Last Friday I returned home from class and the market to a package notice from Chronopost with instructions to pick up my package at our local post after 3:30pm that afternoon. On the dot, I waltzed over to the post and inquired with my slip and passport. A dear friend (Kate!) had sent me the book, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris with a note that read, “Not sure if you’ve read this or are a Sedaris fan, but I think you will enjoy relating to his French class troubles!”
Kate, truer words were never spoken. I LOVED the book and am so appreciative you sent it along. I had not read the book (though it is one of Jim’s favorites), but I was familiar with David Sedaris, as Jim had mentioned loving The SantaLand Diaries when we first started dating (it was just before the holidays), and I thoroughly enjoyed that. So, I opened the book on Friday and devoured it in a matter of hours.
The first half of the book is more anecdotes about his family (which I understand is pretty typical of his books), all of which are quite comical and endearing. Sedaris has quite the knack for self deprecation and storytelling. After reading through the whole thing I can’t help to think, what an eclectic and even strange life he’s led. I finished the first half of the book late Friday afternoon and picked up the second half (“Deux*“) once we boarded our flight to Nice. This, my friends, is where things started to get quite entertaining. In this section, I found myself with a case of near church giggles on a 7am flight, surrounded by French citizens.
The title chapter, “Me Talk Pretty One Day” is probably one of my favorite, of which I can quite closely relate. Sedaris speaks of the nature of these intense French language courses rather perfectly. He says…
“The first day of class was nerve-racking because I knew I’d be expected to perform. That’s the way they do it here – it’s everybody into the language pool, sink or swim”
This is every day. Nothing is ever spoken in English (unless the British student asks a question or says she doesn’t understand, which honestly happens about every five minutes or so), and hardly anything is written down. In fact, things will only be written down after 20 minutes of painful discussion. I’m not much of an auditory person, so I find this aspect tricky. I’d rather see it, understand how it relates to English, then practice using it. But here it’s always spoken by the teacher, then you’re supposed to repeat and engage in back and forth questions with your classmates, then 20 minutes later, she’ll write it down on the dry-erase board. When she writes it down, you can hear an audible, “Oooh…” from the class and if you look around you can (literally) see lightbulbs going on above their heads. They say this is because you write differently than you speak, and if you speak it first (even if it’s incorrect) you’ll remember is better than if you write it down (think how it should sound) and then practice. People keep telling me this is true, but I mostly just find it trying to sit through 20 minutes of understanding about 60 percent of what she’s saying (some times it’s much higher) before understanding it 100 percent when it’s written down. The turmoil of being a visual learner. Jim (lucky duck) is an auditory learner, so I’m sure he’d take to this sort of class like a duck to water. I’m thinking it’ll be great when this class is over, as I’ll actually have some time to absorb/commit to memory the near 80 new words/phrases/verb conjugations we’re told to memorize/day.
In addition, Sedaris aptly captures the mindset/personality of foreign language teachers (this reminds me of some of my Spanish professors at UT as well as our teacher here in France). Essentially, the teacher comes off as having a rather unsavory sense of humor and somewhat sadistic nature. Here’s an excerpt:
When learning the alphabet, “…’Ahh.’ The teacher went to the board and sketched the letter a. ‘Do we have anyone in the room whose first name commences with an ahh?’ Two polish Annas raised their hands, and the teacher instructed them to present themselves by stating their names, nationalities, occupations, and a brief list of things they liked and disliked in the world. The first Anna hailed from an industrial town outside of Warsaw and had front teeth the size of tombstones. She worked as a seamstress, enjoyed quiet time with friends, and hated the mosquito.
‘Oh, really,’ the teacher said. ‘How very interesting. I thought everyone loved the mosquito, but here, in front of all the world, you claim to detest him. How is it we’ve been blessed with someone as unique and original as you? Tell us, please.’
The seamstress did not understand what was being said but knew that this was an occasion for shame. Her rabbity mouth huffed for breath, and she stared down at her lap as though the appropriate comeback were stitched somewhere alongside the zipper of her slacks.”
…”Next came a beautiful young Yugoslav who identified herself as an optimist, saying that she loved everything that life had to offer. The teacher licked her lips, revealing a hint of the sauce-box we would later come to know. She crouched low for her attack, placed her hands on the young woman’s desk, and leaned close saying, ‘Oh yeah? And do you love your little war?'”
Now, my teacher isn’t necessarily sadistic, I do find her sense of humor to be a bit on the cruel side, often at the expense of those in the class who don’t seem to understand, pronounce, or graps things as quickly. Just today she corrected a student’s pronunciation of the word, “danse” (to dance) by saying, “No, that is how Kristin pronounces it. That is terrible. Do not pronounce it like Kristin.” If you looked over at Kristin’s face, you could see it sink down to her knees.
Sedaris also touches on the importance of articles in French. This is all fine and well, but it’s tricky to keep up with the articles of SO many new words in such a short amount of time, especially when many are words you do not encounter on the daily:
…”‘Were you always this palicmkrexis?’ she asked. ‘Even a fiuscrzsa ticiwelmun knows that a typewriter is feminine.”
“I absorbed as much of her abuse as I could understand, thinking – but not saying – that I find it ridiculous to assign a gender to an inanimate object incapable of disrobing and making an occasional fool of itself. Why refer to Lady Crack Pipe or Good Sir Dishrag when these things could never live up to all that their sex implied?”
As well as the camaraderie of the students. This excerpt made me laugh out loud, as I could sympathize with the pain in the words:
“My only comfort was the knowledge that I was not alone. Huddled in the hallways and making the most of our pathetic French, my fellow students and I engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overheard in refugee camps. ‘Sometime me cry alone at night.’ ‘That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty. People start love you soon. Maybe tomorrow, okay.'”
Again, I don’t really feel that way, necessarily, but it does feel like the teacher gets inordinately upset when her beginner class doesn’t know the verbs (or conjugation), nouns, adjectives, pronunciation, and articles necessary to decode a recorded French telephone conversation perfectly. I often think to myself, if I could decode that conversation perfectly (word for word), I wouldn’t be in this class. I’m in here because I wanted someone to help me/explain what I’m hearing so I could learn and ultimately comprehend. However, I am picking up more each time, just struggling with the introduction of new words (which is daily) as we’re always listening to something and asked to complete an auditory comprehension. I find it tough to call out the use of words I’ve never heard before (one of those you don’t know what you don’t know), but the teacher constantly reminds me that it’s helpful to guess, even if I’m wrong. I think it seems a little backward, but I guess that’s why she’s the one being paid. Maybe if I was teaching a baby to talk I’d understand more of this. I’ve decided I need to start watching TV shows in French geared toward toddlers and small children.
While I enjoyed all the anecdotes about learning French, my favorites probably had more to do with his father (Lou), his boyfriend (Hugh), his IQ, or one of his many odd-jobs that formed his 20s & 30s. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. I’m considering purchasing and reading some of his other work.
I can also keep in mind that, one day, I’ll talk pretty, too.