Me Talk Pretty One Day

by David Sedaris

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What is the context, author's purpose, style, and tone of "Me Talk Pretty One Day"?

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The author, David Sedaris, uses a humorous and sarcastic tone in “Me Talk Pretty One Day” to highlight how learning a new skill can be both an embarrassing and joyful experience. The context is that he moved to France and needs to learn French. The story's purpose is to show how humor can be found in tough experiences; another theme Sedaris explores is that of otherness.

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Sedaris writes in an understated but satiric tone while observing the people surrounding him, their conformity to social norms, and their attempts to force those norms upon others.

His purpose, from the opening of Me Talk Pretty One Day, is to show that authority figures have used indirect methods of stigmatizing otherness. Two episodes can be cited to illustrate this dynamic.

In the 1960s, speech class was a kind of mechanism by which children (although Sedaris mentions only boys in this context, girls were subjected to it as well) were singled out as different and, in some sense, deficient because of the way they talked. In Sedaris's school, Miss Samson, the speech teacher, is likened to an FBI agent making an arrest when she comes into the classroom and singles him out. Though his writing is wry and low-key, Sedaris's style uses metaphor and hyperbole to get his point across. The subtext of the episode is that boys who are suspected of being gay (or potentially so) are identified by lisping or some other alleged abnormality of speech.

These attempts to enforce conformity are contextualized in the outwardly benign milieu of a middle-class upbringing, typical of the time and yet alienating to someone such as Sedaris, who feels from an early point that he's different and is being singled out. His descriptions are ironic, since the people tasked with enforcing conformity have some aspect of otherness themselves. Miss Samson feels herself a failure as a speech teacher. The guitar teacher, Mister Mancini, is a little person. Sedaris witnesses a scene at the mall where Mancini is laughed at by some boys, yet when Sedaris behaves in what is considered an "inappropriate" way by singing a jingle from a TV commercial, Mancini himself upbraids Sedaris, telling him, "I'm not into that scene." Again, a behavior is being identified as characteristic of gay people without this being stated openly.

Two themes identifiable here are indirection and deflection. Criticism of boys who don't seem "normal" is done in a way that veils the actual reason for it. At the same time, some people who themselves are "different," such as Mancini, often try to deflect attention from themselves by criticizing others for allegedly non-conformist behavior, as Mancini does to the young Sedaris.

A small stylistic point, but a significant one, is that "Mister" is always written out for Mancini rather than given its usual abbreviated form. The effect is to further satirize an authority figure, a member of the establishment enforcing the conformity that was considered so vital at that time and unfortunately, in many quarters, still is.

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David Sedaris describes himself in the first sentence of "Me Talk Pretty One Day" as returning to school at the age of forty-one. He clarifies this statement in the following paragraph by saying that he has moved to Paris to learn French and is taking classes at the Alliance Française. The context, therefore, is a school in a foreign country in which all the pupils are adults; but the author, as a beginner, has to some extent regressed to childhood. He recalls his time at school, but there is a sense in which he has regressed even farther back than this, since he is learning to speak.

Sedaris's purpose, apart from entertaining readers, is to explore and make them think about such issues as education, communication, and belonging. He also examines the power dynamics of the classroom, in which the teacher is a recognizable type: the sadist who uses students as target practice for her feeble attempts at sarcasm. The author's own lightly ironic tone becomes more waspish when he is pointing out the teacher's heavy-hand responses to her students' struggles to communicate. Much of the comedy in Sedaris's tone comes from the contrast between his elegant, whimsical use of the English language, and the broken attempts at French (translated into broken English, to create a greater contrast). As Sedaris shows, learning is largely dependent on memory, particularly for adults, and the essay makes the reader remember what it is like to learn a language, as well as conveying the message that humor and camaraderie can be found even in difficult experiences.

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The context of “Me Talk Pretty One Day” relates to the fact that author David Sedaris has just moved to Paris with his boyfriend but has little prior knowledge of the French language. The essay relates to his difficulties in picking up the language and acclimatizing to a new home and culture.

His purpose is to convey the challenges and results of learning a new language. It emphasizes the importance of making the effort to learn the language if you move to a new place. He makes the point that being able to understand the basics of what someone is saying to you in a new language does not mean that you can now speak the language. Language, like everything else, is acquired in small steps.

The style and tone of this essay are humorous and self-deprecating, which makes Sedaris’s writing inviting to the reader. As an example, he compares himself to his young, attractive classmates by commenting that he feels “not unlike Pa Kettle trapped backstage after a fashion show.” One does not need to understand the cultural references of that phrase to have a chuckle at how out of place Sedaris clearly felt.

As to the question of what you have learned from this essay, your answer will be subjective. From my perspective, it is a lesson in the value of hard work. Sedaris began to become more comfortable with the language of his new home after he committed to working hard at mastering it.

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In his essay “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris uses a humorous, and occasionally sarcastic, tone to describe his experience learning French in Paris. The context for this essay is that he had just moved to Paris with his boyfriend but needed to learn the native language. He mentions that he had taken French classes in New York before coming to Paris, but in France, the class is less competitive than in New York.

Sedaris seems to have a few purposes in this essay. One prominent thing he aims to do is underline the struggles and benefits of learning a new language. Consider how he ends the essay explaining that when he responded to the teacher, “the world opened up.” Here, we see that learning French gave him confidence and the ability to communicate with more people. However, his response to the teacher still used incorrect grammar. Sedaris thus ends by using his humorous tone and poking fun at the way learning a new skill comes with both joy and embarrassment.

You will of course have learned your own lessons from this essay, and there is no right or wrong answer to what you have learned. Yet someone reading this essay is likely prompted to reflect on the nature of new experiences. This simultaneous experience of embarrassment and progress is not necessarily limited to learning a new language. Consider how Sedaris’s tough relationship with the teacher motivated him to study four hours each night. The way his struggles motivated him could be a lesson to anyone considering learning a new skill.

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