Will We Ever Talk Pretty?: David Sedaris and the American Struggle with Foreign Languages
By Colin MarshallDecember 5, 2017
She even breaks the classroom’s French-only rule in order to chastise Sedaris all the more harshly: “‘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 taking it personally.” While she does, on occasion, single Sedaris out for lavish praise — “Bravo,” she once shouts, taking his hand and holding it up high, when he correctly answers a trick question about the passé composé — she also displays a penchant for hurling insults as well as pieces of chalk at her students, and she makes more than one declaration of hatred. “I had used falloir in the subjunctive rather than the imparfait,” he reflects after enduring another, “so I guess I deserved it.”
Traumatic though they may sound, Sedaris’s learning experiences under this manic figure, first written down in his diary which in turn provided material for the Esquire piece and others, fueled one of the bursts of popularity that has made him the best-known humorous essayist writing in English today. Still, as the class comes to its end, he confides in one entry that he wishes he’d never published his account. “I meant it at the time, but since then things have changed. She’s still moody, but I think she’s a good teacher. I can see that now, whereas I couldn’t before.” He regrets having “failed to mention her wit, and her skill as a teacher. That is what I have to apologize for, my laziness.”
Yet in his study of the French language, Sedaris shows the opposite of laziness: “Last night I worked on my homework for three hours,” he writes in one entry. “This morning I got up early and spent another four and a half hours on it” — as opposed to his classmates, a surprising number of whom hand in “scraps of paper written on the Métro,” having simply enrolled for the student visa. “[T]hey either come to class or stay home, try their best or give up and stare out the window.” The hilarity of Sedaris’s French-class stories owes even more to his observations of his alternately feckless and cavalier classmates than of his formidable instructor.
I myself first heard Sedaris’s work at a reading in Seattle, part of the seemingly perpetual lecture tours he uses to test and refine his material, all of it originally drawn from his diary. It was about a year after he’d decamped from New York to Paris, and just months after finishing classes at the Alliance Française. “Huddled in the smoky hallways and making the most of our pathetic French,” he read, “my fellow students and I engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overheard in refugee camps. ‘Sometimes me cry alone at night.’ ‘That is common for me also, but be more strong, you. Much work, and someday you talk pretty. People stop hate you soon. Maybe tomorrow, okay?’” Never, to that point in my life, had I laughed so hard.
Rendering an unsteadily commanded foreign language in over-literal English is a curious technique, but not one entirely without precedent: Mark Twain, a previous holder of the mantle of preeminent American humorist, wrote in English, translated to French, and translated back to English to achieve a similar effect with his story “The Frog Jumping of the County of Calaveras”: “It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter of ’49, possibly well at the spring of ’50, I no me recollect not exactly.” Sedaris has continued to make effective use of it over the past two decades, practicing in his diary all the while, as revealed by Theft by Finding, his published collection of selected entries from the years 1977 through 2002.
“My friend cut his finger so I am looking for a morsel of rubber,” he describes himself saying to a grocery clerk, in search of a bandage after his boyfriend Hugh has a minor accident slicing cheese. (Hugh, the French-fluent son of diplomats, later corrects him: “It seems he did not ‘cut his finger’ but, rather, ‘cut of himself the finger.’”) The English word morsel has served Sedaris well, comically speaking, as back-translation of the French word morceau, which simply means “piece.” In another story of his French classes, he quotes a Polish student straining to explain Easter, “a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus” who “be die one day on two … morsels of … lumber.”
Despite the language barrier, Sedaris’s French-class assignments, full of grotesque medical conditions, bizarre crimes of passion, and accompanying animals (“Why write ‘I went to the store with a friend’ when, without relying on the dictionary, I can say ‘I visited the slaughterhouse with my godfather and a small monkey’?”) display what fans will have come to think of as characteristic fascinations. “One day I will be very old and reside in a nursing home,” he writes in a homework essay about the future. “Toothless, bald, and wrinkled, I will wake myself three times a night, and with the help of my nurses, I will go to the toilet. I will eat nothing but gruel and once a month will bathe myself in tepid, cloudy water. I will regard my long, yellow toenails” — probably a suitable use of the French verb regarder, but amusingly askew when replaced by its most similar-sounding English equivalent.
