Talking Pretty Today: The Challenges of Learning a New Language

Talking Pretty Today: The Challenges of Learning a New Language

About the author:

I am a first-year Dawson College student in the Pure and Applied Sciences Program. I am an aspiring astrophysicist, an award-winning public speaker, an avid reader who enjoys creative word-play, a woodworker/luthier, and an amateur musician.  

 

Talking Pretty Today: The Challenges of Learning a New Language

By Zac Groszman

for Introduction to College English with Prof. Neil Hartlen

     Learning a new language has always been difficult. After all, why not remain in the comfort and familiarity of one’s mother tongue? For many, it’s seen as a series of challenging linguistic obstacles to overcome. One such encumbrance is the victimhood (often resulting from the tutelage of an abusive professor) that one must surmount in order to master a foreign vernacular.  The concept of overcoming the difficulties of feeling like a victim when learning a new language is arguably the most prominent theme in author David Sedaris’ short story “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” Sedaris uses three literary techniques to support and develop this theme: diction, rising and falling action, and foils.

This text is autobiographical, and the story’s plot is devoted to the author’s traumatizing learning experience as a forty-one-year-old at a school in Paris, France. While David has “spent quite a few summers in Normandy,” (Sedaris 167), he still “only [understands] half of what [his French teacher is] saying” (Sedaris 167). Sedaris uses a unique method to convey David’s lack of comprehension. Whenever David encounters an unfamiliar word, the term is replaced by gibberish, and its meaning is given through context. After the teacher introduces herself, she goes on to say to her class that “If [they] have not meimslsxp or lgpdmurct … then [they] should not be in [that] room” (Sedaris 167). The author’s use of gobbledygook in this matter aids the reader in comprehending the author’s struggles and difficulties regarding his French education.

Sedaris also uses diction to underline the differences between David’s own language skills and those of his teacher. This strategy appears in the translated dialogue between the story’s characters. David’s grammar and syntax are abysmal: “That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you” (Sedaris 172). Conversely, his teacher exhibits exemplary sentence structure. In David’s words, “the teacher would occasionally use us to practice any of her five fluent languages … her English was flawless” (Sedaris 171). This schism in fluency is key in demonstrating the power dynamic between the protagonist (David) and the antagonist (the French teacher) and delineates how far David must go in terms of improvement.

Additionally, Sedaris employs rising and falling action in order to emphasize the initial sense of victimhood and subsequent transformation David experiences. David’s teacher, serving as his adversary, propels their conflict forward until the story reaches its climax. She berates and insults him incessantly, asking him if he is “always this palicmkrexis?” (Sedaris 170) and singling him “out as a lazy kfdtinvfm” (Sedaris 171). This causes David to feel ashamed and leads him into a victimized state. Sedaris equates his education to “[spending] time in the presence of a wild animal … [the students] soon learned to dodge chalk and protect [their] heads and stomachs whenever [the teacher] approached [them] with a question” (Sedaris 170). However, Sedaris also notes that while learning to dodge chalk, David is simultaneously learning French. Being identified as a kfdtinvfm is a turning point for the student, as following this trauma David “[takes] to spending four hours a night on [his] homework, putting in even more time whenever [he is] assigned an essay” (Sedaris 171). David transcends victimhood by “[absorbing] as much of [his teacher’s] abuse as [he can] understand …” (Sedaris 170). After putting in the effort required to surmount various difficulties, David finally understands his teacher’s insults. His teacher begins to curse him, saying “Every day spent with [him] is like having a Caesarean section” (Sedaris 172), and that David “[exhausts her] with [his] foolishness …” (Sedaris 173). Suddenly there is no gibberish for the reader to read. David revels in her diatribe, “bathing in the subtle beauty of each new curse and insult” (Sedaris 170). The tension and conflict that had once been the bane of David’s existence have been entirely resolved.  In fact David begs his teacher for more abuse, saying “Talk me more, you, plus, please, plus” (Sedaris 173).

Finally, Sedaris uses foils to reinforce the theme of his text. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines a foil as “a character whose qualities or actions serve to emphasize those of the protagonist … by providing a strong contrast with them” (Baldick). Based on the definition, it can be argued that all of David’s fellow students serve as his foils. The reader may notice that, like David, the rest of the class is consistently verbally (and sometimes even physically) abused by the professor. However, unlike David, they all remain victimized by their teacher. One student even goes so far as to claim that they “cry alone at night” (Sedaris 172). These students contrast with the protagonist in their inability to transcend victimhood by the end of the story, and thus aid in supporting the theme (which deems this a necessary first step when learning a new language). Inevitably, David’s classmates remain where they began by the story’s culmination. Towards the end of the story, David reinforces the contrast between his development and that of his classmates by confirming that “unlike [classmate] Hyeyoon Cho, [he knows] the past tense of the verb to defeat” (Sedaris 172). Furthermore, as opposed to the shy “[Yugoslavian] optimist {who struggles] to defend herself” (Sedaris 169), David is “determined to create some sort of identity for [himself]: David the hard worker, David the cut-up” (Sedaris 171). Interestingly, David also serves as his own foil in a brief section of the text: “My fear and discomfort crept beyond the borders of the classroom and accompanied me out onto the wide boulevards … Before beginning school, there’d been no shutting me up, but now I was convinced that everything I said was wrong” (Sedaris 171). This clearly demonstrates what could have become of his language skills had he not overcome his victimhood.

David Sedaris’ masterful use of narrative and stylistic techniques such as diction, rising and falling action, and foils provide the reader with a multitude of opportunities to understand the story’s main theme from many different angles. This theme is especially relevant in modern-day Québécois society, where non-French speaking residents and immigrants face difficult challenges brought on by strict language laws and policies. Therefore, stories such as this one are extremely important, given that they remind those of us already well-versed in a given language to be more patient with those struggling to master it.

Works Cited

Baldick, Chris. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2008.
Sedaris, David. “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” Me Talk Pretty One Day. Little, Brown and Co., 2000, pp. 166-173.

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