The Torture of Foreign Languages


My son has been told to keep a mood diary this week, and he is faithfully filling it in. ‘It’ll be easy,’ he declared confidently. ‘I just need to write “despair” on the days I have French lessons and “relief” when they are over.’ My poor child has not inherited the maternal genes and considers being obliged to learn a modern language akin to being tortured. I help him with his homework and watch his expression glaze over as I explain what constitutes the object in a sentence. Behind his eyes lies an empty prairie over which a few dust bunnies cartwheel. I found myself begging him, ‘Just let me have ten minutes of your concentration so I can explain how to conjugate verbs to you, and then if you get that straight in your head you can coast through the next two years’ of lessons!’ But there was no deal to be had, and he continues to mangle the simplest sentence and plead absolute ignorance of the correct grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.


But, you know, I do have a lot of sympathy. I found languages easy and fun when I began them, and I undertook a degree course for no better reason than that I was good at them. If university taught me anything, it taught me that speaking a foreign language well is something that takes a lifetime of hard work to achieve. And even though I was good at languages, speaking out loud in a different tongue is a real screw-up-your-courage hurdle to overcome. I remember leaving my ‘A’ level French oral exam and the examiner saying to me, ‘How nice to see a candidate with a big smile on her face’, and my jaw was too frozen to reply to him more truthfully ‘No, this is a rictus of fear.’ I’ve been practising my French seriously for more than twenty years, and yet, when I give a paper at a multi-lingual conference, I live in terror of being asked a question in French. The sudden switch over from one language to another is always disorienting, and it seems to me a horribly public place to make a glaring idiomatic error. Because, let’s face it, a) I’m supposed to get it right and b) at the very best of times, nothing makes you seem more stupid than expressing yourself in a cock-eyed fashion to native speakers.


I’ve never come across this process more amusingly described than in David Sedaris’s essay collection Me Talk Pretty One Day. Sedaris lived in France for many years, including a spell in Paris, during which he attended language classes taught by the linguist’s equivalent of Attila the Hun. ‘You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain,’ she tells them. ‘Every day spent with you is like having a caesarean section.’ I have to say that I have indeed come across French language teachers of this ilk, and there is nothing to do in their company but gamely plough on, churning the intricacies of grammar, along with the remnants of your self-confidence, under your hopelessly clumsy tongue. There’s a scene in this book I love, where one Moroccan student in Sedaris’s class asks for Easter to be explained to her, and her fellow sufferers do the very best they can with what tools they have at their disposal.


    ‘He call his self Jesus and then he be die one day on two… morsels of…lumber.’

    The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

    ‘He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.’

    ‘He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.’

    ‘He nice, the Jesus.’ […]

    Part of the problem had to do with vocabulary. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as “to give of yourself your only begotten son.”


I often think that speaking a language is a bit like driving a car. When you begin to drive, the fact of having to use the pedals and the gear, and the indicators seems an impossibly complex feat of multi-tasking. Heaven only knows how other people manage this and keep up a conversation at the same time. Practice is the only thing that stands between you and mastery of the vehicle, and the same is true with languages. Eventually you learn how to conjugate the verb, and use the right word order, and even on a good day make the correct agreements according to gender (on a very good day), and if you keep practising the point will come when you can move beyond parroting phrases with your fingers crossed to actually wondering what you might want to say. But oh language is treacherous, because there seem to be ever more complex levels of engagement between what you can say, and what you would like to say, and the seemingly relentless autonomy of your mouth.


When I was living in France I rented a little studio apartment, high up in a teetering terrace in the centre of the town. One school holiday I left my pot plant with my downstairs neighbour, a charming West African, to be watered in my absence. On my return, I went to fetch it and was momentarily thrown, when I opened the door, to see that he had about ten West African friends round and they were all cramped into his tiny living space, the window wide open to the southern early summer heat. With barely an inch between them they sprawled over any available space wearing a range of teeny shorts and nothing else. What made the situation particularly painful to me was that I could not pick my neighbour out amongst all these lean, black men; I didn’t know him that well. And so, drawing on what inadequate social phrases I had, I blurted out, ‘Ah! vous êtes tous en train de vous bronzer, alors!’ (Ah, I see you are all working on your suntans), and frankly I couldn’t have said anything more abjectly stupid if I had tried. They looked a little bewildered amongst themselves, but fortunately the situation was saved (from my perspective) by the fact that the plant my neighbour handed over with some embarrassment was a wizened, fried little skeleton; he had completely forgotten to water it. At least then we could call it a draw.