Not that the scene at the Alliance Française, where he enrolls at the age of 41, doesn’t have Sedaris feeling fairly aged already. “I’m the oldest student and the only American,” he writes in his diary after the first day. “The others are Japanese, Thai, Polish, Argentinean, Italian, Egyptian, and Chinese.” Many readers who have launched into the study of a foreign language as an adult will relate to Sedaris’s experience of being among the oldest (which, in Paris, causes him to feel “not unlike Pa Kettle trapped backstage after a fashion show”) and least competent in a veritable United Nations of a classroom. This holds especially true for readers who’ve studied in that foreign language’s own country, and even more so for those born and raised in the United States.
A Korean novelist friend of mine, who taught foreigners his mother tongue for a few years before becoming famous, put it unambiguously: on the list of impediments to language-learning, being American — a condition that often entails scant exposure to, and thus an underdeveloped feel for, second languages — comes at the top. The United States’s lack of a widespread culture of long-term travel must also have something to do with it. “Any perceived rudeness can turn someone not just against you but against your entire country,” Sedaris warns in a New Yorker piece about studying languages on the road, recalling “the phrase books of my youth, where the Ugly American was still alive, and kicking people. ‘I didn’t order this!’ he raged in Greek and Spanish. ‘Think you can cheat me, do you?’”
That rudeness has only deepened since: “Now for the traveling American there’s less of a need for phrase books. Not only do we expect everyone to speak our language; we expect everyone to be fluent.” In this respect, “the phrase books and audio programs are an almost charming throwback, a suggestion that the traveller put himself out there, that he open himself to criticism and not the person who’s just trying to scrape by selling meatballs in Bumfucchio, Italy.” But the North Carolina–raised Sedaris, who never learned to drive, resisted using a computer until the 21st century, smoked heavily until about a decade ago, and not just travels far and wide but lives abroad (formerly in France, currently in rural England), hardly presents the image the world seems to expect of an American.
Like most of us, Sedaris endured his required foreign-language studies in high school (in one early story, he savages his eighth-grade Spanish teacher for delivering a maudlin, irrelevant speech to the class culminating in the pronouncement that “more than anything in this world, those colored people wish they were white”), but unlike most of us, he emerged with speaking ability: the diaries of his 20s refer to long (if imperfectly conducted) Spanish-language conversations with Mexican laborers on the farms where he spent summers picking apples as well as a woman from Madrid he encounters while traveling through Greece.
As the grandson of Greek immigrants, Sedaris also has some command of the Greek language, though not to the same extent as his father, a retired IBM engineer and a belovedly cantankerous character in his essays. “Since Dad’s arrival, all he’s done is yell at people,” says one entry written when the two met up in Athens in the early 1980s. “He’ll ask someone on the street for directions, then tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about. He speaks combat Greek, and the people he talks to speak it back.” Sedaris and his sisters, lacking the same instinct for the language of the old country one develops growing up in an immigrant household, prepare for a trip by taking classes at the local Greek church in Raleigh.
“There are nine students,” Sedaris writes in his diary when the Greek course begins, and not only is he already among the oldest, “[s]ix of them are children, and I can’t figure out what they’re doing there.” Even in that unpromising learning environment, he acquires enough of the language to get around Athens. “I go to a toy store and say, in Greek, ‘How much is the small dog?’” he writes in his diary there. “I’m in a good mood, doing what I love — shopping. The woman is the rudest person I’ve met so far and says in flawless English that the dog winds up but is broken.” He has far better shopping experiences 30 years later in Japan. “Twice in 2014, I went to Tokyo with my sister Amy,” he writes in The New Yorker. “I’d been seven times already, so was able to lead her to all the best places, by which I mean stores.”
On subsequent Tokyo trips he invites another sister along as well, and the siblings finish each day “groaning beneath the weight of our purchases, things I’d often wind up regretting the moment I pulled them out of their bags.” Sedaris began his relationship with Tokyo when he quit smoking, the habit that had encouraged his expatriation in the first place. “When New York banned smoking in restaurants, I stopped eating out,” he writes in an essay about how he started and how he stopped. “When they banned it in the workplace I quit working, and when they raised the price of cigarettes to seven dollars a pack, I gathered all my stuff together and went to France.”
