Alexander is courageous in his learning and writing elsewhere in the book as well. The story of his much-anticipated meeting with his quirky young French pen pal that ended in him speaking entirely in English to her fiancé because they were unable to understand his French is positively cringe-worthy. For me, it also highlighted how lucky I am to be a French learner in London, where face-to-face exchanges with French people are easily-arranged and therefore charged with much less nervous anticipation.
First of all, a tendency to spend a good deal of time researching and reading about etymology and linguistics at the expense of hard-nosed language learning. That of course makes for a more interesting book – gems from Flirting with French that I was not previously aware of include the reason for the disappearance of gender from English: the aristocracy and educated classes had started speaking French so the peasantry went about simplifying English, including dropping genders. And why we use the tautologous legal phrase 'cease and desist': the old-English cease was coupled with the French verb désister to ensure that both the peasantry and the aristocracy knew that they really had to stop.
Second – and this is a big mistake that I’ve made too – Alexanders’ expectations were clearly massively too high. Towards the end of the book he frequently expresses distress at not having “learned French” over the course of the 12 months he had allotted himself.
Leaving aside this (dare I say it) rather American idea of being able to “learn French” in the same way that you finish a book or tick off a museum visit, after a year I was happy with simple conversations under controlled circumstances. And that’s indeed what Alexander achieves towards the end of the year – despite the much-cited obstacle of his advanced age (57...). I’m writing this review on the train back to London after two weeks in Provence, where after two-and-a-half years of fairly serious study and with many many conversations with native speakers under my belt, I still found it difficult to be understood in little villages where English-accented French was not expected or commonly heard. (A more detailed post about my time in Provence is coming up, by the way!)
Alexander has written a good piece on the cognitive benefits of learning a language here, he has a handy guide to the eternal tu v vous dilemma here and he keeps an interesting blog here. His account of a year battling with French is thoroughly enjoyable and well worth a read for anyone who has struggled with learning French or indeed any language.
Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me and Nearly Broke My Heart by William Alexander is published by Algonquin Books on September 12 2014.