People who are really good at languages know that beginning with what you might say in your own is a false move. Languages are internally different to one another in a radical and inexplicable way. People in different cultures think differently, they conceptualise differently, they explain things differently. One friend of my husband’s family who was bilingual went for a walk whilst pondering a problem. On the way out, he thought in French and came to one conclusion; on his return journey he thought in Italian and came to the opposite conclusion. It’s why you can often tell when you have a translated novel in your hands; there’s just an otherness about the language that can’t be entirely removed. Once you start to see it this way, learning a language seems an impossible, monumental task, and sometimes I feel my fluency is still a painfully poor approximation of a mother tongue. However, living in France was encouraging in all kinds of ways, not least the recognition that when you are actually in a country, no one expects you to be word perfect. The French people I met were tirelessly enthusiastic about whatever I said, and more than ready to discuss the finer points of their language. The fact that they could never agree on how things ought to be expressed was alarming on one hand, but reassuring on the other. Communicating is still the important part of a language, and that can be achieved on minimal vocabulary and an injection of good will. I don’t think that this happy conclusion will prevent my son from dreading his French lessons, however, or make him receptive to the perplexing oddity of the vocabulary he has to learn. I have just asked him what his latest thought on learning French are, and he clutched at his heart, fell backwards onto the sofa and cried ‘It burns.’ I rest his case.


28 thoughts on “The Torture of Foreign Languages

  1. Excellent – your son has a dramatic flair! When someone next asks me how my Chinese is after finishing uni, I shall collapse and howl ‘It burns!’. I’m going to be laughing about that for ages.

    Seriously though, your post articulates some of the things I’ve been thinking about recently. I’ve been despairing of how I can ever be fluent in any other language, especially Chinese, which is so utterly different to English. How can anyone get inside a language that is not their own, learn all the little idiomatic expressions that people throw around every day, learn to swim in another language and bend it to your will? And why oh why is it so much easier to read and listen in another language than it is to actually actively express personal thoughts? Doesn’t seem fair!

  2. “Behind his eyes lies an empty prairie over which a few dust bunnies cartwheel.” Sentences like this make me love your blog even more. Does this not perfectly describe any and all students at their moments of complete mental sutdown?

  3. I laughed all the way through this post — at Sedaris and at your own anecdote (I hope you don’t mind the latter). I was reasonably good at languages (I say “was” because I’ve stopped trying), but I’ve witnessed many others who just can’t get it. It really is a knack.

  4. I just wanted to tell you that I enjoyed this post immensely as it was so well-written. Learning Spanish, on and off, for years was in many ways a similarly burning experience for me. I feel for your son! Haha.

  5. Utterly hilarious and very true – I especially like the observation that “beginning with what you might say in your own is a false move”. I grew up in a bilingual family in a country which is, at least officially, trilingual. Sometimes I think that’s why we’re all schizophrenic. It’s language shear! When I was a teenager I was constantly making the same kind of gaffe described in your suntan anecdote because I couldn’t switch gears smoothly enough. It still happens on and off…

  6. That Easter scene in Sedaris is one of my very favorites from that book. I had an absolutely terrible time with Spanish (no problem learning to read and write it, but useless actually trying to speak it and use it). And one day, I will write about what it’s like to be an American teenager plopped down in Kent, England to learn that, no, the two countries really don’t speak the same language at all (especially at that age). For the first couple of months, everything that came out of my mouth was either hilariously funny or completely shocking to my school mates.

  7. Thanks for making me cry with laughter over my breakfast! I loved both the Sedaris quotes, and that thing you said to the black guys – hilarious. I think it’s because I relate very strongly, living as I do, every day in a foreign language. My husband was once told that he speaks German like a drunk farmer (by a native English speaking German teacher in London), which he probably does, we can’t tell. I’m sure my German is fairly peasant-like too, but like you found the French, we find the Germans completely charming about our ability or lack of to express ourselves in their tongue.

  8. It really is the teaching. Having studied Latin, Spanish and French at school (none of which I can now speak, although I do a nice line in improvisational plant-naming in Latin…) I studied Italian as my ‘fun’ extra at first-year uni…and then second-year, because I loved it so. We acquired a new teacher, notoriously intolerant of time-wasting students from other faculties. After 2 weeks in her class, she examined the marks from the previous term, spotted my 92%, raised an incredulous eyebow and said “There must have been a ‘uge error in their calculations.” Not another word of Italian has crossed my lips since. Once there were gondolas wending their liquid way and the language of opera inside my skull, now only tumbleweed, fragments of conjugations and the sound of rooks’ mournful cawing (I think they’re left over from a Bronte novel, actually, but my neuronal pathways have been rationalised into a single-lane camel track).