Forced into ever-seedier hotels on his reading tours as both public and private smoking bans spread first across the United States and then the world, Sedaris started looking into cessation strategies. Most recommendations involve a change in environment or routine, and while for some this means “moving your sofa, or driving to work in a rental car,” for Sedaris it means spending three months in Japan. Though in many ways a “smoker’s paradise” — “in coffee shops and restaurants, in cabs and offices and hotel rooms, life was like a black-and-white movie,” with an ashtray on every table and a haze hanging around any party of more than three or four — Japan, in its sheer foreignness, would, he hopes, “take me out of myself” and “give me something to concentrate on besides my own suffering.”
The Japanese language would provide another productive distraction. Sedaris had been to Tokyo once before, briefly, and prepared linguistically for that trip by memorizing a CD full of basic Japanese phrases. “A lot of people laughed at my Japanese on that trip, but I never felt that I was being made fun of,” he writes. “Rather, it was like I’d performed a trick, something perverse and unexpected, like pulling a sausage out of my ear. When I first came to France, I was afraid to open my mouth, but in Tokyo, trying was fun. The five dozen phrases I’d memorized before coming served me in good stead, and I left the country wanting to learn more.” A second, 45-CD instructional program “allowed me to confidently introduce both myself and Hugh, and to comment on the pleasant weather as we boarded the elevator to the twenty-sixth floor” of the Tokyo building where they’d rented a place to stay.
But even there Sedaris chafes against his limitations: “I knew how to say that the apartment was big, and good, but not that it smelled new and reminded me of one of those midlevel residence hotels.” As in Paris, he wastes no time seeking out a language school, but despite all the studying he had put in beforehand, he still tests into the beginner’s level. (“I tried to act flattered,” he writes, “as if there was a sub-beginner’s class, and it had just been decided that I was too good for it.”) His description of the class sounds almost like a reprise of the scene at the Alliance Française: Koreans, Americans, an Indonesian, and now French classmates as well. “I was luckily not the oldest person in the room. That’s a distinction that went to Claude, a history professor from Dijon.”
Sedaris soon comes to the crushing realization that everyone, even Claude, already knows the basic Japanese alphabet — everyone except him and a “lovable nitwit” by the name of Sang Lee. “I need her,” he writes of this teenager from Korea, “someone who’s worse than I am, someone I can look down on.” But before long even the “little idiot Sang Lee” surpasses Sedaris, and he finds himself barely able to respond to questions or even read aloud from the textbook. “Buying a bottle of shampoo and discovering later that it’s actually baby oil is bad, but at least that’s a private humiliation,” he writes. “This is public, and it hurts everyone around me. Don’t call on David-san, don’t call on David-san, I can feel my classmates thinking.”
Though his procession of Japanese teachers offer him nothing but effervescence, congratulation, and euphemism — “Maybe you don’t understand it so much,” the most direct of them says after stopping him in the hallway to talk about a homework assignment — the frustration takes him back to his previous classroom experience: “I went through this with French school but never knew how easy I had it.” He leaves Japanese class “with one goal — to find a secluded place, sit down, and treat myself to a nice long cry,” but the streets of Tokyo offer no such places: “no church to duck into, no park bench hidden in the shadows.”
After completing the final assignment for the first semester, an essay on his life in Japan in which he writes that “every day I do homework but always I make bad tests,” Sedaris decides not to continue on to the second. But given that he makes no secret of the wealth his literary success has brought him, one might well wonder: why does he subject himself to the embarrassments of these language classes at all? Surely he could afford personalized, one-on-one instruction, and the best of the best at that — but then, would that afford human comedy as rich as does a mixture of various nationalities, ages, and abilities, all hoping, and many struggling, to learn a language not their own? Much of a social observer’s work is done the moment he walks in the door.
In isolation, Sedaris displays a willpower bordering on the superhuman: he has updated his diary each and every day, without exception, since starting it in 1977; he writes dozens of drafts of his essays, each one subjected to the rigors of public reading; he quit both drinking and smoking cold-turkey; and now, living in rural England, spends up to nine hours a day on his hobby of picking up roadside litter. This discipline extends to his study of languages, but mostly outside the classroom. Even before his first visit to France, he set himself on a program of memorizing 10 French words per day, and each trip to a new country now finds him doing his best to master at least the very basics of whatever that country happens to speak, no matter how minor a tongue it may be. (In one diary entry, after copying down a sample dialogue from Teach Yourself Slovene, he remarks that, “ironically, the shortest chapter in the book is titled ‘Why Learn Slovene?’”)
