¡Albondigas! ¿No te dije?

“New Sentences: From Duolingo’s Italian Lessons” by Sam Anderson, in print in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday the 19th:

‘Gli animali rimangono nello zoo.’ (‘The animals remain in the zoo.’)

From Duolingo, a “science-based language education platform” available on Apple, Android and Windows smartphones and online.

Language-learning sentences are always slightly funny. They exist to teach you linguistically, not to communicate anything about the actual world. They are sentences that are also nonsentences — generic by design, without personality or ambiguity: human language in merely humanoid strings. [They are, as the philosophically inclined among us sometimes say, mentioned, not used.] The subtext is always just “Here is something a person might say.” It’s like someone making a window. What matters is that it’s transparent, not what is being seen through it.

… “The animals remain in the zoo” is a perfect language-learning sentence because it describes, as simply as possible, a totally normal state of affairs. That’s what the animals are supposed to do. It’s like saying: “The refrigerator continues to be an appliance.” My wife, who has been studying Italian on her phone, encountered this sentence there, along with hundreds of others like it.

She took special notice only when this zoo-animal sentence started to recur, again and again, across many different lessons. Eventually, it lost its linguistic transparency. Was Duolingo trying to tell her something? Was this some kind of code? Look at the sentence hard enough, and it starts to read like a revolutionary slogan — something you’d find spray-painted on the capitol steps. It is time to break out of our cages! Language learners of the world, rise up! Gli animali saranno liberi!

On the poetry of language instruction, on this blog:

on 2/27/12, “Language shards”

on 2/28/12, “Language instruction fun”

on 12/18/14, “Audio-lingual meatballs”, with the wonderful ¡Albondigas! ¿No te dije? ‘Meatballs! Didn’t I tell you?’

There are language learning dialogues, which provide strange tales of other worlds, worlds in which meatballs excite exclamations of wonder. And there are sets of translation exercises, whose lists of disjointed sentences beg to be knit into some sort of weird coherence. Pick up almost any one of the Teach Yourself series of language instruction books and let your imagination run free.

Take the exercises on p. 69 of Teach Yourself Samoan by C.C. Marsack (1962), which descend from the high poetry of flying foxes in the trees at night to the prospect of enduring stern sermons on hard church benches, about the evils of drinking and overeating:

A few flying-foxes flew in the trees at night.
Any man likes beer to drink better than water.
If the girls eat many bananas they will get fat.
I do not know if the pastor’s sermon will be long or short.

(The pastor theme runs through the book. Christian missionaries in the Pacific, I suppose.)

And from Teach Yourself Swahili by D.V. Perrott (1950), from its exercise supplement, p. 7, a recitation I think of as an East African “These are a few of my favorite things”:

The camels who are carrying sacks of dates
The overseers who are looking after the slaves
My friend who prevented us from seeing the snake
The meat which will go bad unless we eat it soon

La plume de ma tante … est sur la table de mon oncle. My Hovercraft is full of eels. And then the albondigas, my god the albondigas, oh, I can’t stand it, it’s all too filthy.

One Response to “¡Albondigas! ¿No te dije?”

  1. Susan Becker Says:

    It has some relevance to neuroscience because it talks about learning language. Not strong, but possible–and funny.

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