In my “Language shards” posting, I looked at some entertaining examples from language teaching materials — entertaining because of the absurdity (“Just you dare, zebra!”) or poetry (“The wind has come, bearing with it the scent of amber”) in them. This is a rich vein of material.
Leaving for the moment the world of material designed to be genuinely instructive (presenting some grammatical or phonetic challenge), let’s visit the world of absurd phrasebooks. The English-language monument is this world is surely English as She Is Spoke:
English as She Is Spoke is the common name of a 19th century book written by Pedro Carolino and falsely additionally credited to José da Fonseca, which was intended as a Portuguese-English conversational guide or phrase book, but is regarded as a classic source of unintentional humour, as the given English translations are generally completely incoherent. (link)
One page, on fishing:
That pond it seems me many multiplied of fishes. Let us amuse rather to the fishing.
Here, there is a wand and some hooks.
Silence! there is a superb perch! Give me quick the rod, Ah! there is, it is a lamprey.
You mistake you, it is a frog! dip again it in the water.
Perhaps I will do best to fish with the leap.
Try it! I desire that you may be more happy and more skilful who acertain fisher, what have fished all day without to can take nothing.
(After a bit of this, you can get some insight into the lexicon and grammar of Portuguese, things like the reflexive verb in “you mistake you” and the constituent order of “give me quick the rod” and “dip again it in the water”. All by itself, “without to can take nothing” for “without being able to take anything” brings up at least three points of interest.)
Carolino’s humor was unintentional, but invented phrasebooks can also be the source of laughs. One triumph of the genre is Monty Python’s Hungarian Phrasebook sketch, about a phrasebook-bearing Hungarian in a British tobacconist’s shop: the famous “My Hovercraft is full of eels” sketch. The phrasebook is full of sex-related English sentences, which leads to its publisher being put on trial. From the bailiff at the trial:
You are hereby charged that on the 28th day of May, 1970, you did willfully, unlawfully, and with malice aforethought, publish an alleged English-Hungarian phrase book with intent to cause a breach of the peace.
… I quote one example. The Hungarian phrase meaning “Can you direct me to the station?” is translated by the English phrase, “Please fondle my bum.”
Back in the real world of language materials, there’s plenty of entertaining stuff. The Russian textbook I used at Princeton had some wonderful items for translation into Russian, contrived to pack several grammatical points into a single sentence — for example, one that went roughly
In my professor’s house there is a room which has neither doors nor windows.
(In return, in an oral exercise designed to measure the student’s ability to improvise connected Russian — the student was asked to talk about various aspects of his life — I spun a story sticking to Russian words and syntax that I was comfortable with, the hell with truth. At the end, the instructor marveled at the colorful life I led, with a concealed wife and all. I confessed, and he gave me a 1+, the highest possible grade, for ingenuity.)
On the German front at Princeton, though I was in intermediate and advanced courses (reading stuff like Schiller’s Maria Stuart), several guys in my dorm were just starting out in the language and asked for my help in rehearsing the drills in their textbook (by Rehder & Twaddell; a few years later, I met Freeman Twaddell as a colleague in linguistics). Language instruction in those days, not very long after World War II, was firmly grounded in the audio-lingual method — German 101 students were told that an intelligent parrot could do better in the course than any of them — and memorizing and repeating dialogues from the text was a central part of the program.
Over and over, I took my buddies, one by one, through these dialogues. I doubt that any of them recall the material from so long ago, but I was severely over-rehearsed on it, and I remember a lot of it now. One genuinely useful bit I recall because of its nice rhythm:
Können Sir mir sagen, wo ich mir die Hände waschen kann? ‘Can you tell me where I can wash my hands?’ [nice personal dative in the German in the place of the English possessive]
and another exchange because of its oddity as uttered by young men (Princeton was all-male at the time):
A: Sind Sie Frau Pabst? ‘Are you Mrs. Pabst?’ B: Nein, ich bin Fräulein Baumann. ‘No, I am Miss Baumann.’
(Still another genre of entertainment involves sequences of example sentences, as illustrations in textbooks or articles in linguistics, that can be read as telling little stories.)
Let me invite readers to add their own favorites, from any of these genres.