you will find in many European languages is the reflexive verb. These are verbs that need a pronoun to make any sense. For example, in Spanish, divertirse (to have fun) and alegrarse (to become happy), or sich freuen (to be pleased) in German. The subject and the object are the same.

There are reflexive verbs in English too, but they are relatively rare. For example in English you can simply wash, whereas in Spanish or German you have to specify who or what you are washing.

W is for… wanderlust

A German word that has found its way into English, albeit with a slightly different meaning. Languages open doors and let you discover the world on your own terms. It may sound trite, but it’s true.

X is for… exams

If you are learning a language with your CV/résumé in mind, an official qualification is a good way to show the level you have achieved. You will also get a nice certificate to stick on your wall, should you choose.

Y is for… you

The only person who can make you achieve your language learning goals is you. There are many different paths to fluency and you have to find the one that fits with your personality, goals, strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t accept the old line that “some people are just bad at languages” – if you can speak one fluently, you can learn another.

Z is for… Zen

Surely the ideal state for learning a new language? Your mind is at ease, your chakra flowing and those new words are just pouring into your clear subconscious. Good luck!

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Profanity in entertainment: frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn Tue, 03 Dec 2013 09:41:18 +0000 When Rhett Butler finally told Scarlett O’Hara how he felt about her at the end of Gone with the Wind, it caused a sensation in the USA. The word “damn” had been prohibited by the 1930 Motion Picture Association’s … Read more

When Rhett Butler finally told Scarlett O’Hara how he felt about her at the end of Gone with the Wind, it caused a sensation in the USA. The word “damn” had been prohibited by the 1930 Motion Picture Association’s Production Code, drawn up as the country was in the grips of prohibition and a debate about moral standards.

Rhett Butler

Hollywood was seen as a particularly debauched place, the archetype of everything that was threatening America’s moral wellbeing*. Against this backdrop, Gone with the Wind caused a sensation when it was released in 1939, quickly becoming the most viewed movie of all time. And yet there, at the pivotal moment of the film, was the word “damn”.

Fast forward eighty five years and it is hard to imagine profanity in a movie causing any reaction at all. For example, when Quentin Tarantino’s films brought a new level of profanity to popular Hollywood filmmaking in the 1990s, any outrage at the language was far outweighed by critical praise (and a great deal of debate about the graphic violence).

Profanity has been a part of human communication for as long as we can track. The Romans, for example, had ten words that were considered taboo (and therefore used regularly): cunnus, futuo, mentula, verpa, landica, culus, pedico, caco, fello and irrumo.

Are we more likely to use profanity than our great grandparents at the same age? Probably not, but we are certainly exposed to more profanity in the media.

Profanity on TV

American television is much less tolerant than Hollywood of rude words. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates network television and has this to say on the matter:

“The FCC has defined profanity as “including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.” Like indecency, profane speech is prohibited on broadcast radio and television between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.”

As a result, movies are shown in edited, network-friendly forms. This can include some spectacular dubs, for example Samuel L Jackson in Snakes on a Plane. When this aired on network television, it included the memorable line:

“I’ve had it with these monkey-fighting snakes on this Monday-to-Friday plane! […] We’re about to open some freakin’ windows”

There are many more examples to be found on YouTube, including Scarface and The Big Lebowski (“that’s what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps!”).

Basic cable TV is not regulated by the FCC but there are still many restrictions on what can be shown. Although cable TV is self-regulating, the broadcasters are still very aware of their audience and especially aware of the advertisers who pay for placements during the shows. If the public or an advertiser considers a show offensive, it loses value. Conan O’Brian did a memorable skit where he met his censor, while an episode of South Park looks at swearing on American television (show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were surprised when the episode was broadcast uncensored – Matt Stone said “No one cares anymore… The standards are almost gone. No one gives a shit”).

If one channel has done more to bring profanity into American homes than any other, it is HBO. Being a premium cable channel, it is not regulated by the FCC and makes its money from viewer subscriptions as opposed to advertising.

Series such as The Sopranos and The Wire pushed television in a new creative direction. They also featured a tremendous amount of profanity, reflecting life in New Jersey’s mob and Baltimore’s police department and housing projects.

