Monday, September 15, 2014

William Alexander's "Flirting with French": Book Review

Learning French, even for a middle-aged Francophile, proves elusive. Its infamous pronunciation, its maddeningly gendered nouns, its elisions, its lack of syllabic emphases: William Alexander laments them all. Going on 58, after writing successful books on mad ambitions to achieve the perfect garden and bake the perfect loaf, he seems as well-suited as any driven autodidact for task three.

Most adults will never fully master a second language. Alexander's ambitions meet the obstacle most of our brains encounter when we try to learn a new language post-puberty. As he explains, once the neural networks have sparked childhood fluency, our valuable hard-wiring gets diverted so the brain can apply it to non-linguistic necessities as we mature. Our innate capacity which enables us to quickly attain our native language in infancy then fades; consider how even teens struggle with foreign conjugations and prepositions.

Alexander sums up linguistic theory and neurological research, but he finds that these cannot account for the other 8/9 of our body. Acting out French sentences, he shows, overcomes his brain's hesitations. Reading a play by Sartre or reciting into a microphone via Rosetta Stone stymie him. French evokes from Alexander emotions, impulses, and gestures, beyond vocabulary lists and conversational lessons. He wanders along this book's way to relate his correspondence with a pen-pal, his stints at total-immersion French environments, the history of French, the sly promises of machines such as Google Translate, and the daunting barriers to fluency.

Alexander plugs away. He claims to work, but from the obsessive attempt he documents, pursuing  French becomes what seems to me a full-time job. Inspired to overcome his mental block, with visual imagery he memorizes a thousand words in a children's bilingual dictionary; he strains this same memory, on the other hand, to recall common verbs while chatting with classmates. The yin-yang of advancing and regressing in language learning will comfort any student who has faced, for example, the clash of decimal and vigesimal (base-twenty) counting systems. He finds fresh examples, too.

"Soixante-neuf  is the last 'easy' number in French. Should you want to turn your lovemaking up a notch to seventy, you'll find there is no "seventy" in French. This is undoubtedly due to French frugality." One adds ten to sixty, and up to "sixty-ten-nine", before one hits eighty, as "four-twenties".

Metaphors beyond the most famous of French numbers also enliven his narrative. Alexander's lively chapter on colorful idioms entertains. To tie the marriage knot is rendered as putting a noose around your neck. Having a wet dream equals "to make a map of France". One suspects male-authored phrases so far, but anyone can find a stroke of good fortune. However, few of either sex, whatever luck comes their sudden way, may long for more than a linguistically evoked "ass full of noodles". Outside of a few (non-?) French in recovery, who would not acclaim the praise given a delectable glass of red wine? "C'est le petit Jésus en culotte de velours!" "It's the Baby Jesus in velvet shorts!"
Wine may well be prescribed for Francophiles eager to escape the rigors of battling French itself. Alexander's cardiologist asks about any new stress in his patient's life. "Well, I am studying French." Alexander avers near this book's conclusion that he has been learning a lot of French, but not "learning French". The latter goal may recede; his native-born teacher suggests after five to seven years, living in France, of course, he may get pretty good at it. Over thirteen months and nine-hundred hours, he drives himself on towards fluency. Complicated by his arrhythmic heart and a series of surgeries, the results of his sustained immersion will surprise him, at the end of this genial narrative. During to date only half the time Alexander spent, I've been cursing daily during my online French lessons, fifteen minutes or so each. That's all the patience I can summon. But Flirting with French gave me faint hope; as another middle-aged learner, who began during my first visit to Québec last autumn, I recognize in Alexander's story my own frustrations, magnified or diminished. (Amazon US 9-3-14; PopMatters 9-14-14; Author's website)

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