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In his essay 'Me Talk Pretty One Day,' David Sedaris points out how difficult it is to actually acquire a working, minimum fluency in a foreign language even after some exposure to it.
Despite a month long French class and summers in Normandy prior to attending school in France, the author finds himself at a loss when his new teacher mercilessly rattles off some administrative announcements in fluent French. It is not long before the students in David's class realize that their teacher is both mercurial and sadistically unsympathetic. Her linguistic skewering intimidates her students but appears to bolster her sense of self-importance. At least, this is the general consensus among David's classmates.
How often is one asked what he loves in this world? More to the point, how often is one asked and then publicly ridiculed for his answer?
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 completely unpredictable.
Huddled in the hallways and making the most of our pathetic French, my fellow students and I engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overhead in refugee camps.
In a frantic effort to improve, David takes to spending four hours a night on his homework. However, he eventually discovers that his fear of sounding unsophisticated and clumsy leads him to avoid regular discourse with others.
David's struggles with the French language continue, and no one is more surprised when he discovers that he happens to understand every word of abuse his teacher hurls at him one day. This emotionally significant moment is fused with undeniable pride and self-satisfaction.
Understanding doesn’t mean that 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.
Though Sedaris points out that achieving fluency in a foreign language is a linguistically grueling undertaking (seemingly made worse by an emotionally daunting instructor), the results of finally marking some sort of progress in the endeavor is both exhilarating and inspiring.
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