Holy or arseholey?

In the west, swearwords usually fall into three categories: religious, sexual or bodily functions (the second two overlap). Historically, there were plenty of religious swearwords in English, but as the church became less of an influence in British life, the English vocabulary of rude words became almost exclusively bodily.

Yet the words that we use to describe profanity give a clue to the religious history of the concept of swearing, including “profanity”, “curses”, and “swearing” itself; the term “profane” originates from classical Latin “profanus”, literally “before (outside) the temple”.

Check out the Viz Profanisaurus or Urban Dictionary for the cutting edge of English-language offensiveness.

In some other European languages, religious swearwords remain among the most offensive.

From here to profanity

Some studies suggest that roughly 80–90 spoken words each day – 0.5% to 0.7% of all words – are swearwords. But people swear differently. For example, women have been shown to prefer more prestigious forms of language than men. In social situations, men can enter a kind of “race to the bottom” where language becomes ruder and ruder; observe a group of men during an evening of televised sports for ample evidence. That is not to suggest that women don’t use rude words – of course they do – but typically less often than men.

Rude words offend, shock and upset. That’s what they are there for. But did you know they can also increase pain tolerance in certain circumstances?

*Other things outlawed by the Motion Picture Association’s Production Code included portrayal of any licentious or suggestive nudity (in fact or in silhouette), ridicule of the clergy and sex relationships between the white and black races. “Excessive or lustful kissing” was on the “be careful” list!

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Change in the English language: some interesting Google N-Grams Mon, 18 Nov 2013 09:12:31 +0000 One of Google’s lesser-known but more influential programmes is Google Books. Started quietly in 2002, the operation aims to digitise all of the world’s books. Many authors, illustrators and libraries have mixed feelings about what this means for copyrighted material, … Read more

One of Google’s lesser-known but more influential programmes is Google Books. Started quietly in 2002, the operation aims to digitise all of the world’s books. Many authors, illustrators and libraries have mixed feelings about what this means for copyrighted material, but the project is continuing rapidly all over the world.

In typical Google fashion, the data gleaned from scanning over 30 million books has been made available through various online search features; if you are interested in the development of a language, the N-Gram viewer offers some fascinating insights.

N-Grams track the frequency of certain words or combinations of words over time. The results can be interesting!

“With who” vs. “With whom”

Grammarians and pedants will gladly tell you that only one of these combinations can be grammatically correct, but look at that blue line creeping up since 1980.

who or whom

It is also interesting to note the significant decline in the use of “with whom”. Perhaps writers have been avoiding the structure to keep their work sounding modern, without being ready to break grammar rules by using “with who”.

Thou, thee, you

Thou and thee actually fell out of common usage before 1800, but declined to negligible figures after the Second World War.

thou thee tharr

You, on the other hand, has been booming since the 1950s. What could be the cause of this? Perhaps the influence of advertising and self-help books, both of which like to address readers directly. With the near total loss of thou and thee, you would also replace all instances of these words in published text.

Rude words

This one speaks for itself:

rude words


The English-speaking world is certainly paying more attention to Brazil, Russia, India and China than in centuries gone by. The large peak in mentions of India comes in the years after it gained independence from Britain and became a model for decolonialisation.


Russia’s figures for the 20th century are probably somewhat affected by the use of USSR or Soviet Union for decades. Check out the peaks in interest after the Bolshevik revolution and during the Second World War.

“He is gone to” vs. “He has gone to”

This one shows a development in the English language. Much like in modern French and German, it used to be standard in English to “be” gone as opposed to “have” gone.

Is gone to, has gone to

It was important include “to” in the search terms to avoid phrases like “he has gone mad” or “he is gone” and out of my life.

Have a go with Google’s N-Grams for yourself and leave a comment here if you find anything interesting!

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48 hours in Berlin Fri, 01 Nov 2013 18:48:35 +0000 According to legend, Berlin’s residents take pride in being blunt to the point of grumpiness. The phenomenon even has a name: The Berliner Schnauze (“Berliner snout”).

Are the Berliners hard done by? Or is the reputation deserved?

