Flirting with French

DISCLOSURE: I received a free advanced copy of this book through NetGalley from the publisher, Algonquin Books, in exchange for an honest review.


Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart
William Alexander
© 2014 (expected release date September 16, 2014)
280 pages (ARC e-book)

To put it mildly, I was not a good student in high school. My mother frequently got letters and calls from the school about my truancy, my sleeping in class, my failure to “live up to my potential,” and my bad attitude. I rarely did any homework, and I definitely didn’t study. I earned the honor of being the first person at my high school ever to fail AP History.

But, even as I was failing core subjects, there was one class in which I excelled: French. Turns out, I’m a big language nerd. After barely scraping by in high school, I took a year off and got my shit together. And then I applied early admission to one school and one school only (luckily, I had great SAT scores, kind letters of recommendation, and a solid essay about my gap year spent as a full-time volunteer). I chose my college based largely on the following two criteria: 1) an excellent foreign language program, and 2) amazing study-abroad options.

I was a new woman in college. I was hyper-focused and a ridiculous overachiever. I knew in the first week of school what my major would be (foreign languages, obviously) and never wavered. After having taken every French class available at my high school, I tested into a second-year French class in college. My college French classes were a piece of cake.

So, when I departed for Nancy, France, for the first semester of my junior year abroad, I was confident. French had always come very easily to me. I couldn’t speak fluently, but I thought I was pretty good.

As it turns out, I was wrong. Very wrong. On the first day with my host family, my amazing and wonderful host mother, Marie-Françoise, picked me up to drive me to my new home. During the drive, she chatted and chatted and chatted . . . while I just sat there, dumbstruck. She asked questions that I struggled to understand and to which I certainly wasn’t able to respond. Finally, she looked at me and said, “Christi, tu comprends pas français?” (Christi, don’t you understand French?). I immediately realized that, despite my years and years of French classes, no, I decidedly did not.

Here’s the thing: French classes in the United States are largely useless. Yes, you learn basic vocabulary and verb conjugations. But you don’t learn how people actually talk. Here are a couple examples stemming from Marie-Françoise’s question to me:

  • In French classes, when you are learning negatives, it is drilled into you that ne and pas always go together. For example, if you want to say, “I don’t eat snails,” you are taught to say, “Je ne mange pas des escargots.” That’s proper French, and it’s how you would write it.  But French people never actually say this in conversation. They always drop the ne, as Marie-Françoise did when she said, “tu comprends pas,” rather than “tu ne comprends pas.” At first, I had no idea that the “pas” by itself after the verb meant the same thing, even without the telltale “ne” preceding it.
  • You are taught in French classes that there are several ways to ask a question. The two main ways: You can begin a sentence with “est-ce que” to transform a statement into a question (“Est-ce que vous avez mon livre?”), or you can invert the subject and verb (Avez-vous mon livre?). Both mean the exact same thing (Do you have my book?). But, as Marie-Fraçoise demonstrated, French people rarely use either of these. They just turn a statement into a question–“Vous aver mon livre?”–merely by using rising inflection. If you use the ways you are taught in French class (like I did, at first), you sound awkward and overly formal.

These may seem like minor examples (and they are—my biggest problem upon arriving in France was a combination of a very limited vocabulary coupled with my complete inability to understand French when it was spoken at a very high rate of speed), but I use them to illustrate that I was starting from square one. Even the French I thought I knew wasn’t particularly helpful. I have never felt as lost, tired, and stupid as I did during my first several days (weeks?) in France. It was miserable.

Luckily, I had an amazing host family. They were seasoned pros by the time I got there, having hosted several foreign students before me. They knew that the only way I was going to learn was if I was forced to listen to and speak only French (I assumed they didn’t know any English at all until my family came to visit and I found out my host mom actually spoke fairly proficient English. I’d been duped! Thankfully). It was a ridiculous crash course and, for the first month or so, I went to bed every night absolutely exhausted from listening to and attempting to absorb the language.

But all those days of feeling miserable, exhausted, and stultifyingly stupid paid off: I actually learned French. I met my host mother’s sister for the first time in April of the following year. I had come back to France for a visit after having lived for four months in Senegal. By that time, I had spent the better part of a year speaking French more than I spoke English. I was thinking in French and dreaming in French. I felt like an honest-to-goodness French speaker. After I met my host mother’s sister, I overheard the two of them talking about me. “Elle parle français comme une Française!” said my host mom’s sister (“She speaks French like a Frenchwoman!”). That remains, to this day, one of the greatest compliments I have ever received. 

