Milestones in a foreign language: “I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly.”

David Sedaris, like the lovely Julia Child who I quoted last week, is another America who has spent stretches of time as an expat in France. For those who don’t know him, he’s a humorist/writer who revels in the dark and absurd aspects of his own life growing up in North Carolina, and living as an adult in New York City and France.

In “Me Talk Pretty One Day” he writes about his struggle to learn French.

On making the first wobbly steps in a new language:

“Things began to come together, and I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. ‘Is them the thoughts of cows?’ I’d ask the butcher, pointing to the calves’ brains displayed in the front window. ‘I want me some lamb chops with handles on ’em.'”

On the difficulty of memorizing the gender of nouns:

“I spent months searching for some secret code before I realized that common sense has nothing to do with it. …

‘What’s the trick to remembering that a sandwich is masculine? What qualities does it share with anyone in possession of a penis? I’ll tell myself that a sandwich is masculine because if left alone for a week or two, it will eventually grow a beard. This works until it’s time to order and I decide that because it sometimes loses its makeup, a sandwich is undoubtedly feminine.

“I just can’t manage to keep my stories straight. Hoping I might learn through repetition, I tried using gender in my everyday English. ‘Hi, guys,’ I’d say, opening a new box of paper clips, or ‘Hey, Hugh, have you seem by belt? I can’t find her anywhere.’ I invented personalities for the objects on my dresser and set them up on blind dates….”

Struggling to memorize Chinese characters has forced me into similar games. I’ve made up many, many silly stories to help me remember the meaning and pronunciation of characters. For example, this character:

means foundation or base. For me, the meaning was easy enough to remember, since it looks kind of like a structure balanced on a base, but I couldn’t remember the sound. So I looked at it a long time and came to convince myself that it also kind of looks like a guy being stabbed in the crotch with a sword. And, facing such pain, one thing he might scream is “ji!”

My brain is cluttered with all kinds of bizarre stories like this. Bizarre ones tend to have better “sticking power.”

But I still mix them up. For example, this character:

Is that a little tank bullying a man? And if so, what did that mean?

10 responses to “Milestones in a foreign language: “I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly.”

    • In some ways Sedaris is such an odd guy, but he’s also helped me see that I’m not the only expat spending hours on my own in foreign countries doing weird/tedious/boring things. And he makes the tedium interesting! He gives me a laugh and makes me feel somehow “normal” at the same time.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  1. This is incredibly relevant to my life, and i feel like I need to share: you should really check out this website called It’s so brilliant. It uses mnemonics to help remember the Chinese characters and pronunciations. It’s got visual memes and I know for a fact they’re working on a video feature.. They’re awesome, and so is David Sedaris (and his sister)

    • Thanks for this. I need all the language help I can get! I looked at memrise a few months ago, but became frustrated with the character lists and kludgy way it has you enter tones (by number). I should check back again. You’re right, Amy is a hoot!

  2. Great post – had me laughing! I didn’t try to start learning characters until I was about two years in – it’s easier if you already know the word I think. Keep it up!

    • Sadly, I was three years (of part time) study in before I started characters… A whole bunch are easy, but I had a goal this winter to memorize the most frequently used 1,000. There lies the trouble. Thanks for the encouragement.

    • Thanks! I’ve been loving your awesome watercolors for some time. And I also think “xiao” looks like a face with laughing, twinkling eyes.

  3. Pingback: “Gau go gaau gau gau ge!” Song by The Police or Cantonese tongue twister? | Expat Lingo·

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