Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, Perpignan
In January, I started an English Conversation Club for students at the Lycée Aristide Maillol in Perpignan, where I’ve worked as an ETA for the last six months. To advertise the club, I designed a poster featuring the face of Internet meme Grumpy Cat.
The story of this poster’s creation and revision is one of the more surprisingly poignant experiences that I have had during my time as a Fulbright ETA. To explain why, I need to reflect on language.
Many people have told me that I am “good at French.” These people are wrong. Well, all right, perhaps I am not giving myself enough credit if I simply say that they are “wrong” as such. Nevertheless, the claim that I am good at French necessarily comes with heavy qualifications. For instance, only a few weeks ago did I finally learn what the exact difference between “C’est” and “Il/Elle est” was. This is apparently something that most beginner French students learn in their second week of class, but somehow I have gone nine years without knowing this and still been able to call myself “fluent” or “bilingual.”
There is, in my own experience at least, something ultimately isolating about speaking to someone whose first language is different from your own. You throw words into space and can only hope the other person knows how to catch them. You flip through an incomplete dictionary, time and time again lamenting just how many pages seem to be missing, scrambling to find appropriate replacements. But I suppose this is just a more extreme version of communication’s inherent impossibility. The two of you may as well have lived in the same neighborhood your entire lives; you would still eventually find yourselves mute and looking for missing pages.
Which is why the search for universal language tempts us so much. The irony is that as we find ourselves closer to this goal today than ever, we also seem more desperate than ever to escape language altogether. We have given up on language, or at least tried to. The Internet has, more than any prior technology, promised us that there might be a space to exist outside of language. We have tried to render words obsolete, beginning with the compression of “laughing out loud” into a three-letter utterance, moving gradually toward an emoji alphabet that turns paragraph-long sentiments into cartoon faces.
This escape from words isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s been quite useful for the creation of unprecedented global communities. But it’s an escape that’s guaranteed to fail. I recall an anecdote that Stephen Colbert recently told about mistaking the “laughing to tears” emoji for a face crying with sadness; he delivered an apology to any friends who may have thought he had found their misfortunes hilarious. We already realize to some degree that language can only be replaced with other language, that communication is an unavoidably awkward series of corrected continuous misunderstandings.
Designing my poster was a challenge of communication; I needed to combine the visual and the verbal in a way that would capture the viewer’s attention and convey the club’s purpose in an instant. To accomplish such a combination, I turned to an Internet meme. Now, like many, I have mixed feelings about memes. I will not be surprised if high school history classes of the year 2050 are, in some sense, able to identify LOLcats as the moment civilization descended past a point of no return. I hold memes largely responsible for a general decline in the quality of political discussions; why engage with messy, verbose ideas when you can promote your favorite candidate through copying and pasting?
Nevertheless, I still find interesting the troubled relationship memes have with language. On the one hand, they epitomize the 21st century’s efforts to dispense with words as much as possible. Memes are often completely nonverbal images or videos, and those that have a linguistic component rarely need more than about ten words to get their message across. Moreover, the Internet leeches as much semantic content from them as it possibly can through infinite reuse and repetition; we can be confident the meme has become a meme once it stops meaning anything on its own. Hence the logic of the retweet, the hashtag, the six-second loop on Vine that sloshes around your temporal lobes until all that remains is a syllabic stew of irritating nonsense.
But because memes are so minimalist, they often depend on language for their transmission; once the meme ceases to be humorous in its unaltered form, the user must add to it somehow, providing some new context that will restore its depleted semantic content. This is particularly evident in memes like Grumpy Cat, which derive only half their humor from an image and the other half from a white block-lettered all-caps caption that tells us why the image is funny.
Now, most of my students know who Grumpy Cat is. But most of them don’t speak very much English. Which meant that I needed to rely on French to explain to them why this particular instance of Grumpy Cat was amusing. I composed a hilarious paragraph that, admittedly, was not so much an explanation as an excuse to advertise the date and time and clear up any ambiguities about what an “English Conversation Club” would entail. I sent it off to the colleague at the lycée who served as my primary advisor for the club, and he promptly informed that it was great barring some “small mistakes.”
MISTAKES??? How could I, a Fulbright scholar, have made mistakes?! Granted, the mistakes really were small, and primarily embarrassing because I felt even the smallest errors called my entire ability to speak and thus teach a foreign language into doubt. Because of my perfectionist attitude, I may as well have written something like, “Hey kids! Want to learn how to speak English? Well, you can’t, but I can get you pretty close!” If this had been a Turing test equivalent meant to verify my “Frenchness,” I would have failed. When I discovered that, even despite Grumpy Cat’s presumably male gender and status as a living being, I had to say “C’est un chat” and not “Il est un chat,” it reminded me of the chasm that inherently separated me from not only my students but also everyone else around me who had no doubt intuitively understood this since maternelle.
But then I thought about memes. And I thought about their transmission, their swarming invasion of an entire globe, millions upon millions of Grumpy Cats spawning one another in astonishingly little time. And not only did every single one of those Grumpy Cats somehow mean something different from all the others, but everyone who saw them would bring a unique set of experiences with previous Grumpy Cats that would then inflect how they reacted to them. Somehow, infinite repetition and duplication lead to infinite differences in meaning.
I can never let my students know that their protests of “Je comprends rien” when I deliver instructions are, at least in a pretentiously philosophical sense, quite accurate statements that I have no business challenging. But maybe we should all start to act more as though we understand nothing, if only to purge ourselves of the fear of being misunderstood ourselves. We forward images of Grumpy Cat because everyone else around us is forwarding them, and we say “C’est un chat” because everyone else around us is saying it. Frankly, I don’t completely understand either Internet memes or the French language’s pronoun system, but I used them to make my poster regardless, because sometimes comprehension is unnecessary when imitations have such inimitable outcomes.
In the end, my club was not quite the inspirational 1980s teacher movie trope that I had hoped it would be. Attendance reached its high point of eight during week two, and this was only because one particularly enthusiastic student convinced seven of his friends that I was selling hallucinogens. But at least that one student thought my poster meant something: Two months later, he is more excited about English than ever and is working with his friends to make a meme of his own—In the form of a satirical campaign ad.