  9. Max – how you have managed to learn Chinese AT ALL is astounding. Such an incredibly difficult language, and as for that alphabet…! And you’re right – my son steals all the best lines at home. Bless you, Bikeprof – we’ve seen enough students on shutdown mode, right? Dorothy – I’m very glad you laughed at my anecdote. When you do things that daft, laughing is the only option! Imani – my son is also having to learn Spanish alongside French. I think he finds it slightly worse, if that’s possible… Tez – I’m quite relieved to think that bilingual people make gear-changing errors too! David, too very kind you are! Emily, that American-English thing is funny, isn’t it? An American friend of mine had to translate for her American friends the English phrase ‘Are you in the queue for the loos?’ as ‘Are you standing in line for the bathroom?’ They thought it was hilarious. Charlotte – I love that line about sounding like a drunken farmer. My husband is fairly sure he sounds like a 4-year old in French. Some solid vocabulary but no grammar whatsoever. The Fugitive, my son would agree with you all the way. Apparently his dislike of languages stemmed from the first teacher he had in junior school. What he did to him is anyone’s guess…

  10. i was learning french until i stopped for the escalating fees was too much for my dad. i’m a bit bummed because i absolutely enjoyed learning it and i thought that is because of my love of languages.

    dutch, however, dispels that myth quickly enough. quelle horreur! perhaps that dutch is more germanic than french is more latin that made it so different and difficult (i have no problems in my portuguese class, hence that latin conclusion; i’m taking dutch & portuguese as electives in college). i’ve just finished the dutch beginner class and let’s just say the only thing i took away from it were hoi! and doei!, which are hi and bye respectively in dutch.

    on one hand i can’t comprehend how your son hates french. on the other, i totally get it!

  11. Me Talk Pretty One Day is my favorite book by Sedaris – I think every essay, in one way or another, deals with the complexities of language and communication. And the Easter essay, oh, how I laughed!

    I do think, like dorothy noted, there’s something of a knack to forgeign langauges. It’s a knack I had (and still do) and I studied both Spanish and French throughout college, although my speaking ability has waned horribly. But my brother, oh, every language class was so painful for him, he’d nearly come home in tears after German! Like almost any other skill, some take to it and some don’t, and I imagine for those who really struggle with languages, it must be akin to my struggle with calculus. Or, well, really, beginning algebra.

  12. Seriously, what did the trick for my brothers and me (to learn English and German) was the no-French-TV-on-weekdays rule: so we watched the BBC, MTV, CNN, RTL, or we watched undubbed VHS of Blackadder, Faulty Towers, Yes Prime Minister, or DVDs of Back to the Future, Indiana Jones or the Hunt for Red October.
    Undubbed DVDs with subtitles in the foreign language is the new learning miracle of the past decade. Not class.

  13. Too funny, Litlove. Those stories are great…and I am going to have to read the Sedaris soon (I just mooched it). Man, do I sound like that spanish? I suspect I do–how frightening for my family. Oh well, they are used to hearing me. I only wish they would correct me more so I don’t sound as foolish as I am sure I sound! 🙂

  14. Your son is incredibly articulate for one who isn’t interested in languages, as your quotes from him show. I always think that people who like words must like learning new languages, but given all these comments perhaps I am wrong, and learning another language is entirely different – maybe we can all love it and all hate it and it depends on the context.
    And ‘it burns’ is wonderfully eloquent – I bet we’d all like to lay claim to that line!

  15. sulz – I think you do bond to some languages and not others. I did a joint degree in French and German, and whilst I really like German (it’s such a neat and tidy language), my heart was always with the French. I do hope you get to study some more of it soon. Mandarine – ah, the English like what she should be spoke! It’s a good idea to watch foreign tv shows, though. Or perhaps that will have to be DVDs as I don’t think my box will pick up European channels. Courtney, I really, really struggle with algebra, so I do feel for my son if that’s how languages look to him. I cannot read music, but I can pick a tune out by ear, and I think that languages are a lot about hearing how things ought to sound. If you can’t hear it, then there’s a real barrier to be overcome. Napfisk, the south of France sounds a wonderful idea! I really wish someone would bring out an outrageously fantastic RPG computer game that you can only play in French. That would make an impact on him! And teachers.. they do make SUCH a difference. Danielle – I’m sure your Spanish is better than that, and I have to say that every native speaker I’ve ever spoken to has been a model of patience and understanding and never seemed to mind what mistakes I’ve made!

  16. This was so much fun to read — your wonderful thoughts about learning languages and the many comments on the same subject.

