Me Talk Pretty One Day

by David Sedaris
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What is David Sedaris' point in the essay "Me Talk Pretty One Day"?

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The point of David Sedaris's essay "Me Talk Pretty One Day" is to demonstrate how knowledge can sometimes come from the unlikeliest of places.

After moving to Paris to learn French, Sedaris takes his quest a step further by enrolling in a French class. Sedaris is already...

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The point of David Sedaris's essay "Me Talk Pretty One Day" is to demonstrate how knowledge can sometimes come from the unlikeliest of places.

After moving to Paris to learn French, Sedaris takes his quest a step further by enrolling in a French class. Sedaris is already nervous about having to perform in class, and the instructor's declaration that everyone should already know the French alphabet does little to put the author at ease.

The instructor asks two students, dubbed "Two Polish Annas," to state their basic biographical information as well as what they like and dislike about the world. She further asks one of them to state how the class came to be "blessed with someone as unique and original as you? Tell us, please."

As Sedaris writes, "the seamstress did not understand what was being said but knew this was an occasion for shame."

The instructor's blistering assaults continue when she calls upon a Yugoslavian student, who terms herself an optimist because "she loved everything that life had to offer."

The teacher licked her lips, revealing a hint of the saucebox we would later come to know. She crouched low for her attack, placed her hands on the young woman's desk, and leaned close, saying, "Oh yeah? And do you love your little war?"

The attacks continue: the instructor decries her students for disliking soap, laziness, and paintbrushes, even accusing the optimistic Yugoslavian girl of orchestrating genocide.

The students naively believe this first-day cage rattling will cease once the "deadweight" falls away. It doesn't.

Sedaris's response to the instructor's constant belittling is to spend inordinate amounts of time on his homework assignments in an attempt to turn the instructor's assessment of him as "lazy" to "David the hard worker." Of course, when she tells him in pitch-perfect English, "I really, really hate you," it would seem all his efforts are for naught.

The instructor's brutality does not make her students rise to the occasion but rather demeans and demoralizes them, stripping them of confidence in their linguistic skills—and, indeed, in themselves. Sedaris describes his fellow students as "huddled in the hallways and making the most of our pathetic French ... engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overheard in refugee camps." They hope to "talk pretty" one day.

It is only after an entire term of unrelenting insults that Sedaris has the revelation that he perfectly understands French. He comes to find the scorn soothing and glorious in a way—because though he can't necessarily speak as fluently as he may wish, he can finally decipher what the language of love means.

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The point of the essay is that the process of learning a new language turns even full-grown people into children. Sedaris recounts in hilarious fashion how he attends a class to learn French in Paris and feels very much like a scared kindergartener. His teacher begins to teach the class the names of the French letters, and Sedaris realizes that he does not even know the alphabet in French. When he answers the first question he is asked in class—what he loves—he is abused by his teacher for forgetting the gender of the word "typewriter" in French and is made to feel idiotic.

Thus begins many weeks of tribulations during which he must labor over simple homework and be physically and verbally abused by his teacher. The reader suspects that Sedaris is exaggerating his teacher's abuse for funny effect, but the point remains that he feels insecure until he can finally completely understand his teacher's insults. The larger point of the essay is that learning brings out people's insecurities and makes them again feel like scared little children, as the process causes them to feel weak and vulnerable.

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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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