Language Learners from Literature: Sara Crewe

Some of my oldest friends are fellow language learners I “met” in books and wish I could talk to in real life. I’d like to introduce you to as many of them as I remember. Maybe we already have some friends in common! Let’s start with someone I’ve known since childhood: Sara Crewe from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

From Chapter 2

It’s Sara’s first day in boarding school. Her teacher Miss Minchin has just handed her a very basic French book for beginners. Sara tries to say that she does not need to study French, because she already speaks it, but Miss Michin refuses to listen. Only when the French teacher Monsieur Dufarge arrives can Sara explain herself.

“Is this a new pupil for me, madame?” he said to Miss Minchin. “I hope that is my good fortune.”

“Her papa . . . is very anxious that she should begin the language. But I am afraid she has a childish prejudice against it. She does not seem to wish to learn,” said Miss Minchin.

“I am sorry of that, mademoiselle,” he said kindly to Sara. “Perhaps, when we begin to study together, I may show you that it is a charming tongue.”

Little Sara rose in her seat . . . She looked up into Monsieur Dufarge’s face with her big, green-gray eyes, and . . . knew that he would understand as soon as she spoke. She began to explain quite simply in pretty and fluent French. Madame had not understood. She had not learned French exactly — not out of books — but her papa and other people had always spoken it to her, and she had read it and written it as she had read and written English. Her papa loved it, and she loved it because he did. Her dear mamma, who had died when she was born, had been French. She would be glad to learn anything monsieur would teach her, but what she had tried to explain to madame was that she already knew the words in this book — and she held out the little book of phrases.

When she began to speak Miss Minchin started quite violently and sat staring at her over her eyeglasses, almost indignantly, until she had finished. Monsieur Dufarge began to smile, and his smile was one of great pleasure. To hear this pretty childish voice speaking his own language so simply and charmingly made him feel almost as if he were in his native land — which in dark, foggy days in London sometimes seemed worlds away. When she had finished, he took the phrase book from her, with a look almost affectionate. But he spoke to Miss Minchin.

“Ah, madame,” he said, “there is not much I can teach her. She has not LEARNED French; she is French. Her accent is exquisite.”

“You ought to have told me,” exclaimed Miss Minchin, much mortified, turning to Sara.

“I — I tried,” said Sara. “I — I suppose I did not begin right.”

Chapter 2 is called “The French Lesson”. The irony is that the teacher is the one who gets the lesson! It’s a different sort of language lesson. But as we also find out in Chapter 2, Miss Minchin gave up on traditional lessons. She never really learned French — and it makes her short-tempered around French learners who aren’t giving up!

What I would say to Sara

If I had to pick the first topic, it would be language learning. (Is anyone surprised?) I’d tell her that I thought of her a lot during my very first French classes. Learning French is so much harder than already being French. I remembered her again when I found Khatzumoto, who wrote things like, “You’re not a foreigner; you’re just a remedial native speaker.” (Source) What would it take, I wondered, for someone to say of me, as Monsieur Dufarge had said of Sara, “She has not LEARNED German; she is German”?

But before Sara and I had language learning in common, we had loneliness in common. Her father’s wealth, her Indian upbringing, and her unique way of seeing the world were like walls between her and her classmates. A few years ago, a friend who had also read A Little Princess remarked that Sara’s problem was that she had no peers at her school. Even the three girls who become good friends to her are not her peers. I knew exactly what he meant. It had nothing to do with money or social status or other traditional divisions. It had everything to do with traditional connections not doing their job.

Take language, which is supposed to help us connect with people. In Sara’s case, and in mine, it mostly divided us from them. French was a wall between Sara and Miss Minchin;  English was a wall between my grade school classmates and me. In circa 1980s Philippines, it may have been a status symbol among grownups to have a child who spoke English better than Tagalog . . . but among children, it was just strange. Although Sara had never been to the Philippines — and although her father had never intended to raise a “designer” child — I think she would understand perfectly.

But A Little Princess is not a totally sad story! In the second half of the novel, Sara finally has a chance to use her knowledge of languages . . . and her upbringing . . . and her imagination, to make a real connection. I won’t say more about that, however, because it’s a big spoiler!

Have you read A Little Princess by Frances Hogdson Burnett?

4 thoughts on “Language Learners from Literature: Sara Crewe

  1. A Little Princess is probably my hands down favorite novel from when I was a child. I probably identified with bookworm Sara more than with any other literary figure I knew. Her bookishness, her vivid imagination, her love of dolls, and her feeling of distance from everyone, those all resonated with me. I don’t know why exactly I felt so isolated as a child. I just didn’t know anyone else who loved books as much as I did perhaps?