Either way, Berlin … Read more

According to legend, Berlin’s residents take pride in being blunt to the point of grumpiness. The phenomenon even has a name: The Berliner Schnauze (“Berliner snout”).

Are the Berliners hard done by? Or is the reputation deserved?

Either way, Berlin is rapidly becoming one of Europe’s top destination cities, so Slip of the Tongue spent a weekend in the city to check it out.

I heart Berlin

Would 48 hours be long enough to sample a city famous for parties that last longer than that?

Friday 14:00 – Alexanderplatz

First impression of Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof after arriving by train: the terminal could have been designed by M.C. Escher (it later became clear that this is standard for larger Berlin stations). Going from deep underground to elevated platforms, it’s a monster. Still, the train was comfortable and on-time, so no complaints there. My local guide Max threads us through the station like a nimble seamstress and we are soon on our way out into the city.

Mobile Hotdog Men

“I really don’t get why tourists come to Alexanderplatz” says Max, and he might have a point. Apart from the guys walking around with hot-dog making equipment strapped to their backs, there is little to commend a square looks like a slice of particularly drab 1960s communist public planning. Which is, of course, exactly what Alexanderplatz is. The enormous Fernsehturm (TV tower) dominates the skyline and is the Berliners’ favoured navigation point.


We promptly leave the square and take a stroll through some of Berlin’s famous sights, including the Brandenburger Tor and nearby holocaust memorial.  There are cranes and enormous building sites everywhere. You cannot turn a corner in the city centre without bumping into one.

Most of the building sites are also accompanied by pink tubes coming out of the ground, apparently to remove excess water. They give parts of the city a certain screensaver aesthetic.

Friday 16:00 – Relaxing by the Spree

Now this is more like it. In the railway arches along the banks of the River Spree, we settle down for a couple of those famous German beers in the sunshine. On the opposite bank, the giant Pergamon Museum looms over the river.

The cafe is called Ampelmann ( and is named after the charismatic little man who appears on East Germany’s pedestrian traffic lights.

He is the ampelmann, I am the walrus

Outside, the Berliners are taking it easy in the autumn sunshine, and the sound of deep house music spills out over the terrace. All of which is very nice indeed, but starting an evening out in Berlin at 4pm cannot be a good idea, considering the fearsome reputation of the local nightclubs. So, on with the historical stuff.

Friday 18:00 – Bernauer Straße wall memorial

Bernauer Strasse Death Strip

The Berlin Wall memorial is chilling. A section of the wall and its “death strip” have been left standing, alongside a park dedicated to the people who died trying to cross into the West. In the nearby U-Bahn station there is a permanent exhibition showing how the network was divided during the Cold War and how people tried to escape through the underground train tunnels.

It really brings home how recently Berlin was unified.

Friday 19:00 – Prenzlauer Berg

If Berlin is a city fighting against gentrification, the battle has been well and truly lost in Prenzlauer Berg. The punks’ loss is the visitors’ gain as the wide streets are brimming with activity in the evening. Dinner on Kastanienallee is not especially cheap, but the food is excellent and the atmosphere is gemütlich.

Gemütlichkeit, however, isn’t the ideal preparation for a trip to the nightclub Berghain, which is our goal for the evening. So we head eastwards to Friedrichshain.

Friday 20:00 – Friedrichshain

Arriving by S-Bahn in Friedrichshain, it is clear that this was, until recently, on the “less architecturally pleasing” side of the Iron Curtain. But the ugly old buildings are being given a new lease of life by local artists and the street art is truly impressive.

Broken Fingaz

There is really something in the air in Friedrichshain. After dropping off luggage at the rather nice (and very affordable) PLUS hostel which will be home for the weekend, the short walk to the grid of bars, cafes and restaurants north of Revaler Straße takes us past 3 different sets of street musicians that were worth listening to. One was a trombonist who was sampling and looping himself, which was particularly impressive.

Friedrichshein photoautomaten

The area is really vibrant, with bars, shops and restaurants spilling out (in an orderly fashion) onto the pavement, although the coolest kids appear to be drinking on the street outside an off-license. Deep house music is everywhere.

