Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me and Nearly Broke My Heart

WAcoverThere is an enjoyable style of light non-fiction where the reader shares in the author’s research and documentation via personal anecdotes and all aspects of the chosen topic are covered thoroughly but written from a lay-person’s point of view. There’s history, science, fashion, technology and even food all in one book. For example “Feathers”, by Thor Hanson, treats the fascinating material that clothes birds via chapters about paleontolog, technology and fashion. He covers each and every aspect of the feather and leading to discoveries for the reader through his own curiosity.

William Alexander does the same with gardening (“The $64 Tomato”) and bread baking (“52 Loaves”) and now turns to the French language in his new book “Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me and Nearly Broke My Heart”. He tells the story of how he tried to learn French at 57 years old in a light and entertaining way. He tells some amusing anecdotes as we accompany him on his very personal quest of learning French. After living in France for more than 25 years, it is clear that I am still learning every day. It is  a life-long experience, not something that can be accomplished in a 13 month stretch as William set out to do. But one can certainly enjoy reading about his journey. He (and we) learns a lot about language in general as he researches language and related ideas. He goes through learning methods, memory improvement methods and neurology. Alexander’s story is an interesting read for anyone who has tried to learn any language at any age, although having a penchant for French certainly will help understand the specific examples he gives. The book really hits home to those who have tried French as an adult. He muses on some confounding questions that a young learner would never even notice such as the usage in French of jeune fille to mean a young adult or teenage woman where as fille is a little girl, making the literal “young girl” older than the girl! For Alexander the jeune part of the phrase is seemingly in the wrong place as it refers to the older girl. Alexander also delves into the science that explains why learning a language is more difficult for an adult. He presents an overview of the history of French (and English) and the intertwined development of the two languages. One of his favorite English words that makes much more sense when you know the French is “curfew” which comes from the French couvre-feu, the time of day when everyone must cover his fire.

The book is an entertaining and enlightening read, although we get more than our share of details of his heart problems (this genre is based on personal anecdote), but of course his broken heart vectors nicely into the tale. The book flows easily and the writing style uses plenty of American idioms which allowed us to prepare a Speak Easy for our readers, ironically turning William Alexander’s writing about a language into a language challenge in itself. “I would argue that it’s the language’s idioms, invented not by salons and committees but by common folk, that provide the clearest window into the French soul.” Yes indeed, idioms enrich a language and are key to sounding like a local. Link to the Speak Easy. Courage!

WAfaceHere are a few gems that William Alexander’s learned along the way:

“Je suis fini!”
You may think you’ve said, “I’m finished,” because, well, that’s the literal translation of Je suis fini. What you really said is, “I’m dead.” The correct French for I’ve finished is J’ai fini – literally “I have finished.”

“Vous avez raison”
You may think you’ve said, “You have raisins.” What you really said is, “You’re right.”

“Vous avez des raisins”
You may feel certain that this time you’ve said, “You have raisins.” Nice. Try. What you really said is, “You have grapes.” And while we’re on the topic of French fruit, une prune is a plum, …

“Je suis chaud”
You may think you’ve said, “I’m hot.” What you really said is “I’m hot.” As in “hot for you, babe!” Go with J‘ai chaud.

And we could add:
“Je suis plein”
You think you said you were full after a meal. What you really said is “I’m pregnant”. Try Je calle.