Language instruction fun

In my “Language shards” posting, I looked at some entertaining examples from language teaching materials — entertaining because of the absurdity (“Just you dare, zebra!”) or poetry (“The wind has come, bearing with it the scent of amber”) in them. This is a rich vein of material.

Leaving for the moment the world of material designed to be genuinely instructive (presenting some grammatical or phonetic challenge), let’s visit the world of absurd phrasebooks. The English-language monument is this world is surely English as She Is Spoke:

English as She Is Spoke is the common name of a 19th century book written by Pedro Carolino and falsely additionally credited to José da Fonseca, which was intended as a Portuguese-English conversational guide or phrase book, but is regarded as a classic source of unintentional humour, as the given English translations are generally completely incoherent. (link)

One page, on fishing:

That pond it seems me many multiplied of fishes. Let us amuse rather to the fishing.

Here, there is a wand and some hooks.

Silence! there is a superb perch! Give me quick the rod, Ah! there is, it is a lamprey.

You mistake you, it is a frog! dip again it in the water.

Perhaps I will do best to fish with the leap.

Try it! I desire that you may be more happy and more skilful who acertain fisher, what have fished all day without to can take nothing.

(After a bit of this, you can get some insight into the lexicon and grammar of Portuguese, things like the reflexive verb in “you mistake you” and the constituent order of “give me quick the rod” and “dip again it in the water”. All by itself, “without to can take nothing” for “without being able to take anything” brings up at least three points of interest.)

Carolino’s humor was unintentional, but invented phrasebooks can also be the source of laughs. One triumph of the genre is Monty Python’s Hungarian Phrasebook sketch, about a phrasebook-bearing Hungarian in a British tobacconist’s shop: the famous “My Hovercraft is full of eels” sketch. The phrasebook is full of sex-related English sentences, which leads to its publisher being put on trial. From the bailiff at the trial:

You are hereby charged that on the 28th day of May, 1970, you did willfully, unlawfully, and with malice aforethought, publish an alleged English-Hungarian phrase book with intent to cause a breach of the peace.

…  I quote one example. The Hungarian phrase meaning “Can you direct me to the station?” is translated by the English phrase, “Please fondle my bum.”

Back in the real world of language materials, there’s plenty of entertaining stuff. The Russian textbook I used at Princeton had some wonderful items for translation into Russian, contrived to pack several grammatical points into a single sentence — for example, one that went roughly

In my professor’s house there is a room which has neither doors nor windows.

(In return, in an oral exercise designed to measure the student’s ability to improvise connected Russian — the student was asked to talk about various aspects of his life — I spun a story sticking to Russian words and syntax that I was comfortable with, the hell with truth. At the end, the instructor marveled at the colorful life I led, with a concealed wife and all. I confessed, and he gave me a 1+, the highest possible grade, for ingenuity.)

On the German front at Princeton, though I was in intermediate and advanced courses (reading stuff like Schiller’s Maria Stuart), several guys in my dorm were just starting out in the language and asked for my help in rehearsing the drills in their textbook (by Rehder & Twaddell; a few years later, I met Freeman Twaddell as a colleague in linguistics). Language instruction in those days, not very long after World War II, was firmly grounded in the audio-lingual method — German 101 students were told that an intelligent parrot could do better in the course than any of them — and memorizing and repeating dialogues from the text was a central part of the program.

Over and over, I took my buddies, one by one, through these dialogues. I doubt that any of them recall the material from so long ago, but I was severely over-rehearsed on it, and I remember a lot of it now. One genuinely useful bit I recall because of its nice rhythm:

Können Sir mir sagen, wo ich mir die Hände waschen kann? ‘Can you tell me where I can wash my hands?’ [nice personal dative in the German in the place of the English possessive]

and another exchange because of its oddity as uttered by young men (Princeton was all-male at the time):

A: Sind Sie Frau Pabst? ‘Are you Mrs. Pabst?’  B: Nein, ich bin Fräulein Baumann. ‘No, I am Miss Baumann.’

(Still another genre of entertainment involves sequences of example sentences, as illustrations in textbooks or articles in linguistics, that can be read as telling little stories.)

Let me invite readers to add their own favorites, from any of these genres.


17 Responses to “Language instruction fun”

  1. Ned Deily Says:

    “Albondigas! No te dije?” (‘Meatballs, didn’t I tell you?’)

    I still have that first dialog committed to memory. And I keep searching for occasions to use “albondigas” in conversations.

  2. Eli Morris-Heft Says:

    Slightly off-topic, but this reminds me of a study done a few years ago on example sentences in linguistics papers, looking at how many of them involved violence versus how many involved hugging, and at who was hitting or hugging whom.

