Note: The essay was prepared originally for ENGL 623, “Second Language Acquisition,” Northern Illinois University, spring 2017.
The first thing David Sedaris mentions in his narrative essay “Me Talk Pretty One Day” is his age (2000, 166). Newly relocated to Paris for French-language immersion, he’s “Pa Kettle trapped backstage after a fashion show” (167), comparing himself to the lithe bodies and glib conversationalists congregating in the school lobby on the first day of class. Can scholars of second-language acquisition offer Sedaris any consolation – or only add to his displacement and defeatism – with regard to how age and various cognitive, individual, and social factors might affect his efforts to learn French?
To begin, as Sedaris does, with age, we know that he is forty-one at the time of his linguistic experiment, but we do not discover much else in this essay about his language background, his L1 acquisition process, or his aptitude for languages. He has “spent quite a few summers in Normandy” and, immediately before this “sink or swim” intensive Parisian experience, took a month-long French class in the United States (167). Thus, he demonstrates cultural affinity and some integrative motivation, but, otherwise, he mentions few clear goals – other than to write about the experience and, perhaps, eventually to “carry on a fluent conversation” (179). He talk pretty one day.
But back to the age question. To judge from the introductory assessment in David Birdsong’s article (2005), it’s a good thing that Sedaris did not read Birdsong before his trip; he might have been even more depressed when experiencing the L2 learner’s cognitive disruption. “Late, post-pubertal L2A” – the place where Sedaris finds himself – “is thought to lead to learner failure, failure being understood as not reaching a level of mastery that is attained in L1A” (Birdsong 2005, 319). We can imagine Sedaris having fun with the morose idea of learner failure – possible associations come to mind, including “systems failure” or “renal failure.” He might also feel kinship with the “deficit model” and the equally dispiriting idea that native-like second-language attainment is a futile objective.
But for every theory of L2 fossilization and erosion in cognitive plasticity, another approach seems to hold out hope. Birdsong continues that nativelikeness, while useful as a descriptive standard by which to judge an L2 learner’s progress, is problematic as the ultimate measure of attainment. We should also, he adds, consider “learner potential” (320). And DeKeyser poses a key question for Sedaris, given the latter’s age consciousness: “[A]ssuming a maturational phenomenon is at issue, what is its nature … what kinds of differences develop in the crucial/critical learning processes as a function of [age of L2 attainment]?” (DeKeyser 2013, 53). In his research review, DeKeyser cites a mixed bag of results regarding age effects on L2 learning but also states flatly that “there is no evidence” that children learn a language faster than adults (54), particularly in classroom settings, where teenagers and adults have advantages.
Whether the received wisdom that younger people acquire languages faster leads Sedaris to such sensitivity about his age, we do not know. I have had numerous learners like Sedaris, immigrant ESL students that have told me directly at the end of class, “For kids, this is easier,” often drawing on their own children’s successes with English and forgetting about the youths’ greater access to implicit acquisition processes. Sadly, for Sedaris, it seems unlikely that his unnamed teacher would have any sympathy for his situation.
Another prominent theme in these short selections from Sedaris’s book is his translation of classroom mistakes. Much of the comedy comes from his rendering of mangled classroom performance: misattributed gender, misuse of articles, confused pronouns, and general incomprehension. The teacher, in Sedaris’s account, has a unique error-correction strategy – not recasting or offering space for learners to self-correct, but open abuse. “Even a fiuscrzsa ticiwelmun knows that a typewriter is feminine” (170), she says, after Sedaris has committed this grave error when referring to la machine à écrire. Avoiding the question of the quality of classroom input – Sedaris reproduces the teacher’s phonemic jumble with nonsense words like meimslsxp – Sedaris moves into the terrain of interlanguage when recounting in the chapter “Jesus Saves” an extended classroom discussion about Easter. (Full credit to the teacher here for prompting the conversation and allowing it to continue.)
