Me Talk Pretty One Day is a humorous book partly about struggling to learn French, by David Sedaris.
Here are excerpts about taking a French class in Paris from the chapter of the same name, Me Talk Pretty One Day:
FRENCH CLASS in FRANCE
“I’ve moved to Paris with hopes of learning the language.
At the age of forty-one, I am returning to school and have to think of myself as what my French textbook calls ‘a true debutant.’
...on the first day of class I arrived early, watching as the returning students greeted one another. Regardless of their nationalities, everyone spoke to me what sounded like excellent French. Some accents were better than others, but the students exhibited an ease and confidence I found intimidating.
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.
The teacher marched in and proceeded to rattle off a series of administrative announcements [in French]. I’ve spent quite a few summers in Normandy, and I took a monthlong French class before leaving New York. I’m not completely in the dark, yet I understood only half of what this woman was saying.
‘If you have not MEIMSLSXP or LGPDMURCT by this time, then you should not be in this room. Has everyone APZKIUBJXOW? Everyone? Good, we shall begin.’
‘All right, then, who knows the alphabet?’
It was startling because (a) I hadn’t been asked that question in a while and (b) I realized, while laughing, that I myself did NOT know the alphabet. They’re the same letters, but in France they’re pronounced differently. I know the shape of the alphabet but had no idea what it actually sounded like.
‘Ahh.’ The teacher went to the board and sketched the letter A. ‘Do we have anyone in the room who’s 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.
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 times 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 that we’ve been blessed with someone as unique and original as you? Tell us, please.’
The seamstress did not understand what was being said [in French], but knew this was an occasion for shame.
The two Polish Annas surely had clear notions of what they loved and hated, but like the rest of us, they were limited in terms of [French] vocabulary, and this made them appear less than sophisticated.
The teacher forged on, and we learned that Carlos, the Argentine bandion player, loved wine, music, and, in his words,
‘making sex with the womens of the world.’
When called upon, I delivered an effortless list of things that I detest: blood sausage, intestinal pâtés, brain pudding. I’d learned these words the hard way.
Having given it some thought, I then declared my love for IBM typewriters, the French word for ‘bruise’, and my electric floor waxer. It was a short list, but still I managed to mispronounce IBM and assign the wrong gender to both the floor waxer and the typewriter.
The teacher’s reaction led me to believe that these mistakes were capital crimes in the country of France.
‘Were you always this PALICMKREXIS?’ she asked, ‘Even a FIUSCRZSA TICIWELMUN knows that a typewriter is feminine.’
I absorbed as much 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?
[For more on this, see the web page Humor of Genders in French.]
The teacher proceded to belittle everyone from German Eva, who hated laziness, to Japanese Yukari, who loved paintbrushes and soap.
Italian, Thai, Dutch, Korean, and Chinese—we all left class foolishly believing that the worst was over. She’d shaken us up a little, but surely that was just an act designed to weed out the deadweight.
We didn’t know it then, but the coming months would teach us what it was like to spend time in the presence of a wild animal, something unpredictable.
Her temperament was not based on a series of good and bad days but, rather, good and bad moments.
We soon learned to dodge chalk and protect our stomach and heads whenever she approached with a question. She hadn’t yet punched anyone, but it seemed wise to protect ourselves from the inevitable.
Unlike the French class I had taken in New York, here there was no sense of competition. When the teacher poked a shy Korean in the eyelid with a freshly sharpened pencil, we took no comfort in the fact that, unlike Hyeyoon Cho, we all knew the irregular past tense of the verb ‘to defeat’.
In all fairness, the teacher hadn’t meant to stab the girl, but neither did she spend much time apologizing, saying only,
‘Well, you should have been VKKDYO more KDEYNFULH.’
Though we were forbidden to speak anything but French, the teacher would occasionally use us to practice any of her five fluent languages.
‘I hate you,’ she said to me one afternoon. Her English was flawless. ‘I really, really hate you.’
Call me sensitive, but I couldn’t help but take it personally.
After being singled out as a lazy KFDTINVFIN, I took to spend four hours a night on my homework, putting in even more time when we were assigned an essay.
My fear and discomfort crept beyond the borders of the classroom and accompanied me out onto the wide boulevards. 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.
Before beginning school, there’d be no shutting me up, but now I was convinced everything I said was wrong.
When the phone rang, I ignored it. If someone asked me a question, I pretended to be deaf.
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.’
Over time it became impossible to believe that any of us would ever improve.
It was mid-October when the teacher singled me out, saying [in French],
‘Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section.’
And it struck me that, for the first time since arriving in France, I could understand every word that someone was saying.
Understanding doesn’t mean you can suddenly speak the language. Far from it. It’s a small step, nothing more, yet its rewards are intoxicating and deceptive.
The teacher continued her diatribe and I settled back, bathing in the subtle beauty of each new curse and insult.
‘You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain, do you understand me?’
The world opened up, and it was with great joy that I responded [in French],
‘I know the thing that you speak exact now.
Talk me more, you, plus, please, plus.’"
Link to Buy Sedaris' Book "Me Talk Pretty One Day" from Amazon.com