December 22, 2003


John McWhorter recently posted here about the kind of expressions that are all too often missing from foreign language courses. Linda Seebach sent email about a different kind of anti-effle:

I saw your post about effle on language log and would like to comment on a dual phenomenon; things that someone really did say spontaneously in a real conversation that are the exact opposite of the formulaic conversations on the Test of English as a Foreign Language. The name dates from the sabbatical year we spent in Shanghai, where one of my classes was TOEFL.

I'm not sure that TOEFL itself deserves the rap -- the language of these practice questions seem close enough to English as she is spoke these days, at least in the somewhat formal register that seems appropriate for such a test. I bow to Linda's first-hand knowledge of TOEFL-preparation classes in Shanghai, but I'll substitute anti-effle as a general term.

Here are her examples:

What do seals have to do with beer?
(My son, on a Yangtze River boat, overhearing his parents wondering aloud why the local brew we took on at the last stop had a seal logo -- we were almost 2,000 miles from the ocean.)

Did I tell you about the resurrection of my poinsettia?
(Me to my son -- I'd thought for weeks it was dead but when I went to throw it out it had new leaves)

It's so funny to see a cat umbrella in the garden.
(one of our editors to his daughter, whose umbrella had a cat on it)

Thumbs are pretty smart.
(Our editor, explaining why his Blackberry was easy to use)

We're all standing around looking at Pilar's mouse.
(Pilar is our editorial assistant, and she had just spotted a mouse,
mammalian not computer, under the printer. This drew a crowd.)

How do you weaponize the mosquito?
(Me to Alan Leshman of AAAS, who visited here last week for the AAAS convention; he'd just said worry about publishing information about the genetics of the malaria parasite was overwrought)

They're taking the guinea pig to the beauty parlor because she's depressed about the other one.
(My editor; one of his daughter's guinea pigs had died and his wife was trying to cheer her up)

I am practicing triage on my cheese.
(me to my son; I had a package of cheese cubes that was getting moldy, and
the question was whether the water I used to wash the cheese would have
been better used for something else)

These findings predict a level of gymnastic ability that is rare among proteins.
(I saw that in Nature, but I seem not to have saved the date.)

A surprising amount of real language has similarly high (but not too high!) entropy. This is the secret behind googlism: if we ask it about "Geoff", we find (with some editorial selection) that Geoff is "a life member of the australian black and white artists club", "one of Canada’s most energetic and inspirational fitness leaders", "the director of IT at Walford Anglican School for Girls", "the guy who introduced me to the 5 and 6 string bass in 1983", "grateful for the help that the nightclub has provided as a sponsor and its general support of his strongman pursuits", "an expert on demand chain internet solutions", "indifferent between outcome B and a lottery in which outcomes A and C are possible", and "my hero and I got one of his decks", among many other things.

I won't say that you can't make that stuff up, but it's not easy for art to imitate the texture of real-life text.

Geoff Pullum is absolutely correct that "it's not insincerity in example sentences that is the great enemy of language teaching, but boring the crap out of learners." However, effle is not always boring, and therefore I think we have to admit that effle may sometimes be effective pedagogy, if only by virtue of the mnemonic value of strong emotion. Many of the examples on this page, said to be from Langenscheidts Konversationsbuch English-Deutsch. would provoke notable hilarity in any high-school language class (via Desbladet):

Hier sind Schlüpfer in verschiedenen Farben. Sind sie haltbar?
"Here are panties in different shades. Are they durable?"

This is certainly effle, but even the slowest student in German class that day would emerge with the vocabulary items Schlüpfer and haltbar etched indelibly into his hippocampus.

In the same vein, let me cite some memorable effle from an Armenian phrase book contributed by Margaret Marks, who started the whole thing:

Let me eat the fish and throw the mouse, let me throw the mouse and eat the fish.

I'll never eat khorovatz again without remembering that example --I wish I knew the Armenian.

[Update: Linda Seebach writes on this topic at the Rocky Mountain News.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 22, 2003 10:15 AM