William Alexander is more than a Francophile. He wants to be French. There’s one small obstacle though: he doesn’t speak la langue française. In Flirting with French, Alexander sets out to conquer the language he loves. But will it love him back?
Alexander eats, breathes, and sleeps French (even conjugating in his dreams). He travels to France, where mistranslations send him bicycling off in all sorts of wrong directions, and he nearly drowns in an immersion class in Provence, where, faced with the riddle of masculine breasts, feminine beards, and a turkey cutlet of uncertain gender, he starts to wonder whether he should’ve taken up golf instead of French. While playing hooky from grammar lessons and memory techniques, Alexander reports on the riotous workings of the Académie française, the four-hundred-year-old institution charged with keeping the language pure; explores the science of human communication, learning why it’s harder for fifty-year-olds to learn a second language than it is for five-year-olds; and, frustrated with his progress, explores an IBM research lab, where he trades barbs with a futuristic hand-held translator.
Does he succeed in becoming fluent? Readers will be as surprised as Alexander is to discover that, in a fascinating twist, studying French may have had a far greater impact on his life than actually learning to speak it ever would.
Some people might find it strange if you tell them that you are reading a memoir (of sorts) of a person that you have never heard of; a memoir that tracks their year of learning a language. On paper, this seems like a rather boring waste of time. However, William Alexander’s Flirting With French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me and Nearly Broke My Heart (from here on referred to as Flirting With French) was just plain wonderful.
Alexander’s pursuit of linguistic education is similar to my own. I, like Alexander, am a self confessed Francophile. I love everything about France: the culture, the food, and especially the language. As a teenager, I wasted five years of French tuition and failed my GCSE exam. As an adult (at the age of 29) I re-sat my exam – coming out with an A* – pretty nifty, right?
I had learnt how to function in France in an unrealistic way. I know how to say plenty of things and how to construct basic sentences. However, if you dropped me in the middle of France I would be completely lost – actually and linguistically. Like Alexander, I too am still pursuing fluency.
This is the reason I liked Flirting With French. I could relate to it far too easily. The desire, the stress, the determination and the heartbreak that Alexander so succinctly puts on the page – I have felt them all.
As I have said, I have never read anything by William Alexander before but I am glad I started with Flirting With French. It is a heart warming story that anyone who has known the pain and suffering of trying to learn a language will appreciate.
Flirting With French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me and Nearly Broke My Heart by William Alexander is available now.