If you've ever learnt a foreign language, chances are you've come across effle. The term itself comes from EFL (English as a Foreign Language) - the origin's a little uncertain, but it's become a small part of the professional lore amongst translators, linguists and other such language wonks. Effle is the weird, stilted kind of English you tend to find in foreign language textbooks, or sometimes travel guides; example phrases that make perfect sense grammatically, but would require a very strange set of circumstances indeed to come up in actual conversation. Probably the most common:


The farmer kills the duckling.


Which has been hanging around for so long that no-one seems to be able to remember from whence it came. The concept is older than the name, of course - already we have nodes for the world's most depressing German textbook and the much-beloved English As She Is Spoke, which half fails the effle test on the basis that most of the English in it doesn't make any sense grammatically, either. Writers have got in on the act; the playwright Ionesco wrote a one-act play composed of lines he'd found in an English texbook, The Bald Prima Donna, a short excerpt of which follows:


MARY: I am the maid. I have just spent a very pleasant afternoon. I went to the pictures with a man and saw a film with some women. When we came out of the cinema we went and drank some brandy and some milk, and afterwards we read the newspaper.

MRS. SMITH: I hope you spent a pleasant afternoon. I hope you went to the pictures with a man and drank some brandy and some milk.


Not that Ionesco was the only one. The actor Dirk Bogarde titled one volume of his autobiography A Postillion Struck by Lightning after a piece of effle almost as famous as the well-worn 'pen of my aunt'. The phrase 'my hovercraft is full of eels' doesn't even bear mentioning. Even discounting fiction, some of the linguistic contortions textbook writers go to in order to demonstrate the correct use of grammar end up ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous:


Would you put on this hair-piece/wig for me please?


Look how tall the giraffe is! And how impassive the camel looks!


Yezneeg likes very much the meat of the hen.


Joking aside, though, there is a genuine point to be made about the process of learning a foreign language here. As anyone who's been taught a language formally - only to find themselves in a country of native speakers - will know from long experience, most language courses are useless at teaching anything directly useful. Everyday colloquial speech tends to be chaotic, full of idioms and slang, and rarely conforming to all those complicated tables of tenses and cases you spent so long memorising. It's all very well knowing how to say that your second cousin once-removed used to own a cat named Mittens, but for anything approaching everyday speech, chances are that sooner or later you're going to have to fall back on speaking English loudly and slowly, or failing that, charades.

If that doesn't sound convincing, ask yourself how many conversations you've had that went, "Hello."

"Good day. How are you?"

"I am well, thank you. And yourself?"

"I am fine. The weather today is very fine, isn't it?"

And so on. Even 'and yourself' is dangerously unusual. It's even worse if the textbooks are out of date; even if the language holds up perfectly, a handful of obsolete words can leave even the strongest writing seeming a little ...off. Which may explain a Times of India article I once read about a gang of armed robbers which condemned banditry in the strongest terms, and expressed a great desire for the ruffians in question to be brought to justice.

So, what's to be done about this? Well, as ever, the most effective way of learning a language is to immerse yourself in it, flail around as a stupid American/Briton/whatever in a country where it's spoken routinely, and pick it up with a combination of learning and experience. In the meantime, though, textbook writers seem to be getting a little better about effle, and including phrases you might actually use; 'he's late again', 'get the beers in', 'the ambassador is a personal friend of mine', and so on. But for now, collect all the effle you can. Cherish it, because some of it's hilarious. And then set out to badger some people who speak the language themselves instead.


I will not buy this tobacconist's, it is scratched.

Effle examples sourced from: The Effle Page, Transblawg and Desbladet.

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