Saturday 02:30 – Berghain

Berghain ( is probably Berlin’s most famous nightclub. Its “dark rooms” where anything goes are legendary, as are the capricious door staff. A no-camera policy only adds to the mystique. Located in an abandoned power station, this is the refined essence of techno clubbing.

Despite its size, finding Berghain proves surprisingly challenging. After walking for at least half an hour through Friedrichshain and an apparently abandoned industrial estate, asking at least five different people how to get to the club, gradually the dull thud of a distant drum machine starts to resonate in the night air.

The listing for the evening said electro-funk. Electro-funk in Berlin should sound something like “Kompakt meets Afrika Bambaataa, with a hint of Donna Summer”, right?

When we get to the door, there is no queue at all, which is rarely a good sign for a nightclub. Still, this is Berghain, so in we go. Another pair had turned up half a minute before us and been stopped by the bouncers, apparently just because they could.

So, how was it? Pretty dull, to be honest. The sound system was only half on, the Panorama Bar was shut and the electro-funk was being poorly mixed by men in balaclavas standing behind Apple Macs. How could this be? A local couple broke the sad news: Saturday is the night to go to Berghain, when the party starts at midnight and goes on until Monday lunchtime.

Oh well, the kebab stand outside does a great falafel, so the trip is not entirely wasted.

Saturday 05:00 – Matrix, Friedrichshain

Before arriving back at the hostel, that familiar nightclub thump appears again. We are pulled off course and ready to reimmerse in the darkness. Sadly, as we approach the busy Matrix nightclub (, that sound turns out to be a Bruno Mars song, so we reverse 180° and call it a night.

Saturday 15:00 – Berlin Underworld Tour, Gesundbrunnen

After a currywurst to reinvigorate the senses, next stop is a half-destroyed Second World War flak tower. Berlin Underworld Tours ( have been running for the last decade and offer a fascinating glimpse into the city’s past. Particularly the dark and dank parts of it.

Underworld tour

The tours are offered in a variety of languages and our particular trip goes through a monstrous fortress built by the Nazis to protect Berlin from Allied air raids. The walls are made of 3.5m thick concrete and have survived various attempted demolitions. Our guide is extremely knowledgeable and we come out feeling enriched.

On the side of the tower, which is now half-buried by a park, local climbers ascend the graffiti-covered walls, while an impromptu drum and bass party is in full swing on the top.

Saturday 20:00 – Braufest Berlin, Friedrichshain

Berlin Braufest

After seeing giant beer bikes rolling around the city centre all weekend, it’s time to enjoy brews from smaller breweries across Germany and beyond. The beers have wonderful names like Holy Shit Ale, Szechuan Saison and Wedding Pale Ale, but our favourites are the Schneider Weißbiers. Weizen is really a Bavarian thing, but it tastes fantastic in the open air.

The event takes place at the RAW-Gelände, a public arts and events space in Friedrichshein that is beautifully decorated with graffiti.

Sunday 01:00 – Salon zur Wilden Renate, Friedrichshain

Now THIS is a nightclub. A long walk past the corporate HQs of some multinationals takes us to an unassuming doorway on a street corner near the Treptow Harbour. After paying the €10 entry, we find ourselves in a courtyard with an open-air bar, eclectic decoration and a boat suspended in the middle of it all. Inside, the club is a maze of corridors, small dance floors, bars and bizarre rooms to be used or abused as patrons wish. There is even an occasional bed dotted around the club.


As the night goes on, new rooms and corridors open and the party spreads like the tentacles of a horny octopus through the old building. The crowd is very cool and international; we chat with people from Spain, France, Slovenia, Britain and Berlin and the conversations regularly change language. More people confirm that Berghain is usually excellent, so it appears we were just unlucky.

A few people complain that their friends had been turned away on the door at Renate, which seems to be a theme in Berlin’s nightlife. Is this a good thing or not? Throughout the weekend, the bouncers were barely present inside the clubs, and the atmosphere in Renate was excellent; perhaps a selective door policy contributed to that. Speaking German certainly appears to help when dealing with bouncers.

