‘Bears don’t eat penguins,’ and other useful Spanish phrases 

Published 11:31 am Monday, February 5, 2018


On a whim — and under the auspices of new year’s self-improvement — I installed an app on my phone that purports to painlessly teach the user to speak Spanish with just the investment of a few minutes each day.

Several weeks later, I’m totally hooked.

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Certainly some of my interest can be attributed to an inherent interest in learning new things, but really what motivates me is the little green owl wearing a sweatband around his head who pops up to congratulate me when I complete a level. Sometimes he sets off fireworks. I love it. Once a teacher’s pet always a teacher’s pet, it seems.

I’ve always enjoyed learning languages. Over the years, as I wended my way through assorted marginally-useful undergraduate and graduate degrees, I dabbled in French, German, Greek, Hebrew and Egyptian Hieroglyphics but, sadly, never became fluent in any of them. Well, I guess it’s not really possible to be fluent in a dead ancient language, but I do wish I’d invested more in the modern romance tongues. If I could go back and change one small thing in my life, it would be to study abroad in a French-speaking country.

But I digress. Back to the app. The learning algorithms are designed to loosely simulate an immersion experience. So instead of presenting lessons that cover all the declensions of a particular verb or a high-level introduction to the concept of gendered nouns, it throws vocabulary and structure at you in context sometimes via pictorial flashcards, other times with fill-in the blank sentences that can be deciphered as much through context and common sense as through true language mastery.

The results are sometimes hysterical because the app doesn’t seem to prioritize useful words and phrases. I have no idea how to ask for directions, but I recently translated a sentence that read “No, a bear does not eat penguins.” I promptly had to Google that assertion because it seems like polar bears probably do eat penguins and thus the sentence might not only be silly but also incorrect — an affront to Type A teacher’s pets everywhere.

It turns out polar bears and penguins live at literally opposite ends of the earth, rendering the flightless birds safe from marauding bears. Don’t judge me. I was an anthropology major, not a biologist.

My older daughter has also become a fan of the app and, to my surprise and amusement, she is even more disciplined than I am. She insisted that I install it on her tablet because she didn’t want her results to co-mingle with mine and has been spending all of her allotted screen time practicing Spanish phrases. And let me tell you, I much prefer this new obsession to her previous boundless interest in Strawberry Shortcake Hair Salon.

Somehow I doubt either one of us will become proficient. The statistics on New Year’s resolutions are not in our favor. But it’s been a fun, shared adventure in both linguistics and zoology. I’m sure the little green owl is proud of us both.