I took French in high school. I took French in college, and my professor was actually French. I love French movies, I have a Paris-themed umbrella, I have a weakness for memoirs in which women drop everything and move to France — Je suis jaloux! — and I hope to be reincarnated as a classy, scarf-wearing Parisian in my next life. I planned the last part of my trip to Europe this past summer around being in Paris for Bastille Day, and I practiced my rusty French religiously for about an hour each night before jetting off. I knew my French would suck, but I at least figured I’d be able to bust out a few phrases without making a fool of myself.
And what happened?
I spoke English (or, in one instance, I panicked and blurted out Spanish…which, mind you, doesn’t even happen back home).
So I could completely relate to William Alexander’s plight: he fantasizes about moving to France and being accepted as one of them, but he can’t even speak the language. He’s determined to learn it, but there are numerous roadblocks. The biggest one is his age; in his late fifties, his far from the ideal age to be learning a new language (about fifty years too far, according to the experts). He throws himself into the language anyway, completing hours upon hours of Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, language meetups, immersion courses, a French PBS series, and social media encounters with French people, not to mention actual trips to France.
Alexander is often faced with brutal (and highly stressful) reality checks. Young children have the capacity to soak up new languages; exposed young enough, children can actually be fluent in a new language. It’s gets harder as you get older; people can learn a new language and be proficient, but it’s almost impossible to be 100% fluent. By Alexander’s age, brain synapses are set. He often bemoans the fact that his brain is incapable of even distinguishing certain pronunciations; everything sounds the same to him.
He plows on anyway, determined to live the dream and prove everyone wrong. Through it all, he’s pretty good-natured and self-deprecating about everything, even through recurring medical crises. The book isn’t all anecdotes; Alexander also explores French history and culture, particularly the history and development of the French language and all those nonsensical masculine/feminine conundrums (for example, “moustache” is feminine, while “breast” is masculine). Although it made for a stressful year for him, it’s really entertaining to read about. Language nerds: you should check this one out. It est charmant.
Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart was released in September 2014 by Algonquin Books.