Anyway, the music is first-class, ranging from the ubiquitous deep house to dub, via an excellent room of (proper) electro-funk where the chequered dance floor has almost been ground into non-existence by dancers having a great time. When we leave at 7am, the crowd have migrated into the smallest room of the club, where the soundtrack could have come from a Tarantino movie. But the party is still going. Wild indeed.

We later found out that there is an actual maze, decorated by local artists, underneath the club.

Sunday 11:00 – East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

The longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall captures the excitement in the air in 1990. Artists from all over the world were invited to decorate 1.5km of the wall along the Spree. Many of the paintings are now covered in graffiti, but lose none of their impact.

A leisurely stroll along the gallery takes a good 30 minutes and is well worth it.

Sunday 12:00 – Mauerpark Flea Market

…or at least that was the plan. Famous for its bearpit karaoke and diverse stalls, Mauerpark is supposed to be one of the best open-air markets in Europe. But leaving nightclubs at 7am is not conducive to afternoons of shopping and singing.

So, instead, let’s reflect on the beauty of the döner kebab, something that definitely goes well with a hangover. Berlin is the home of the döner and the greasy treat is more popular than ever. See evidence below.


Apparently the döners in Berlin are the best in the world. All I can tell you is that the combination of salt, fat and protein is like a greasy elixir for a sore head.

Sunday 14:00 – homeward bound

So, is 48 hours long enough to get to grips with Berlin?

No way! All it does is leaves you wanting more. There was something very exciting in the air, a mix of youth and creativity.

Parties at Berghain last almost 48 hours. Edgar Reitz’s film Heimat lasts 53 hours. Who knows how long it would take to walk around the gigantic Pergamon museum? This is a city that deserves your attention.

It was really affordable too, with a bed in a hostel costing €15 per night, a beer costing around €3 and public transport costing around €2.20 per journey (which means a ticket valid for 120 minutes).

In short, highly recommended. And not a snout in sight. Except possibly in the döners.

Thanks to Epochend for the additional photos

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Five iconic Latin American cocktails Mon, 07 Oct 2013 10:18:38 +0000 One of the great pleasures of travelling is immersing yourself in local culture; trying local food and drink is an essential part of this. In Latin America, that includes the local cocktails.

If you find yourself in a strange land, … Read more

One of the great pleasures of travelling is immersing yourself in local culture; trying local food and drink is an essential part of this. In Latin America, that includes the local cocktails.

If you find yourself in a strange land, surrounded by strange people drinking odd looking drinks, just ask yourself “what would Ernest Hemingway do?”

Fernet con coca – Argentina

Photo: Kenn Wilson

Your first taste of fernet is usually accompanied by a grimace. The next sensation is disbelief – how come everyone here is drinking this stuff?

But your next glass will taste better – the herbal flavours will start to come through. After a while, you will find yourself ordering the stuff out of choice. And when you leave Argentina, you will miss it!

This is not a spirit for the faint-hearted. The dark, bitter herbal liquor is often mixed with cola to make Fernet con Coca, a dark, frothy and evil cocktail that is allegedly very healthy.

From young to old, Argentines love fernet. There is even a song dedicated to it.

Pisco Sour – Peru

Photo: Jorge Pérez

The basic formula for the Pisco Sour is 3 parts pisco to 1 part simple syrup and 1 part lime juice, mixed with egg white, and sprinkled with Angostura bitters. It’s a unique flavour and one that you have to try in its native environment. But Peru is not the only country where the Pisco Sour is popular; neighbouring Chile also has a version (without the egg white and bitters).

Peru’s cuisine is some of the finest anywhere in the world and a good pisco sour will help you recover after gorging!

Mojito – Cuba

Photo: janthepea

Many bar staff secretly hate making mojitos, especially on busy evenings where the huddle around the bar is five deep. At home in Cuba, however, the drink makes sense: there is no hurry and things take time to do right.

The iconic mix of lime juice, mint, sugar, soda water and plenty of white rum is now a familiar taste all over the world. Various stories exist about the origins of the mojito, ranging from slaves drinking a variant on plantations to British sailors drinking it to keep scurvy away.

