Learning a new foreign language can be a difficult task, which demands great time, commitment and effort put it in, in order to success in speaking the new language. No matter what age you start learning foreign languages, it will often be associated with a great deal of insecurity at first and experiencing that formulating even simple sentences can be a real struggle. Growing up, we are usually being taught the foreign language in school, a safe enviroment with helpful teachers and positive feedback, which make us feel more successful. There are however other effective methods on teaching a new language, such as moving to a country, where you are forced to speak the language constantly. With the theme of attitude to learning a foreign language, David Sedaris, in his essay, ”Me talk pretty one day” from 2005, tells the story of his personal experiences with learning the French language, which was far from safe, but however in the end very effective.
In his essay, the 41-years old David Sedaris writes about his experiences on learning French at an international school in Paris, France, starting off with a minimal French-knowledge, which he had obtained in a language class in New York that endured only one month. When attending the French class in Paris, he is quickly intimidated by how well the other young students speak the language. This however seems to be his least problem, compared to the intimidating and strict French teacher, who tears David Sedaris and the rest of the class down, and takes all courage and self-esteem out of them, because they can’t speak fluent French. David Sedaris describes how the teacher resolutely enters the classroom “The teacher marched in […] ” (ll. 16-17, p. 6), which gives the impression of a very strict and harsh woman. He furthermore compares her to a wild animal; ready to attack at any time “She crouched low for her attack […] (l. 52, p. 7).
Through this very vivid description of her behavior and personality, she stands out as very aggressive and mean, which is merely confirmed by the way she from the first moment mocks the students for their answers in a sarcastic and insensitive tone: “How is that we’ve been blessed with someone as unique as you? Tell us, please” (ll. 36-37, p. 6). Before the first class, David Sedaris was positive and curios about learning the new language; this is however soon replaced by the feeling of fear and insufficiency. The discouraging experiences in class even results in David being frightened of saying something wrong, and robs away his desire to go out into the streets of Paris and use his newly acquired skills. He now avoids things that will require speaking, such as going to the bank and asking directions – things, which he earlier found no problem asking for, even though his French knowledge was very poor at that time “before beginning school, there’d been no shutting me up, but now I was convinced that everything I said was wrong” (ll. 101-102, p. 8).
As abovementioned, the other students completely lose their confidence as well. David Sedaris compares this shared experience of fear and failure to the feeling in refugee camps. The loss of confidence can also be noticed in the way he at first admires the other students, as he overhears them talking to each other in the schoolyard, but later thinks worse of what he and the others do: “making the most of our pathetic French” (l. 106, p. 8). The feeling of failure and incompetence is likewise shown in the tragic and humorous title “Me Talk Pretty One Day”, which besides underlining the incorrect grammar of their imperfect French also expresses the insecurity that the teacher’s constant mockery has sowed in the students.
Throughout the essay the tone is very informal and personal, as David Sedaris shares his personal experiences and focuses on his own personality from the very beginning. The colloquial language likewise shows in his choice of words: “an easy ten-minute walk,” ”nerve-racking”, ”raffle off”, “the zipper of her slacks” etc. Especially characteristic of the tone in this particular essay is David Sedaris’s use of humor, irony and sarcasm and his use of very figurative language and images, which entertain and engage the reader in the text. His description of both the teacher and the other students is comic and exaggerated, with comments such as: ”front teeth the size of tombstones” (l. 33, p. 6). The ironic distance and the use of figurative language furthermore emphasize how absurd and unpleasant the French teacher’s way of teaching is: ”When the teacher poked a shy Korean in the eyelid with a freshly sharpened pencil […]” (l. 112, p. 8) and “it’s everyone into the language pool, sink or swim” (l. 16, p. 6).
When the absurdity is underlined so obviously to the reader by the use of irony, it influences the reader into viewing the situation in a certain way. It is, for instance, very likely that most readers are left with a negative attitude towards the French teacher and her approach to foreign language teaching and learning, after reading David Sedaris’s essay. Finally, another humorous touch is his way of representing the teacher’s incomprehensible French utterance though random and pointless juxtapositions of letter: “Were you always this palicmkrexis? […] Even a fiuscrzsa ticiwelmun knows that a typewriter is feminine” (ll. 71-72, p. 7). This encourages the reader to associate the situation from his or her own school time. The humorous thereby becomes a fresh take on the subject, by making it easily relatable since the majority has experienced this feeling of nonsense while being taught a new language.
When teaching a new language, teachers often use different methods, in order to achieve more or less same result: the students learning the language. Whereas some might focus on more positive and free teaching methods with room for mistakes and imperfect grammar, other might use a more strict “swim or sink” method as the French teacher. The “swim or sink”-method can in many ways be very effective if used correctly, as it forced students to jump into the assignment and force them to speak the language. Unfortunately, this is not the effect the method has on David Sedaris and the other students, as they because of the “sink or swim” method end up completely avoiding speaking the language. One of the most important preconditions for being successful in learning a new language is motivation and continuous encouragement, which the French teacher seems to rob away from the students by her harsh methods.
It is widely accepted that introductory language classes should focus on more simple communication, getting a message across, basic grammar – easy tasks which encourage learners to not give up. The fact that David Sedaris in the end however understands everything the teacher says, proves that the French teacher’s method has not been completely wrong, but actually very effective. By pushing her students hard, they now understand everything after a short period of time, which must be considered a success itself. The fact that the students until their understanding felt really scared to talk in public however speaks against her method. People often learn the language much faster when they use the language and try to formulate sentences outside school, but when afraid to do so, it might slower the process.
With his humoristic and personal approach to learning foreign languages, David Sedaris’s essay contributes to the debate on foreign language learning, reminding us that learning a foreign language can be a very great experience, but that the teacher must find a combination of taking consideration of the students’ feelings, by creating a warm and safe atmosphere, and still push the students into learning the language, as learning the language makes no sense unless you are able to use it.