Yet on Sedaris’s first trip to Germany, he writes, “I couldn’t bring myself to say so much as Guten Morgen. The sounds felt false coming out of my mouth, so instead I spent my time speaking English apologetically,” like so many Americans in Europe. But that changes as he develops a nearly addiction-grade habit of listening to Pimsleur brand audio courses, all of which use the same skit-based format. “[A] man approaches a strange woman, asking, in Italian or Japanese or whichever language you’ve signed up for, if she understands English. The two jabber away for twenty seconds or so, and then an American instructor chimes in and breaks it all down.”
These conversations “grow more complicated as you progress, and the phrases are regularly repeated so that you don’t forget them,” although the sentences provided don’t always meet the specific needs of the listener, as Sedaris discovers when making small talk in taxi cabs in Japan. “‘Do you have children?’ I ask,” but “when he turns it around, as Japanese cabdrivers are inclined to do, I tell him that I have three children, a big boy and two little girls. If Pimsleur included ‘I am a middle-aged homosexual and thus make do with a niece I never see and a very small godson,’ I’d say that. In the meantime, I work with what I have.”
The importance of making the most of whatever language one possesses, no matter how meager, arises in other essays as well, such as when Sedaris writes of his habit, inadvertently acquired, of introducing himself in Japanese as a doctor: “I didn’t set out to misrepresent myself, but I didn’t know the words for ‘author’ or ‘trash collector.’ ‘Doctor,’ though, was in one of the ninety Teach Yourself Japanese lessons I’d reviewed before leaving England.” This causes no problems in Japan, whose people generally go along to get along, particularly with foreigners — a stark contrast to the “moody and often savage” Germany depicted in Pimsleur’s skits. “In one of the exercises, you’re encouraged to argue with a bellhop who tries to cheat you out of your change and who ends up sneering, ‘You don’t understand German.’ ‘Oh, but I do,’ you learn to say. ‘I do understand German.’”
Sedaris finds a friendlier and more effective solo learning experience under the pre-recorded tutelage of an instructor named Michel Thomas, creator of the “Michel Thomas Method.” “Unlike the nameless instructor in Pimsleur, Herr Thomas explains things — the fact, for example, that if there are two verbs in a German sentence one of them comes at the end. He doesn’t give you phrases to memorize.” This seems to suit Sedaris’s tendency to retain and experiment with non-standard subject matter. (He mentions his early acquisition of such German terms as Kaiserschnitt, “Cesarean section,” and Lebensabschnittspartner, “‘the person I am with today,’ the implication being that things change, and you are keeping yourself open.”) This thrill of not rote repetition but “actually figuring it out on your own” gets him through the trials of basic German (including but not limited to “the hell that breaks loose following the German ‘because’”).
Though his essays about French class won him no small number of fans, Sedaris has built more of his reputation on the stories of his family: not just of his stern father and variously eccentric sisters but his foulmouthed, thoroughly countrified younger brother and acerbically witty mother. Though the well of family tales appears not to have run dry quite yet, Sedaris has had to seek out material elsewhere, and conversation in more exotic settings than at the kitchen table, and sometimes in foreign languages, has often provided it. Incompetence — an incompetence, longtime readers will suspect, occasionally exaggerated — just gives him more to work with: he spins an entire New Yorker piece from his reliance on the French term D’accord, a simple term of agreement, but also “a key to a magic door, and every time I said it I felt the thrill of possibility,” especially on the frequent occasions, familiar to all language-learners, when he doesn’t understand the proposition he’s replying to in the first place.
Sedaris pays closer attention to the words of the handsome chimney sweep come to aléser the chimney of his and Hugh’s 200-year-old cottage in Normandy: “Did I know, he asked, that the same verb, ‘to ream out,’ was also used for sex acts? ‘You’re kidding,’ I said. ‘How interesting.’” Years later, a chat with a barber in Japan (whose hand, in a characteristically obsessive touch, Sedaris can’t stop imagining bears traces of excrement) begins with questions like “Last night for dinner I ate pork. What did you have?” and devolves into a children’s game of anatomical identification — “‘Mimi,’ I said, and I pointed to my ear. ‘Very good.’ And he pointed to his own ear. ‘Mimi!’” — that, alas, fails to provide Sedaris the verifying look he so desired at the barber’s suspiciously smelly extremity.
