In August, I absolutely devoured Flirting With French by William Alexander. I bought it on a whim at Anthropologie earlier in August, and I absolutely loved it! As someone who has spent nearly 10 years (that’s scary) trying to learn French in school, I was excited to read about someone else’s struggles and triumphs in learning a difficult but beautiful language!
Alexander writes this book about his adventure learning French. We start out with his love of France, his intense Francophilia (which I can totally relate to!), and then he lays out his goals for learning French.
There is also a fair amount of science and academic linguistics involved in his pursuit to learn French. As Alexander is in middle age, he wanted to see if any of the techniques he tried to learn the language paid off. For example, why do younger children learn languages faster and better? How do children learn their first language, and how does that change as you grow older and try to learn a language? There is a part when he does a brain scan while listening to English (a language he knows well), French (a language he is familiar with), and Japanese (a language he has no knowledge of). He measured the amount of activity in his brain during those different exercises before and after his year of learning French. This stuff was not as interesting to me, but definitely helped create the narrative that Alexander wanted.
My favorite parts of the book were his adventures in France, and his adventures trying (and failing, as we all do) to speak French. He had a French pen pal that he emailed with regularly, he in French and she in English, and I laughed out loud at several moments when he was describing his mistakes and her corrections!
I also adored the chapter about his visit to Normandy. I studied abroad in Caen nearly two years ago, and I found his description of the region hilarious and quite accurate. A while after his visit to Normandy, he returns to Southern France to attend a French Intensive program. The program he took part in is frequently used by diplomats and businessmen and women when they need to learn French quickly for their careers. It sounds like the ultimate French-learner’s dream!
Overall, this was a quick read, but hilarious and definitely a feel-good book. I would certainly recommend reading this book if you love France, if you are learning French, or if you just love to read about people learning things. I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars.
Here are some of my favorite quotes:
“French-speaking Jacqueline Kennedy was adored as the very height of sophistication. By contrast, in recent years unsuccessful presidential aspirants John Kerry and Mitt Romney were both victims of political attack ads based on teh accusation that they – gasp! – spoke, as the New Yorker recently called it, ‘the language that dare not speak its name,’ the implication being that they were socialist-sympathizing, snail-eating, effete pansy snobs living in the past, out of touch with the common joe.”
“A student asks a question in English and is gently reprimanded as Marc explains, in slow, simple French, why we won’t be speaking any English in class. French is not a translation of English, he says. It is not English that has been coded into French and needs to be back-coded into English to be understood. French is French.”
“The word I find conspicuous for its absence is ‘wife.’ The French have a word reserved for ‘husband’ (mari) but not for ‘wife.’ The word for wife, femme, means both ‘woman’ and ‘wife,’ depending on the context. So a man refers to his wife as ‘the woman’ or ‘my woman.’ Maybe this is a stretch, I say to the teacher… but do you think there’s a connection between the language and the culture?”
“Paris! Merely to look at the word evokes a visceral response unmatched by virtually any city in the world. Prague, London, Warsaw, Istanbul: beautiful as they may be, do any of them elicit an emotion? Think – no, even better, say – the word out loud: Paris! What do you see? What do you feel?”
“I may not have learned all the French I wanted to, but what I did learn has enriched my life immeasurably. Yet perhaps the most important French lesson learned over the past year is this: you can love a thing without possessing it. Even as French has eluded me, my ardor for the language has only grown. I love, and will alway love, French. Whether it loves me back, I have no control over. Je ne regrette rien.”