I love French. But learning French was HARD. There are a bunch of weird things that come naturally to people who learn French as a first language—things like whether nouns are masculine or feminine or whether an H is aspirated–that frequently trip up non-native speakers. And there are tons of ways (in addition to the couple I highlighted above) in which real, spoken French is different from the French you learn in school in the US.  These are the kinds of struggles and frustrations that William Alexander highlights in a very funny, relatable way in his soon-to-be-released book, Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart.

Alexander is a fifty-eight-year-old Francophile, who decided that, despite his age (and the fact that “not only does the ability to acquire a second language become greatly diminished after adolescence, but the degradation continues linearly” and studies show that “the dimmest child will become far more proficient in his first language than the smartest adult in his second”), he would spend a year attempting to learn French. In an effort to reach his French-speaking goal, he tried language programs like Rosetta Stone and Fluenz, went to French speaking Meetups, traveled to France multiple times, enlisted the aid of French-speaking conversation partners on, listened to French radio and watched French TV programs and movies, read French books (with English translations on the facing page), took French classes in the US, and finally spent two weeks at a language-immersion school in France. Throughout the whole process, he documented his failures and successes in this book. 

Rating: 4/5

Flirting with French has a highly specific audience. If you’re not a French speaker, have never wanted to be a French speaker, and don’t care at all about French or France, then this is decidedly not a book for you. (In fact, if I were in that boat, I would probably give it a 2/5.)

On the flip side, if you are a second-language French speaker or have ever studied French, then this book is very readable (I breezed through it in a couple hours), extremely relatable, engaging, and fun.  It will, without question, remind you of your own experience studying/learning French.

There are interesting bits about language learning in the US (and very familiar anecdotes, like this one: “I have a friend—a very sharp guy—who studied French from the fourth grade through his sophomore year in college. Eleven years of French. And he goes to Paris and finds out he can’t speak or even understand French. And this is not an uncommon story.”). There are fun lists of French idioms and their English counterparts.  There are interesting and random observations about the similarities and differences between French and English (“In America we eat beef, never cows. In France both the meat and the steer are called boeuf.”). There are many stories about the frustrations of learning French, especially common hang-ups, like gender: “There is no logic to the assignment of gender in French. . . . I have been laboring for the longest time under the common misconception that there was a rhyme and reason to gender assignment, that the object itself held the key to its gender, that the girly things were feminine and manly things masculine.” But, he points out, a woman’s breast is masculine (un sein), whereas a man’s beard is feminine (une barbe).

This book brought back a lot of memories for me, made me want to brush up on my French (it’s been a loooooong time since I lived in a French-speaking country, and French is a lot easier to forget than it is to learn!), and made me want to plan a jaunt to Paris.  On y va?

The hype:

3ca16f3e793ad578b51baa2343974bccIt’s too early for best-of-the-month lists (and this isn’t the kind of book that typically makes those lists), but Alexander has been appearing in the press a lot lately. You can check out his recent op-ed piece in The New York Times,“The Benefits of Failing at French,” here. And his vous/tu flowchart (at right) recently appeared as an op-ed in The LA Times entitled “Brush Up on Your French with This Bastille Day Flowchart.” Excellent self-promotion, monsieur.

Who should read it? For those of you who can count backwards from vingt to un with ease, know how to pronounce les héros, and can explain the difference between oui and si, then this is a good book for you.

For some reason, I know a lot of French speakers. Perhaps we can sniff each other out (it’s that vaguely French smell—notes of pain au chocolate mixed with red wine, cigarettes, dog shit, and disdain). If you’re one of my lovely French-speaking friends (Shana, Danielle, Michelle, Erin, to name a very few), then you would likely enjoy this book. It’s a good reminder of why it’s such a great accomplishment to learn the language.

My high school French teacher, Leigh Ann, would also get a kick out of this book.

Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:

  • Wildwood written by Colin Meloy (lead singer of The Decemberists) and illustrated gorgeously by Carson Ellis (Meloy’s wife and the artist responsible for The Decemberists’ lovely album covers and the amazing illustrations in lots of middle-grade books like The Mysterious Benedict Society)
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (an Amazon Best Young Adult Book of the Month for May 2014, the #1 LibraryReads List selection for May 2014, and one of Paste Magazine’s “Best Novels of 2014 (So Far)”)


3 thoughts on “Flirting with French

  1. Love this. We are crazy about languages and just spent a month in Europe mixing English with Italian, Croatian, Swiss German and French…still recovering from the exhaustive effort. You are right that spoken language is completely different from textbooks – thank goodness for the patience and encouragement of friends!

  2. Pingback: Thirty Million Words | I Know What You Should Read

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