The two essays that this paper will consider both involve thinking about the nature of language and the way that this may affect how one can feel at home in a certain place. In particular, both of the essays focus directly on the experience of not being able to find one’s way in a place because one does not know the language that is spoken there. As such, both of the essays focus on connection between one’s own personality and sense of self, and the language that one speaks. Despite this connection, however, both of the pieces take different approaches to their material and tell very different stories. It is the difference in the nature of the story that the pieces tell and in their overall aim that can should be discussed when comparing them, as it is this difference that is most important in the attitude that they take to language.
Sedaris tells a simple and humorous story about what it means to be a strange in a place where one doesn’t speak the language, and the difficulty that one may experience in learning to speak an new language from scratch. His essay focuses on a trip to Paris which he undertook in his forties in order to learn French. It discusses not the only his experience from his surroundings, but also his experience of alienation from his fellow students, all of whom are described as being younger and better dressed than he is. While the story certainly involves adversity and difficulty, it is often told with humour and Sedaris deliberately makes fun of himself in order to generate a humerus effect in the story and also to describe his own progress with French. As such, the article can be described as being essentially confident. It is a story of becoming better at something and at laughing at one’s self along the way as one does so.
Amy Tan, however, tells a very different kind of story. Like Sedaris, this story concerns the nature of language and the way in which this will effect how one feels in relation to the world. Tan speaks of growing up in America in a Chinese family an in particular of the effect that this had in relation to speaking English. She emphasizes the fact that her mother never fully learned English and that she was only ever able to be able to read what was termed “broken English.” Therefore, rather than telling a story of overcoming difficulty, as Sedaris does, Tan’s essay is focused on describing the effect that a permanent experience of displacement and alienation may have on a person, and on a person’s family. As well as this, it offers general thoughts on what may the experience of many people, as she notes that one of the reasons why the children of Chinese immigrants are so frequently found studying mathematics and science is because they are pushed there by teachers who are aware of the fact that the English that they learn at home is broken and imperfect.
Tan recalls several moments when growing up and noticing her mother’s poor English, and also notes how this had an effect on her ability to learn English. As such, rather than telling a linear story, like Sedaris, Tan’s work should be understood to be a reflection on the nature of life without full access to language. This is especially the case as the writing presents the mother as being not only cut off from full access to English, but also as having no meaningful access to China as a place from which she came. In this way, Tan’s story tells of a permanent, rather than a temporary state of isolation.
Throughout Sedaris’ writing, it is generally assumed that he will be able to learn French, or at least that his isolation will not be permanent. It is this certainty which enables him to generate humour. This is a humour especially present in the final part of the essay in which Sedaris describes the moment when he is finally able to fully understand what his teacher is saying to him. Humour is generated because she is insulting his intelligence and criticizing him for being a poor student, but he is nonetheless delighted because he can fully understand this. There is no such humour at the end of Tan’s story. Rather, her conclusion is much more moving and careful. She tells of her pride at having published her first novel and her mother telling her that it is easy to read. This pride comes from being able to communicate with a person who is extremely dear, and, perhaps, at having been able ease her own isolation. Ultimately, it is this difference between telling a funny story of personal achievement and a moving story of isolation and intimacy that is the strongest difference between the two pieces in question.
In conclusion, both Sedaris and Tan present stories about learning language and the effect that this can have on a person’s life. However, while the former tells a story only concerning themselves and their own achievement, the latter focuses exclusively on the wider experience of having no language in particular and how this may lead to a permanent state of isolation. It is this differing relationship to time and to a general rather than temporary state that can be seen to be the bigg