  3. Dennis Preston Says:

    Once in a radio interview (I’ve forgotten where now) I was asked (to my surprise) what my favorite word was. More to my surprise, I unhesitatingly responded “albondigas.” It just sounds like what they are. I suppose I am phonetically offended when the sound-symbolism (at least mine) is wrong. I’ve always hated the sharp little word “ass” when there are such obviously correct words as Polish “dupa” around (and Portuguese “bundas” is no slouch.)

  4. Alice Faber Says:

    My high school used ALM (Audio-Lingual Method?) materials for foreign languages. I still remember this scintillating French dialog, some 40 years later: “Allons! Debout! Ne reste pas dans la neige!” “Je ne puis pas. Je me suis cassé la jambe.”

    • Paul Stillman Says:

      This post is from a long time ago, so you may not still be out there, but, unbelievably, I just quoted the exact same phrase to my wife, remembered from my high school language lab 60 years ago, plus ou moins!

  5. Steven Levine Says:

    I own a copy somewhere (which I currently cannot find) of the 1848 “Ollendorff’s New Method of Learning to Read Write and Speak French”, from which (for my online journal) I once typed out this excerpt, a translation exercise (which includes some helpful idiomatic French phrases to get you over the rough parts). All punctuation and layout is as it appears in the book.

    Of what illness did your sister die? –She died of (de la) fever. –How is your brother? –My brother is no longer living. He died three months ago. –I am surprised (etonne) at it, for he was very well last summer when I was in the country. Of what did he die? –He died of apoplexy. –How is the mother of your friend? –She is not well; she had an attack of ague the day before yesterday, and this morning the fever has returned. –Has she had an intermittent fever? –I do not know, but she often has cold fits. –What has become of the woman whom I saw at your mother’s? –She died this morning of apoplexy. –Do your scholars learn their exercises by heart? –They will rather tear them than learn them by heart. –What does this man ask me for? — He asks you for the money which you owe him. –If he will repair to-morrow morning (demain matin) to my house I will pay him what I owe him. –He will rather lose his money than repair thither. –Why does the mother of our old servant shed tears? What has happened to her? –She sheds tears because the old clergyman, (le vieil ecclesiastique,) her friend, who was so very good to her, (qui lui faisait tant de bein,) died a few days ago. –Of what illness did he die? –He was struck with apoplexy. –Have you helped your father to write his letters? –I have helped him. –Will you help me to work when we go to town? –I will help you to work if you help me to get a livelihood.

    There is also a little section on translating “by dint of” (a force de), which includes this translation exercise:

    I obtained of him that favor by dint of entreaty.
    (J’obtins de lui cette faveur a force de prieres.)

    The book has got to be somewhere, but I fear it may have been lost in my last move. It’s enough to strike me with apoplexy.

  6. Gregory Stump Says:

    As an undergraduate, I took a French phonetics course in which we were required to repeat sentences (concocted by Pierre Delattre) that put the authenticity of our French pronunciation to the test. I particularly remember the sentence

    Va à Arles et achète un hareng à Alice
    ‘Go to Arles and buy a herring from Alice’

    into whose many vowel hiatuses Americans characteristically insert a glottal stop, producing a pronunciation that is not at all French-sounding.

  7. Steven Levine Says:

    This isn’t specifically what you asked for, but it’s a related amusement, and in this case it’s a YouTube video. This is presumably an interview with Madonna (as ready by French and Saunders) for a Budapest magazine for which the questions were translated into English for her, then translated back into Hungarian for the article, and then the whole article was translated from Hungarian into English. It seems suspect, but it is amusing nonetheless and has a vague ring of truth, translationwise:

  8. Steven Levine Says:

    The translation of “guinea pig” into ‘test mouse” is what makes me think this might be real.

  9. mollymooly Says:

    An ad c.1990 with a punchline along the lines of “not everything in life is as simple as a bowl of Kellogg’s cereal”; a woman struggling to repeat Serbo-Croatian sentences like “I will not be able to attend the wild pig hunt” and “the last train left three days ago”. The subsequent breakup of Yugoslavia darkened this humour.

  10. W Says:

    I have found a facsimile of a single page from a 16th? century English-Spanish phrasebook, beginning with the master rousting on the houseboy for not waking him up early enough. I wish I knew what it was, and where I could find the rest of it!

  11. The Ridger Says:

    A line from a dialog at the Defense Language Institute in the early 1970s which I shall never forget, though I’ve never had a chance to really use it: Не стреляйте! Это я, а не утка. (Ne stryelyajte! Ehto ya, a ne utka): Don’t shoot! It’s me, not a duck.

  12. arnold zwicky Says:

    Another isolated sentence from beginning Russian: “A new tablecloth is a joy to the wife!” Just four words in Russian.

  13. Sparg Says:

    I remember The Ridger’s example above. I was at DLI in ’82. It was a line from one of the dialogues we memorized daily. “Это я…” was a keeper. That and “Где моя пешка?” Where’s my pawn?

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