How to get laid (or say get lost) in Spanish or Swahili

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The new generation of phrasebooks gets out of the classroom and into sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, writes Rachelle Thackray

ONLY A few years ago, a shy English teenager could be excused for the whispered query: "Parlez-vous Anglais?" But linguistic ignorance in today's global village is no longer bliss. Enter a new generation of phrasebooks, designed to help fumbling young travellers keep up with the street slang of the world, which cover every eventuality from the best place to buy drugs to the most intimate exhortations.

The books are published by Lonely Planet, and their launch has coincided with the appointment of Trevor McDonald to head a Nuffield language inquiry into why British children - and adults - perform so badly at languages. Already, the brightly-coloured new phrasebooks (Italian, French, German, Latin American Spanish, Filipino, Swahili, Hindi and Urdu, and Central Asian tongues) have proved popular with both youngsters and their parents, anxious to help itchy-footed offspring avoid awkward entanglements.

Gone are the archaic French lesson chants; in their place come frank, up-to-date expressions which leave nothing to the imagination. The Italian vocabulary ranges from the technologically innocuous (such as "Is it OK to use my mobile phone here?"; "Posso usare il telefonino qui?" and "The automatic teller has swallowed my credit card"; "Il Bancomat ha trattenuto la mia carta di credito") to the positively raunchy.

The section labelled "naughty" Italian includes injunctions leading to: "Faster! slower! harder! softer!" ("piu veloce/lentamente/forte/dolcemente!"). Should you wish to invite a Frenchman back for coffee, the old chestnut "Chez toi ou chez moi?" (your place or mine?) is included, but if things go well there is a range of vocabulary to use: everything from getting laid ("s'envoyer en l'air") to getting lost ("degagez!"). Watch out for his replies: "Tu es canon" (you're hot stuff) may be more of a turn-on than the endearment "Mon petit puce" (my little flea). German vocabulary is even more passionate ("I'll always love you. I'll never forget you") although it is likely you'll need a better grasp of the language before launching into the suggested: "Will you marry me?"

Others in the series are more restrained. The Hindi and Urdu book, just published, offers a hand to struggling film crews ("Can we film here?; "zara ham yaha filming kar le?") but leaves amorous backpackers stranded, unless you happen to be gay: here, you could resort to "Are there many gay people in India?" and "Do you practise safe sex?" Otherwise, enter into the spirit of the East by reciting some of the book's proverbs: "To play a flute in front of a buffalo" roughly translates as "To throw pearls before swine", for example.

In Filipino, you are told how to inquire "Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?" and even "May I kiss you?", but unlike the European phrasebooks, there is no "Afterwards" section, simply a blushing, "We must do this again" ("sa ulitin"). Meanwhile, the Swahili phrasebook warns: "Public displays of affection between the sexes do not happen" and refuses to list anything beyond the rather tame "What do you do after work?" ("Unafanya nini baada ya kazi?"). After that, you're on your own.

Lonely Planet spokeswoman Jennifer Cox said: "We try and make sure people have phrases that are totally pertinent to that society. One of the problems is that we learn language at school, but we don't learn travel. The only travel you learnt was snogging boys while your teachers got drunk, or getting tipsy or having your first secret cigarette or fancying your ski instructor. Phrasebooks used to be very scholastic and formal, but when you travel, you realise language is rock and roll - our books are like that."

The new series is also frank in its vocabulary on drug-taking, politics and environmental issues, and political correctness. The Italian book lists suggestions for both soft drugs ("What would you say to an `e'?") and hard; you can even ask whether there is a methadone programme. And the Spanish edition brings original textbook examples up to date: "Speak up, I'm hard of hearing" is succeeded by the acerbic retort, "I might be in a wheelchair, but I'm not stupid."

As yet, other publishers have no plans to follow suit. Niki Smith, a spokeswoman for the Rough Guides phrasebook series, published by Penguin, said: "Our books do have some slang words, but they are more general and straightforward. They haven't really got any dialogue like that, as far as I am aware. I must say that is not the emphasis of the Rough Guides."

Elisabeth Smith, whose Teach Yourself Instants language series was recently published by Hodder and Stoughton, said phrasebooks could only be of limited use to a traveller who has no command of the language, because of the difficulty of reading and speaking simultaneously. "It's a bit like having the accessories to a beautiful dress, but not having the dress," she said.

Jennifer Cox admitted: "There's no way they are going to pass themselves off as locals. But we wanted to reflect what is current in a country and a culture, so that people going to Italy aren't just thinking about ruins - they are going to go thinking about coffee shops and about the whole social interaction. We want to give people the confidence to go out and feel good about travelling. Maybe not to ask for a snog, but the option is there."