Cola de mono – Chile

Image via

Consumed by adults around Christmas, the cola de mono (“monkey’s tail”) is a smooth, sweet Chilean cocktail containing aguardiente, milk, sugar, coffee, and cloves. According to legend, it is named after former Chilean president Pedro Montt, known as Mono Montt (“Monkey Montt”) by his friends. Depending on whom you believe, the name either came from a defeated political opponent who owned an ice cream parlour and drowned his sorrows with the soothing blend, or from an event when the president was persuaded to stay at a party by the delicious cocktail.

Caipirinha – Brazil

Photo: adrivdm

Brazil’s national drink is a mix of cachaça, sugar and lime, served with plenty of ice for those hot evenings. It tastes similar to a condensed, sweetened mojito and has become famous worldwide in recent years. Why? Because it is a taste of distilled sunshine and samba.

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The politics of language in the USA Wed, 02 Oct 2013 07:52:34 +0000

Photo: Kristopha Hohn

Here’s a question for you: what’s the official language of the USA?

If you said English, you are wrong.

There is no official national language in the US, despite various attempts to give English that status over … Read more


Photo: Kristopha Hohn

Here’s a question for you: what’s the official language of the USA?

If you said English, you are wrong.

There is no official national language in the US, despite various attempts to give English that status over the centuries. As a result, many individual states have introduced their own local laws. This has not been without problems. For example a 1998 “English Only” law introduced in Alaska was ruled unconstitutional and had to be amended due to the Native American languages that live alongside English in the state.

There are occasional outbreaks of concern in the USA about English losing its primacy among the hundreds of languages that are spoken there. Looking at the figures, perhaps this is understandable. In the 2007 US census, around 55 million of the 280 million responders spoke a language other than English at home. That’s just under 20% of the population. Of these, around two thirds spoke Spanish at home.

That gives the USA the world’s fifth largest Spanish-speaking population.

But it also has the world’s largest English-speaking population, and English speakers hold the positions of influence. If you want to get ahead in the USA, you must speak English.

The fear that a large number of non-English speaking new arrivals will somehow undermine English is logical, but the facts suggest that less than 5% of new starters in US schools struggle with English, and that figure rapidly reduces as students learn in English.

Not the first time

The current fear of Spanish taking over in parts of the USA has historical precedents. For a long time, German speakers were the largest linguistic minority in the country. It was a German-language paper, Der Pennsylvanische Staatsbote that was the first to report the American Declaration of Independence, and it did so in German translation. English speakers got a version the next day.

German was relatively common in parts of the USA until World War I, when campaigns were started to remove German language books from public libraries. After the war, German was stigmatised and never returned to its previous status.

When the USA acquired the French-speaking populations of Louisiana and the Spanish speakers in New Mexico and California, they soon lost access to French and Spanish language education.

There are a couple of interesting articles on the Economist’s excellent Johnson blog about “making them speak English” and whether the immigrant groups really threaten English-speaking America.

But just because English is the dominant language in the USA, and certain people want to make it the de jure official language, doesn’t mean that politicians are above using foreign languages to appeal to voters. Remember George W Bush speaking Spanish?

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Five movies that will make you pack your backpack and go Fri, 20 Sep 2013 07:26:42 +0000 You’re surfing the web, saying “should I or shouldn’t I?” Stop procrastinating: if there is one thing in the world that will make you a more interesting, more rounded and happier person, it is travel. Book that ticket!

Sure, you … Read more

You’re surfing the web, saying “should I or shouldn’t I?” Stop procrastinating: if there is one thing in the world that will make you a more interesting, more rounded and happier person, it is travel. Book that ticket!

Sure, you can watch the world’s best football on the TV, but there is no experience on earth like catching a live match in Buenos Aires or Rio, crammed in with the fans as they charge to celebrate a goal. Watching the sun come up on the beach with people you only met days earlier is something you will never forget. And all the different flavours, rhythms, languages, sensations, customs…

With this in mind, here are five movies that will help put your wheels in motion:

The Beach

Alex Garland’s cult novel was an obvious choice to make into a movie and Danny Boyle did an excellent job of doing just that. 20-something traveller Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in Bangkok looking for adventure. It soon finds him, when another guest commits suicide in the hostel, leaving behind a map with the route to a mythical beach. This is the start of Richard’s real journey. The sumptuous Thai beaches are enough to make you pack that backpack!

