I am reading David Sedaris’ funny personal essays « Me Talk Pretty Someday .» I know everyone else must have read it years ago, but I had no idea it was about an American struggling to learn French while living in France, or it would have made it to the top of my reading list long ago. Reading in bed the other night I let out a whoop and startled my husband; another time I laughed so hard I almost cried. The following are excerpted from his book (my asides are in these shaded boxes). CM
Meaning to say “Do you understand me?” instead Sedaris says:
“You will understand me” (and) the citizens of France responded with blank stares. I picked up a few new words, but overall the situation seemed hopeless. Neighbors would drop by and I’d struggle to entertain then with a pathetic series of simple nouns. “Food, ashtray, drink?”
“Yes,” they’d agree. “That is an ashtray all right.”
CM: It reminds of MY first trip to France when my back went out and I could not sit in those white plastic chairs ubiquitous in European cafes. Upon entering a restaurant I proceeded to explain that I was “mal de dos” and could I please have different “assiette?”
This made sense to me as a seat or chair is an “asiento” in Spanish, but the maître looked puzzled and asked me to repeat my performance. I took a deep breath and repeated “mal de dos” and “autre assiette SVP?”
He told me “We have only these assiettes,” while gesturing to a set table… with assorted chairs.The whole restaurant is watching now as I point to a nice wooden chair across the room. “That one?” I asked hopefully.
After a pregant pause he replied, “Mais Madam, that is not an assiette,” and bringing me a dinner plate – c’est une assiette and…that (pointing to the chair) c’est une chaise.” The diners looked away hiding their smiles, while I slunk to my chaise.
(Back to Me Talk Pretty One Day): I’d hoped language might come on its own the way it comes to babies, but people don’t…hypnotize you with bright objects and fuss over you when you finally say “wawa.” It got to the point where I’d see a baby in a bakery… and instinctively ball up my fists, jealous over how easy he had it. I wanted to lie down in a French crib and learn the language from scratch.
I returned to Normandy the following summer and resumed my identity as the village idiot. “See you again yesterday!” I said to butcher. « Ashtray, food ! »
I found words in the dictionary and typed them onto index cards, and committed them to memory. By the end of the month I’d managed to retain 300 nouns, none of which proved the least bit useful.
On my fifth trip I limited myself to words that people actually use. From dog owners I learned “Lie down,” “Shut up” and “Who shit on this carpet?” …The grocer taught me how to count… I’d learned a total of 1,564 words and kept my vocabulary in a wooden box… and worried that if the house caught fire, I’d be back to square one with “ashtray” and would lose the intense pleasure I felt whenever I heard somebody use a word I’d come to think of as my own.
My confidence hit a new low when my friend Adeline told me that French children make mistakes, but never with the sex of nouns. “We hear the gender once, and then think of it as part of the word. There’s nothing to it.” It’s pretty grim world when I can’t even feel superior to a toddler. Tired of embarrassing myself in front of two-year olds, I’ve started referring to everything in the plural, which…has solved a lot of problems… in saying the melons, you use the plural article which does not reflect gender… Ask for two or 300 melons and you are off the hook. I use the plural when shopping… the problem is finding a place (in the refrigerator) for 4 lbs. of tomatoes, two chickens and a pair of pork roasts.
In Paris David Sedaris takes a French class with a bunch of immigrant students from a sarcastic teacher. When asked a question he writes:
The teacher’s reaction led me to believe these mistakes were capital crimes in France… She (scolds), “Even a ticiwelmun knows that a typewriter is feminine.”
I absorbed as much of her abuse as I could understand, thinking that I find it ridiculous to assign gender to inanimate objects incapable of disrobing… these things could never live up to all their sex implied.
The teacher proceeded to belittle everyone… German, Japanese, Thai, Dutch, Korean and Chinese – we all left class foolishly believing that the worst was over…but my fear crept beyond the borders of the classroom. Stopping for coffee, asking for directions… these things were now out of the question… I was convinced everything I said was wrong. My only comfort was 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 at refugee camps.
“Sometimes me cry alone at night.”
“That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty…maybe tomorrow okay.”
Have you read Sedaris? Do you have a story to share about learning a language?