Estimated reading time — 3 minutes
“I do not want to live without my cheese slicer.”
“The cats are wearing shoes.”
“The vegetables do not like vegetarians.”
Sometimes, Duolingo, my smartphone language app, comes up with strange sentences. It always made me laugh. But, lately, there’s been a weird glitch with the app.
I’ve been refreshing my German. My mother is a retired German teacher and spoke it to me growing up. However, now, at 29, after years of almost no contact after I got married (she says she’s not homophobic, but gee, what a coincidence that she started acting distant after I married a woman), then finally somewhat patching things up, I have forgotten a lot.
I don’t want to lose my knowledge, and German can be useful for work. I decided to take the placement test, then start from the basics again. My understanding is great, but I can’t spell and have little grasp of grammar or the “gender” of items. Everything in German has either a masculine, feminine, or neutral gender. It’s a pain in…der Arsch, I think it’s called?
Anyway, the weird glitch I have been experiencing has to do with the questions that require one to speak in the language being studied. The app works fine, as does my microphone. I get the answers right.
But I don’t think whatever the app is having me say is ordinary German. My skills might not be where they should be, but I know what German sounds like. This sounds similar, yet at the same time very different. It is written out in the same alphabet as German but sounds… older. Rougher. I have recognized the word “Valhalla” a few times. The vowel sounds are different as well.
My pronunciation is getting better, though. Still, this is confusing. I wrote a note to the app maintenance. Said, “I think there’s a problem with the German course. Some of the speaking practice questions aren’t in German, but another language. Possibly Nordic in origin.” And I sent them a screenshot of one such question.
The response was quite quick.
“We didn’t put that in there. Are you sure your app is up to date and you’re not using a hacked version or playing a joke for the Internet?”
I guess I should have waited until after April Fool’s Day to send in the report of this weird glitch. But, since I don’t want to lose my 268-day streak of practicing, and the rest of the program is fine, I have kept using Duolingo.
However, I did send a screenshot and recording of the app pronouncing the weird words for me, to my brother, who has traveled a lot, and to a German professor at my former university, hoping he would share it around with professors from other languages as well.
While I waited for responses and kept at it, weird things have happened. I mean, okay, global warming has been causing weird weather patterns lately, but whenever I practice outdoors and say one of the weird phrases, I hear thunder or see lightning, and often, a storm starts soon after. If I am working on it while walking or working out, I seem to hear a second set of footsteps behind me. A separate breath. This was unnerving, of course.
So I tried to stop using the app, though I mourned the loss of my by now 280-day streak.
It didn’t work. I lost some time the next day, and when I, for lack of a better word, “woke up,” I found myself in the middle of a lesson. I can’t seem to stop using it.
And today, I saw something strange. I was practicing it and came across one of the strange phrases while sitting on my patio, looking at a field in the park across the street. There was a clap of thunder that shook my eyes in their sockets, and I saw a huge, half-formed, grey figure come down from the sky. But, it vanished a moment later as I stumbled over how to pronounce the last word.
Just a few minutes ago, I heard back from both my brother and the professor. My brother thinks the glitch is just Icelandic being mixed in, and after I sent him more of them, he still thinks that, though he’s confused by the total absence of modern words in what is supposed to be a 21st-century language app,
The professor had shared the glitch around until finally, it reached a medieval history colleague of his. I received an e-mail with both of them copied onto it.
It’s Old Norse. And, given the strange happenings and the fact that I can’t seem to put Duolingo down, I am afraid of what will happen when I finally get the pronunciation right.
Credit: Alex Hamann