These attempts may not be pretty, in the sense of linguistic refinement or even good taste, but they do show an American finding his way past stereotypical hang-ups about speaking in a language, imperfectly and far from his home turf. Before Normandy, Sedaris lived in a building on a Paris street where vacationing Americans were “compelled for some reason to stand beneath my office window and scream at one another.” Many of these arguments erupt over language: “A wife had made certain claims regarding her abilities. ‘I’ve been listening to tapes,’ she said, or, perhaps, ‘All those romance languages are pretty much alike, so what with my Spanish we should be fine.’ But then people use slang, or ask unexpected questions, and things begin to fall apart.”
The problem of language inevitably turns into the problem of culture, and of moving — or escaping — from one into another: “You want to be French, Mary Frances, that’s your problem,” one husband accuses his wife, “but instead you’re just another American.” Sedaris, who seems never to have entertained a Francophile thought before moving there, watches pityingly from his window: “Poor Mary Frances in her beige beret.” No wonder some Americans in Paris choose, almost aggressively, not to try, like the couple Sedaris observes on the Métro going full Ugly American, the husband dressed in a pizza-restaurant T-shirt and pleated denim shorts, both of them in “bright new his-and-hers sneakers.”
“Comfort has its place,” Sedaris writes, “but it seems rude to visit another country dressed as if you’ve come to mow its lawns.” Not only that, but they also mistake Sedaris for a Frenchman and complain loudly about what they take to be his stereotypical body odor: “Yes indeed, this little froggy is ripe.” Paradoxically, given their expectation of worldwide English fluency on the part of service workers, vacationing Americans in public “assume that everyone around them is French and therefore speaks no English whatsoever,” as if that language were a “mysterious tribal dialect spoken only by anthropologists and a small population of cannibals.” “It just gets my goat,” the man on the subway car says after he has declared Sedaris not just smelly but also a pickpocket. “I mean, where’s a policioni when you need one?”
Sedaris has captured this kind of American inarticulacy with great sensitivity throughout his writing career. In a recent New York Times Magazine interview he marvels over a North Carolina woman’s complaint, when having to wake up early, that “I hain’t even rolled over good”: “It was so beautiful and so unexpected, and of course, I put it in my diary.” Other pieces in his collection pin down a common variety of sententiousness undercut by clumsiness: “I fully intend to read your book, as I, too, have hoped to ‘Talk Pretty Someday,’” writes a fellow American in Paris after reading one of his newspaper interviews. “My reason for this note is because of your comments on smoking. Because of you and others with similar opinions, people like me cannot eat in Paris restaurants (except McDonald’s). I hope you are never the victim of a smoking-related illness or have to care for someone who is — believe me — then ‘talking pretty’ will not be an option.”
Whether in the suburbs of his youth, in the classroom, on the lecture circuit, on the streets of Paris or Tokyo, or even in the quiescence of the French or English countryside, Sedaris’s ear for the peculiar expressiveness of the linguistically limited — himself or others, in foreign tongues or even their native ones — seems never to fail him. Though funny and telling in his rendering, their words, or lack of the proper words, also reflect sadder truths, examples of which the diary entries collected in Theft by Finding offer in even greater abundance than his essay collections. One of them Sedaris wrote not long after the death of his mother, who had presided through his entire youth and adolescence over extended after-dinner conversations in an atmosphere of constant laughter (and a practically Japanese density of cigarette smoke).
“One of us would tell a story about our day and she’d interject every now and then to give notes,” as Sedaris, in a recent New Yorker piece, describes the “master class” conducted every night over their empty plates, an experience that surely shaped his instinct to entertain with words. Though the young Sedaris and his sisters participated enthusiastically, their father always “beat it for the nearest TV” right after eating, and so, upon the passing of the Sedaris matriarch-raconteur, found himself at an irreparable loss for words. “Dad wants to talk about her death — he needs to — but unlike the rest of us, who yak incessantly about our feelings, he has no vocabulary for it and is reduced to the clichés you’d find on a sympathy card,” Sedaris writes, years before his own ventures into French, German, Japanese, Slovene. “It’s like not knowing a language.”
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