Previously, I used the word mistakes to refer to the problems that appear in the classroom exchange (2000, 177–78). For the purposes of this discussion, however, I’ll assume that the issue in students’ explication of Easter is one of “systematic error,” what S. P. Corder depicts as an L2 learning strategy while applying the term transitional competence to distinguish between chance “mistakes” and “errors” that actually provide evidence of a learner’s development (1967, 166–67). Thus, when classmates in Sedaris’s cohort come up with gems such as “He nice, the Jesus” (2000, 177), these can be viewed as bold experiments or repair strategies that L2 students devise creatively in order to work around material they may not have not learned yet. Sedaris says as much when he acknowledges the gaps in vocabulary (“cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp” ) and lack of structural sophistication; in the second case, the students as yet could not produce “complicated reflexive phrases [such] as ‘to give of yourself your only begotten son’” (178). On top of it all is the conceptual complexity – who can explain the resurrection? Whether Sedaris’s teacher is a friend to the interlanguage hypothesis is open to question, although, as a speaker of five languages, maybe she possesses a hidden tolerance for language learners’ struggles.
If we had the recording of the Easter exchange in the original French, we would have rich free-production data for cognitive or linguistic approaches to interlanguage. Already, using Sedaris’s translations, which surely have been manipulated for comic effect, we see possible examples of overgeneralization (“he weared of himself,” trying to regularize an irregular form) and of the “fully communicative interlanguage system” that Klein and Perdue in the title of their 1997 paper on European Science Foundation data call the “basic variety” (Ortega 2009, 117, 122). In Ortega’s presentation of the basic variety, there are categories for analyzing Sedaris’s account: absence of inflection (“he make the good things”), lack of complex structures, and pragmatic rather than grammatical marking of time (“he be die one day,” “he die one day”) (2009, 123). Sedaris, in fact, can take heart in that he and his classmates are moving through phases in expressing tense, adding lexical indicators such as “then” and “after he die” to show that they are working on this concept (Ortega 2009, 126). Other dimensions to consider are how the speakers’ focus on meaning over accuracy in this free-flowing context, in which we perhaps gain access to a product of the “learner’s competence,” and how the community-constructed nature of this discourse address the interlanguage influence (Tarone 2014, 14, 20).
Many other SLA themes could be added to this look at Sedaris’s language-learning memoir. He refers to his and others’ anxiety, his own negative self-assessments (“I was convinced that everything I said was wrong” ), the role of instrumental motivation (“I took to spending four hours a night on my homework” ), cognition factors (“Understanding doesn’t mean that you can suddenly speak the language” ), and L2 learning sequences. There are also allusions to investment and identity, most explicitly when he writes, “I was determined to create some sort of identity for myself: David the hard worker, David the cut-up” (171). At every pass, including this attempt at L2 identity creation, the teacher discourages. What could she have done better? Probably lots of things, but we should observe that at no point does Sedaris say that he failed to learn. Still, I find myself wanting to reach through time and these pages to say, “Enjoy yourself, David. Sit outside. Drink coffee. Have a beignet. It’s going to be all right.”
Birdsong, David. 2005. “Nativelikeness and Non-nativelikeness in L2A Research.” International Review of Applied Linguistics 43:319–28.
Corder, S. P. 1967. “The Significance of Learner’s Errors.” International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching 4 (November):161–70.
DeKeyser, Robert M. 2013. “Age Effects in Second Language Learning: Stepping Stones toward Better Understanding.” Language Learning 63, suppl. 1 (March):52–67.
Ortega, Lourdes. 2009. Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Understanding Language series, ed. Bernard Comrie and Greville Corbett. London: Hodder Education.
Sedaris, David. 2000. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown.
Tarone, Elaine. 2014. “Enduring Questions from the Interlanguage Hypothesis.” Chap. 1 in Interlanguage: Forty Years Later, ed. ZhaoHong Han and Elaine Tarone. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.