In his humorous essay about learning to speak French, David Sedaris locates his experiences in a place familiar to most people: a classroom. Focusing the essay’s action in a classroom provides a connection that is meaningful for most people. Although most Americans have never lived in Paris as he did, Sedaris connects the specific situation of being an American in France with the larger question of being a newcomer in a strange place. David reveals that his reason for moving to France was personal in that he accompanied his partner, Hugh, whose work took him there.
Sedaris concentrates on his experience with other students in the French language class, which include getting used to a very demanding and critical teacher. Even though Sedaris is an adult and many readers will never have lived in a foreign country or learned a new language, most people have been in an uncomfortable class situation or encountered a difficult teacher. He presents his fellow students and himself sharing the burden of trying to learn in an atmosphere that is not conducive to learning.
From the beginning, Sedaris uses humor to establish a light tone but also to convey that the subject has a serious side. He adopts a self-deprecating attitude, showing that he sees his fellow students as cooler than he is by making fun of his own clothing. Humor is also derived from his interpretation of the language textbook, which is for children, as a symbol of his discomfort in the new situation.
The reader can empathize with his initial sensation of feeling different from the other students, in this case primarily because of age. The teacher’s harshness has a negative effect on Sedaris’s confidence in learning. This difficulty adds a serious element to the story, and is likely to stimulate readers’ memories of challenging material or instructors from their own schools. Similarly, the way that he bonds with other students in opposition to the teacher may well be part of the readers’ experiences.