"אני אוכל את הדג."
Translation:I eat the fish.
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It doesn't mean, or translate to, anything. It's grammatical job is just to indicate that the following word is a direct object. To be grammatically correct, it's needed in this sentence. It is used only when the direct object is "definite": "the fish" as opposed to "a fish". You could say: "אני אוכל דג" "I am eating a fish" or "I eat fish". Then the "את" is not needed.
Omitting the "את" is actually a really common mistake that new immigrants make, you hear it all the time in Israel, especially around English speaking immigrants.
it's definitely a mistake but if you speak like that people will still understand you, even if the sentence isn't correct.
Yes, we can and do say it alone in sentences. It might not come up too often, but we do say it on its own. Suppose you walk into a restaurant with friends. One friend starts the conversation by saying: "I don't eat the beef here. It's too tough. I eat the fish, though." You respond, "I eat the beef but I don't eat the fish." And then the rest of the dialogue I wrote above. They're just trying to teach us grammar with short sentences, at first. Though maybe not used as often as longer sentences, they are still proper sentences.
You use "et" whenever you have a definite object - the book (ha-sefer), the fish (ha-dag), the apple (ha-tapuakh). You cannot simply write "ani koret ha-sefer" or "ani okhel ha-dag". This is incorrect. It MUST go with "et". Ani koret et ha-sefer. Ani okhel et ha-dag. "ani ro'e et ha-tapuakh" and so on.
I hope what I wrote helped you at least a bit. It is a unique concept and hard at first, but not impossible to learn. It just takes time and practice.
I don't think Duo did it, but when we first started learning simple "phrases" like "the book", it was tempting to put them together with other words we learned and make sentences. Later, out of the blue, the sentences were introduced, using "את" and many of us, myself included, had to unlearn what we thought we knew. I believe that's why so many have trouble with it. Also, using the app on a cellphone, doesn't provide access to tips, notes, or even instructions, so those of you who explain things in the comment section are invaluable to learning Hebrew here. Thanks for your time and patience.
I think he meant he was trying to make up sentences on his own, but then found out he had not been doing it right. That happens. It's ok. It will happen for years when you learn a new language! Maybe always! it is ok. Think of the people you know who speak English as a second,third,fourth,etc. language...they make mistakes, but we all know what they are saying, and it is ok. If we never try, we never learn!
Nathan is right about how to pronounce Ani okhelet et ha-dag in in proper pronunciation, but I think native Hebrew speakers would say Ani okhelet ta-dag.
So the answer to your second question is no, this DL sentence does not sound the same as אני אוכל את הדג because Ani okhel et ha-dag would be pronounced colloquially as Ani okhel ta-dag.
That video recommended by TeribleT above is really great.