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Me talk pretty one day
Learning a foreign language is definitely one of the most difficult things to do. Especially when you get older. Because of this, it is extremely important that you are taught the language in a relaxed and safe environment with a great teacher and lots of constructive feedback. However, this is not what David Sedaris experiences when traveling to France in an attempt to learn the language. In his essay “Me talk pretty one day”, he reflects on his journey and on the struggles he had with learning the French language. In this paper, I am going to analyze and comment on the essay, where part of the focus will be on the writer’s tone and on the attitude to learning foreign languages that is explored in the text.
Before going to France, David Sedaris took a French course in New York so that he would not be an absolute beginner when attending the French class. On the first day of school, Sedaris is excited but also a bit nervous, as he does not feel as confident with the French language as the other students. Furthermore, he knows that he is expected to perform because of the French teaching system, “That’s the way they do it here–everyone into the language pool, sink or swim”(p.1 l.16). However, he quickly realizes that his anxiety is the very least of his problems.
The teacher of this course is an intimidating woman, who seemingly has no interest in the students’ well being. Already from the beginning of the lesson, it is clear to Sedaris that this teacher is no ordinary teacher, “The teacher marched in, deeply tanned from a recent vacation, and proceeded to rattle off a series of administrative announcements.”(p.1 l.16-18) The word “marched” emphasizes the appearance of this outrageous teacher, who he describes as a wild animal, “We didn’t know it then, but the coming months would teach us what it is like to spend time in the presence of a wild animal, something completely unpredictable.”(p.2 80-82) The author then goes on with talking about the teacher’s very alternative methods of teaching, which involves picking on the students and making fun of their answers. Furthermore, she does not tolerate that the students speak anything besides French, which naturally limits those students, who does not have the biggest of vocabularies.
As a result of her tough and insensitive method of teaching, the students become very frightened and insecure about speaking in class, and they feel like they are almost in war, “We soon learned to dodge chalk and to cover our heads and stomachs whenever she approached us with a question. She hadn’t yet punched anyone, but it seemed wise to prepare ourselves against the inevitable.”(p.2 l.83-85). This is naturally not a very nice environment to learn a new language and David Sedaris does not believe that he is making great progress either. The teacher calls him a “lazy kfdtinvfm”, which he tries to disprove by making an even greater effort on his homework. However, it seems like the extra work is pointless, “The teacher, through word and action, conveyed the message that, if this was my idea of an identity, she wanted nothing to do with it.”(p.2 l.96-97) This furthermore results in making the author even more afraid and insecure about speaking French, not only in class but also in public.
The reason why he came to France was, after all, to learn the language by being forced to speak in public, when ordering at a restaurant, doing groceries etc. However, he no longer feels confident with talking to “real” Frenchmen, “Stopping for a coffee, asking directions, depositing money in my bank account: these things were out of the question, as they involved having to speak.”(p.3 l.99-100) This is naturally very sad, seeing that he traveled all the way across the Atlantic but is too scared to speak to strangers. This fear arose, as mentioned, as a result of his terrifying teacher, and it has not always been this way. Before attending the French course, he did not care about having an imperfect conversation, “Before beginning school, there’d been no shutting me up, but now I was convinced that everything I said was wrong.”(p. 3 l.101-102)
The tone of this essay is pretty informal and casual, which makes the text more interesting and identifiable to the reader. This is seen in the use of many everyday-like terms, like, “an easy ten-minute walk”, “raffle of” etc. Other than that, the use of personal experiences, which is very characteristic of the essay genre, also contributes to this casual tone, as we get to know something personal about him. This is seen in the beginning of the text, where Sedaris introduce us to his decision of moving to France, “”At the age of forty-one, I am returning to school…”(p.1 l.1). Additionally the tone is also affected by the use of humor and imagery, which can be seen throughout the text. Examples of this are, “…they were all young, attractive, and well dressed, causing me to feel not unlike Pa Kettle trapped backstage after a fashion show.”(p.1 l. 12-14) and “”front teeth the size of tombstones”, (p. 1l. 33)
The last thing that contributes to this casual tone, is his use of irony, which creates some kind of distance from the text. This is exemplified by the many “rubbish” words that are used to illustrate the words that the author does not understand, “If you have not meismslsxp by this time, you should not be in this room. Has everybody apzkiubjxow?” Here I have highlighted the words that Sedaris uses to demonstrate the French words that he does not know. All this contributes to the casual and informal tone.
The attitude to learning foreign language is, at least from the teacher’s perspective, that the harder you push the students, the harder they will work and the more they will learn. However, she does not realize that this way of teaching might no be the most efficient, seeing that the students actually become afraid of speaking the language. Especially the author suffers from this, and even though he is very humoristic and ironic about the whole thing, it is clear to see that he does not agree with the teacher’s methods, at all.
As mentioned in the beginning of this paper, it is extremely important that the teaching of a new language is based on constructive feedback and a safe learning environment, where you do not have to be nervous of saying something in the wrong way. It should also be fun to learn a language. Therefore, I do not agree with the teacher at all, and I think that her ways of educating others are too old-fashioned. Instead you should take advantage of the fact that the classroom is located in the country of which language you are trying to teach. This you could do by giving them homework that involved speaking to locals or other more creative solutions.
Although neither David Sedaris nor I agree with the teacher on this matter, she actually succeeds in making him able to understand most of the language, “And it struck me that, for the first time since arriving in France, I could understand every word that someone was saying.”(p.3. l.120-121) However, as he says, there is huge difference between understanding a language and to actually being able to speak it. This is actually what the essay is all about. To become fluent in a language, it is not enough to just know the theory. You also need to be able to use it in practice. In this way, you will be able to speak pretty one day.