On the Road

Jack Kerouac’s novel is a classic of American literature. The story is based on the author’s own travels across North America in the late 1940s. The narrator, Sal Paradise, and his wild new friend Dean Moriarty make their way across the states and to Mexico, wreaking all kinds of havoc along the way.  The 2012 movie adaption received largely negative reviews, but perhaps you could use it like the pickled ginger served with sushi – something to clear your mental palate before you get back on track with…

The motorcycle diaries

This is the big screen adaptation of the diary Che Guevara kept during his travels around Latin America. The landscapes are spectacular and the film really captures the spirit of adventure that took the young Argentinean medical student around the continent. It was during this journey that Che started to form the opinions about social justice that took him to Cuba alongside Fidel Castro.

L’Auberge Espagnole

Essential viewing before any Erasmus or exchange programme. L’Auberge Espagnole tells the story of Xavier, an uptight French student, who moves into an apartment in Barcelona with six characters from all over Europe. There are stereotypes galore, and adventures that lead to some serious personal development.

Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love… something recent by Woody Allen

In recent years, Woody Allen’s movies have moved away from New York and visited some of the world’s sexiest cities. This arguably started with Match Point, set in London, and has now taken in many parts of Europe. Midnight in Paris takes you back to the 1920s, when great (American) artists and writers called the French capital home, Vicky Christina Barcelona is a four-way love story set in Spain, To Rome with Love is the story of an American tourist falling in love with a handsome Roman.

And, whatever you do, don’t watch… Hostel

Hey, look, an Eastern European hostel full of really good-looking people, what could possibly go wrong?

Taken, starring Liam Neeson, comes a close second. But you should definitely watch that, because it’s brilliant.

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A weekend in Vienna’s coffee houses (Wiener Kaffeehäuser) Wed, 04 Sep 2013 08:47:50 +0000 A weekend in Amsterdam’s coffee shops is a tourist cliché. Turn up, shell out, skin up.

Wanna go and see the Van Gogh museum? Nah, I’m comfy here and the hot chocolate is lovely.

Time spent in Vienna’s coffee houses, … Read more

A weekend in Amsterdam’s coffee shops is a tourist cliché. Turn up, shell out, skin up.

Wanna go and see the Van Gogh museum? Nah, I’m comfy here and the hot chocolate is lovely.

Time spent in Vienna’s coffee houses, on the other hand, will leave you full of energy. A sunny summer weekend offered Slip of the Tongue a chance to get a heavily caffeinated taste of Viennese café culture.

Einspanner at Cafe Landtmann
Einspanner Coffee at Café Landtmann

The tradition in these establishments (known as Kaffeehäuser – coffee houses) is to buy a cup of coffee, find a comfy corner and then sit for hours reading the newspaper, writing your novel or planning the revolution, while the waiters leave you to it, occasionally topping up your water. Modern Vienna is a hip, innovative city, but this is one treasure that has been gladly passed down through the generations.

Saturday 09:00

First impressions of Vienna: what an impressive city. When the Hapsburgs built something, they built it on a scale fit for an empire. A couple of centuries later, Vienna is the capital of a small but charming European country, and supposedly one of the world’s best cities to live in.

First stop is the Café Frauenhuber (Himmelpfortgasse 6) which claims to be the oldest coffee house in the city (legend has it both Mozart and Beethoven tickled the ivories in the building, although before it became a café). Some of the waiters look like they have been there since the early days.

Cafe Frauenhueber Breakfast

Breakfast at Café Frauenhuber is very traditional. You can order from an a la carte menu or there are some set breakfasts. Following the advice of my local expert, we combine the two, ordering a standard Austrian breakfast with rolls, jams and pâté, with an extra plate of meats and cheeses. The outside tables are small, so the waiter brings extra tables to load up with jams, cheeses, meats, eggs and so on. Tasty stuff.

The coffee drinking begins with a mélange – something like a cappuccino, with half espresso and half hot, frothy milk. It goes down very smoothly and I am ready to face the city.

Saturday 11:45

sacher vienna
Café Sacher waitresses at work

Walk past the Café Sacher – intimidated by the price of the Sachertorte in the window. Keep walking.

