Thursday, January 25, 2007

I Only Sound Idiotic in Your Language

I just read “Jesus Shaves,” one of the few chapters I really enjoy in Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. I thought of it after another rewarding visit to prompted my friend HR and I to reminisce about our days studying languages abroad. No one does a better job of describing the peril and confusion of trying to communicate in a second language than Sedaris in this book.

My reaction to Sedaris is completely polarized—I strongly dislike about 75% of Me Talk Pretty One Day and rather wish I hadn’t ever read those bits. However, there are two or three chapters I love dearly. Each time I read “Jesus Shaves,” I laugh until I can't breathe, so I recommend it wholeheartedly. (For those of you who appreciate a warning, it has a bit of bad language in it.)

What’s uniquely hilarious about Sedaris’s depiction of the challenges of language learning is the way he translates his awkward French back into hopelessly nonsensical English for the benefit of the reader. I'm sure many of the things I’ve said in German or Indonesian sounded exactly like his ungainly attempts. In one of my favorite scenes, he describes how his French progressed from toddler speak (using only nouns and gestures) to that of an inbred redneck: He walks into a butcher shop, points at some calves brains, and asks the butcher “Is thems the thoughts of cows?”

Learning a second language is a risky thing. It requires vulnerability and humility, which is why little children progress quicker than adults. When we are willing to speak out loud, we often make ourselves sound like idiots and offend other people. I once called my teaching supervisor in Indonesia “Mr. Coconut Head” instead of “Mr. Headmaster.” But it’s worth it when you can order a special omelet, give sound directives to an elephant, and relax in a different culture because you can actually comprehend your friends.

“Jesus Shaves” is attached in three pages for your reading pleasure. Just click to enlarge.

1 comment:

Ickenham said...

Fraser pulls off a similar comedic stunt with the pirate who mistakenly believes he's French, in "The Pyrates."