Being relentlessly bullied by a polyglot owl with a penchant for passive aggression | Jack Marshall's column

I’d wager that around 40% of my phone notifications are from a psychotic polyglot owl who’s distressingly well-versed in passive aggression and threats.
The ornithological Duolingo authoritarian himselfThe ornithological Duolingo authoritarian himself
The ornithological Duolingo authoritarian himself

I swipe the lock screen and see the little notification logo. ‘You’re never going to learn Italian if you don’t practise,’ the owl says, snottily. Welcome to Duolingo, the app which teaches you languages via a chopsy ornithological cartoon.

Background: swept up in a recent passion for all things Italian, I’d decided to turn my tongue to that magnificent country’s language.

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It was an easy decision. French never appealed, all throat-clearing glottal stops and snide side-eyed glances, even German nursery rhymes are faintly authoritarian, and Dutch is just silly.

But Italian is so cool, so suave, so mellifluous. The intonations rise and fall so melodically, conjuring images of ripe tomatoes and crisp linen shirts. Effortless passion. Plus, speaking Italian would allow me to do the pleading Italian hand gestures in earnest. It was decided.

Having grown up in Spain, I was also counting on the in-built advantage that speaking Spanish would supposedly bring. What with the languages sharing Latin origins, I was semi-confident that, with a few switches in inflection, I could basically speak Italian already.

I threw myself into the task, flying through the chapters on ‘l’uomo’ (the man), ‘la donna’ (the woman), ‘ragazzi’, and ‘ragazze’ (boys and girls). I started to get cocky until the authoritarian owl had me translate ‘No, I am not a man’ a few times to cut me down to size.

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As the lessons increased in difficulty, the similarities with Spanish upon which I had been counting to guide me started to thin out and even began to actively trip me up: topo in Spanish is mole, in Italian it’s mouse.

Some of the power-mad owl’s sentences also became tenuous and unhinged. ‘L’acqua è nello zucchero’ caused a double take given it means ‘the water is in the sugar’, while I found ‘gli uomini scrivono nello zucchero’ - the men write in the sugar - quite poetic, actually.

Still enjoying myself, I decided to do a few advanced Spanish lessons to keep my Castilian eye in. Matters were going swimmingly until the owl, sensing my linguistic confidence, decided to knock me down a peg or two.

Cuttingly, he had me translate the existential reminder that ‘es importante poder amar’ - it’s important to be able to love. As a single man during a pandemic, this cut deep. My owl overlord demanded more respect.

Tutti acclamano il gufo.