Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: Flirting With French by William Alexander

It's been twenty-five years since I last took a French class. I freely admit I have retained little of the vocabulary and even less of the grammar from my seven years of learning. If I tried to speak French now, it would be a garbled and hideous thing, I know. I cannot read the French novels (no translation needed once upon a time, thank you very much) that grace my bookshelves. I cannot even read the long term paper I wrote for my AP French class so long ago. Given that it was a ten page paper on the meaning of life based on the existential writers we'd read that year, I'm not certain I'd be able to read or understand it if it was in English, but that's neither here nor there. The amazing fact here is not that I once wrote something like that (although, yes, it is pretty amazing), it is that I once wrote it in an entirely different language, despite all the errors highlighted in red pen. And even though it has been many years since I was even remotely competent (note I am not saying fluent) in French, I do find myself wishing I was once again. There's no reason for me to re-learn French. It's just something I think would be cool. So it's not a huge surprise that I was immediately drawn to William Alexander's experiential narrative non-fiction book, Flirting with French, about his own desire and attempt to (re)learn French as an adult.

Alexander is fifty-eight years old and a dedicated Francophile when he decides that he is going to take the next twelve months and become fluent in French, even if it kills him (and it tried to). He took French briefly and without much enthusiasm when he was much younger but he is ready to really devote himself to learning the language. He attends a conference about language acquisition and although the science of it is against him reaching the level of fluency he desires, he is not deterred at all. He proceeds to try all sorts of ways to learn French, interactive computer programs, Rosetta Stone, French language Meet-ups, corresponding with French speakers via email, even two weeks of serious French immersion classes in France. And in the midst of his quest to beat the odds and learn the language, he is faced with serious and recurring heart issues as well.

As he attempts to re-learn, retain, and learn afresh, Alexander also addresses the mechanics of language learning as an adult and the belief that language learning in children is fluid but not in adults, the governmentally sanctioned Academie Francais and its quest to preserve the purity of the French language, the history of the language itself, his attempts to think as a Frenchman and his attempts at French culture (like his day long croissant making--delicious but ridiculously time-consuming). He discusses the vast difference between French and English, the gender of words and the lack of rationale behind said gender assignments, the nerve wracking question of whether you "tutoyer" someone (use the familiar "you" as opposed to the formal "you"), and the incomprehensibility of conversational French as versus formal French.

The book is a nice combination of factual information about the French language and language acquisition and personal anecdotes on Alexander's part about his not altogether successful struggles to learn French. The tone of the book is self-deprecating and mostly light-hearted (although some of the medical crises are not as light). Alexander is funny and both he and his quest come off as tres charmante. The end result of Alexander's year to learn French might surprise some readers, or it might not, but it is a a fitting ending for sure. I still think it would be fun to try and pick up the language again myself but I somehow suspect that if I followed that interest, it would, as Alexander suggests with his subtitle, charm me, seduce me, and nearly break my heart too.

Thanks to the publisher and LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. This sounds like a fun book! And if you haven't read Paris I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin, I think you'd like it; it's a memoir about an American's year spent working at an ad agency in Paris, despite not knowing how to speak French, and it's a really fun read.

  2. I've ordered this one from the library now! Thanks. Cheers from Carole's Chatter


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