    I always envied Sara’s ability to speak French so prettily and I suspect she is one of the reasons I chose French as a language to study in high school (my second one after Latin, though. Latin had much more allure for some reason.)

    I wish my French were better and how I longed to have someone exclaim over the perfection of my accent, but alas it was not to be. Sadly, my experience was pretty much the opposite of Sara’s. In college my French teacher said my literary analysis was fine but my grammar made him cry. And I had a ticket agent deliberately pretend not to understand my French in Paris. Instead he insisted on addressing me in English, to my extreme mortification.

    How much of my language learning has been shaped by that sort of fear! Fear of sounding foolish, fear of not being understood. I wish I’d been able to begin learning as a child when I was less self-conscious and concerned about what other people might think. When I was simply in love with Sara Crewe and wanted to speak French just to be like her.

    I remember puzzling over Sara’s phrase book, over the mysterious words: la mère and le père. How did one say them? I really wasn’t sure. And I suppose this is one reason why I’m supporting Sophie in her fumbling attempts to learn some French. At least she’s got a bit of a start….

    1. Cristina @Linguavert

      I see that our younger selves loved Sara for the same reasons, Melanie! (When I grew older, I also identified with lonely, misunderstood Jane Eyre.)

      In my case, I chose French because it was the only foreign language offered at my school. And then I dropped it for Latin as soon as I had the chance! (As I’ve written elsewhere, if I had known then what I know now, I might have chosen to study both at the same time and dropped English Literature instead!)

      I think it’s fantastic that Sophie is getting a headstart! I know she’s reading in French, but does she also watch cartoons or listen to songs? (I recommend Peppa Pig, by the way. The original English cartoon is used to teach English on German children’s channels and I’ve found the German version personally helpful to my own studies. If you can find the French version on YouTube and Sophie can stand it, I think she’d get a lot of out it!)

  2. Oh and a suggestion. One of my new favorite language learners from literature is Nathaniel Bowditch in Carry on Mr. Bowditch. Have you met him yet? If not, you really must. I want to discuss that book with you and have been meaning to pop by and mention it for a while, without even knowing you were going to begin this series! I love the way he teaches himself first Latin and then French and then several other languages, using books, primarily the dictionary and the New Testament.

    The other language learner I’ve come across in my reading who has fascinated me is Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist who found the ruins of Troy and Mycenae. He was a self-taught polymath and his method was fascinating. I ran across him first in the children’s book, The Hero Schliemann, but that didn’t have much about his language learning. For that I am indebted to The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin which had a substantial section on Schliemann that included details of how he taught himself foreign languages primarily through memorizing literature and reciting it aloud for hours on end, much to the distress of his neighbors.

    What struck me about both is how very different their methodologies are from the classroom methods of today, the phrase books and carefully formulated practice sentences and lesson books. Both dove into the deep end of literature and learned by grappling with the hard stuff. Which makes me think maybe I should just let Bella have her head with some good Latin literature and a dictionary and see what she makes of it.

    1. Cristina @Linguavert

      Nathaniel Bowditch sounds fascinating! Thank you for telling me about him! I can’t believe I haven’t heard of the Newbery Award winning novel about him until now. (Then again, recalling the poor selection of children’s literature the bookstores stocked when I was growing up, it’s not so surprising.) And Schliemann’s method is a little like mine as well. I’m sure my family, like his neighbors, wishes I had never discovered the world of German musical theater!

      Your observation of the two methodologies reminds me of a popular tweet: “The difference between learning a modern language and an ancient language is that in first year French you learn ‘Where is bathroom?’ and ‘How do I get to the train station?’ and in first year Attic Greek or Latin you learn ‘I have judged you worthy of death’ and ‘The tyrant had everyone in the city killed.'” (Source: https://twitter.com/jvrsntn/status/835622992432545792) I think the modern consensus is that language learning is mostly for travel. It is rare to find someone enrolling in a language class just because he wants to enjoy the books, movies, and music of another culture . . . But then again, perhaps that sort of learner prefers to be self-taught, like Bowditch and Schliemann.

      Oh, definitely, give Bella a Latin dictionary and a grammar book and let her loose! If she finds the classics too hard, she’ll still get a lot of satisfaction from the Psalms and the Gospels. I think she would enjoy learning familiar prayers in Latin as well.

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