Saturday 12:00

Time for another coffee, this time at the Café Landtmann. My local guide says that this has become a tourist destination as opposed to an authentic Viennese café, but if it was good enough for Sigmund Freud…

cafe landtmann vienna

Because the weather is fine, the terrace is heaving. Most of the customers are, indeed, tourists.  But deep inside, in the gloomiest corners, there are the old guys, reading the newspaper and nursing empty coffee cups. Some of them might have actually been there when Freud would sit in his corner, thinking inappropriate thoughts about his mother.


The cakes were particularly tempting. “Kaffee und Kuchen” is one Austrian tradition it is easy to love.

cafe landtmann vienna

At this point, it is appropriate to mention some of the different varieties of coffee available in Vienna.

Kleiner Schwarzer – small espresso

Mokka/Brauner – espresso with cream

Melange – can’t tell the difference between this and a cappuccino

Franziskaner – a melange with cream instead of milk

Verlängerter – stretched espresso, ie. a normal coffee

They always arrive with a little glass of water to refresh the palate.

Saturday 15:00

Next stop is Café Hawelka (Dorotheergasse 6). Another classic Viennese coffee house, this was the hangout of Vienna’s literary and artistic avant garde in the 1950s. Local legends like Friedensreich Hundertwasser (famous for the Hundertwasserhaus), Ernst Fuchs, Rudolf Hausner were joined by international visitors including Arthur Miller and Andy Warhol.

cafe hawelka vienna
Café Hawelka

It’s dark, but not especially dank in the Hawelka. There’s also a nice terrace where you can claim a corner and watch people go by for hours. According to UNESCO, Viennese Coffee House Culture is “Intangible Cultural Heritage”. The Viennese coffee house is described as a place “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill.”

The waiters so far have all been cut from the same cloth: they are curt and a little rude but in a nice way, if that makes sense. They occupy a unique place in Viennese heritage and many of them have apparently been working in the same cafes for decades.

My heart is a little livelier than usual after coffee number three, so this seems like a good time to sit down for a while and read the paper. They are clamped together for some reason, perhaps it helps to stabilize the paper in shaky caffeinated hands.

Saturday 20:00

In the early evening, as the sun goes down, the Museumsquartier is where the action happens. Young people flock to the wide, sunny central square to drink, people-watch and flirt. The weather is warm so the square is busy from the early evening until late.

Museumsquartier, Vienna
Museumsquartier at night

After a confusing moment ordering bitter chocolate ice cream in German (“Bitter bitte”), I take a seat and observe proceedings.

The square looks like the Southern European cities where students stay out on the streets until the early hours, but the Viennese version is strangely devoid of physical contact and hand gesturing.

Sunday 03:00

Cannot sleep. That last verlängerter was a mistake.

Sunday 10:00

I now actually really need a coffee. Huebler (Lorenz Bayer Platz 19) is a new kid on the block that has been recommended by my local guide. It was founded in 1955.

cafe huebler vienna
Hübler Kaffee Konditorei

This café is a tram ride away from the city centre, close to the Ottakringer brewery. It’s best known for its cakes, but this is also a prime place to sit down for breakfast. The sun is shining so the terrace calls.

Breakfast is almost identical to yesterday (the Austrians know what they like), the coffee is good and I am now ready for a full-on day in Vienna.

Sunday 11:00

Oh yes, everything is closed in Austria on Sundays.

Sunday 11:30

Well, not quite everything. The excellent museums are open. The Leopoldmuseum has a permanent collection of work by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, which really gives you a feel for the city that Vienna was 100 years ago: one of the world’s most important artistic and intellectual centres.

Sunday 14:00

oktogon am himmel, Vienna

Now in need of some sunshine after spending most of a sunny weekend in dark coffee houses, the final stop is Oktagon Am Himmel, which is an octagonal restaurant a little way out of town to the north, where you can enjoy a panoramic view of the city. The fresh air helps. The fresh air is good.  I vow not to drink coffee again this week. But this was a thoroughly enjoyable, caffeine-fuelled weekend in Austria’s capital.

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