    My father was a translator, and we lived in Germany when I was a child, but I never really learned to speak German, because I was so shy about opening my mouth. Maybe because of that experience, and my longing to be good at a language other than English, we’ve sent each of our children to schools here in California where the language of instruction is something other than English. The oldest two were at a French school their first six years and the youngest has been at a Spanish school for the last three. It’s been interesting watching them acquire a language. I don’t actually think they’ve been able to do it because children are naturally good at languages but more because when you put a child in a classroom five days a week where almost the only language they hear is something other than English, they will indeed pick it up. I also think it’s just more interesting to learn a language through immersion than through the more isolated three or so hours a week of instruction — when it’s all French all the time, you can always find a subject you care enough about to break through and use the language to communicate. (And if nothing else, there’s the “may I use the bathroom” necessity.)

    I think because they got to use French in a variety of contexts, including discussing bloody battles between the French and the English, my boys aren’t completely put off speaking and reading in French (as long as what they’re reading is a comic book!). But, like your son, one of them hated (and the other firmly disliked) the horrible conjugations, and the dictees, and the fussiness about their handwriting. And if that’s what French is, mainly, for your son, I can see how it would burn because I’ve witnessed a lot of that same thing at our kitchen table over the awfully boring exercises in the mechanics of the language!

  17. Kathryn – he is (as you know) fond of amusing phraseology, but I think he came even to English late, and he’ll do lots of language play in speaking that he wouldn’t dream of bothering with in writing. I’m still raging battle with him over full stops and capital letters in his mother tongue, so verb conjugations in another are a whole new level of irritation for him! Bloglily, what an interesting choice to make for your children! I do think immersion works; that’s how come my language skills improved immensely when I lived abroad. You soon find out how to say things when you absolutely have to. But it’s sadly true that learning grammar appeals to only a small minority of the population…

  18. I tried to read the Sedaris out loud to my husband but landed up crying with laughter instead – impossible! Really enjoyed this post, especially because I am learning Tamil at the moment and while that tumbleweed is getting caught on some little green shoots, my mind is still a pretty barren prairie!

  19. My Russian professor told me that I spoke Russian with a Massachusetts accent. Well, really, after four years of Russian, I didn’t speak Russian at all — just had memorized some sentences about my head hurting. Have you read the two Hyman Kaplan books about an English as a second language course?

  20. Oho, Litlove, sometimes it sounds like you are talking directly to me. I am having the same struggle your son is, only with a different language, and conjugating does have me in despair sometimes. I am nowhere near being able to say something as simple as “Good morning”. Dustbunnies and tumbleweeds galore.

  21. Love, love, love the story. I have every sympathy for your son, Litlove. I attempted to learn French at school. I dropped out after two terms. I then attempted to learn German. I dropped out after four terms, the the everlasting gratitude of my German teacher (who had been an Hungarian Professor in English Literature at Budapest University, who had little spoken English but really knew English literature. He was a refugee from the Budapest riots of 1956). Now, from a height of more than 60 summers, I firmly believe language is only truly learnt before you are 6. After that it may be grafted on to your skills, but it always shows a bump. The littlies I taught in Punmu had English as a third language. They already had their native tribal language as well as a creole which is becoming a lingua franca in the North West of this state. All before they are 6 years old!

  22. Sedaris is a hoot. I am not good with any other language besides English and sometimes that’s questionable. I’ve tried Spanish and German and on both I eventually reached a brick wall and I could get no further. I’m good at learning the grammar and conjugations, etc, evening reading it as long as I don’t have to speak. And now I am thinking of trying Spanish again. Maybe it will be easier on the second go round.

  23. Equiano – I just love that Sedaris, and what’s really great is that I’ve read bits of it out (through the tears of laughter) to both my husband and my son. He has something for everyone. Tamil sounds awfully hard, though, and I admire you for taking it on. Nancy Ruth – I was once told that I speak German with a French accent. For all the people who told me I had an English accent in either language, it was a question of replying ‘you don’t say?’ with as much irony as possible. I have one word of Russian, which I can only speak, not write, and it’s the word for ‘frog’. On the one occasion I was obliged to use it, it proved quite an ice-breaker. Ella – what an incredibly hard language you are trying to learn! I’ve never even gone near that level of difficulty in a language – respect! Archie, your story sounds so much like that of my father and my brother in their relationship to latin! Certainly young children are sponges when put in a situation of immersion. My son, however, began French at 7 when still struggling with English, and has never forgiven his school (or the French language) for such an act of aggression. Stefanie- I do feel I hit a brick wall with my German in the end. My old German teacher used to say that everyone ‘peaked’ at a certain point with languages, but I do think that consolidation helps enormously, and if you can manage to say even straightforward things with some confidence, then you are pretty much home and dry in a foreign country.

  24. Pingback: full figure matures

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s