Flirting With French by William Alexander

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Flirting With French by William Alexander

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Category: Lifestyle
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: A funny and enlightening look at language learning in later life, this book is a really fun read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: April 2015
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd
ISBN: 978-0715649954

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I am not a bad linguist. I don’t tend to struggle with languages too much, especially when the goal is communicative fluency rather than precise grammatical accuracy, and I’ve taught English as a foreign language in a handful of countries too, so I have some ideas of what does and doesn’t work with language acquisition in adults. William Alexander is, perhaps, not so lucky. An American with a longing to be a Frenchman, he is devoting himself to learning the lingo and much more, and chronicles his efforts in this book.

This is a Bill Bryson style, chatty but informative book that I found really entertaining to read. Set between home in the States and holidays to France, this book follows Alexander as he tries to grasp the language, with many faux pas along the way. There’s something quite delightful, though, in celebrating the small victories, like the first time you make yourself understood (in my case it was age 7, ordering my own ice cream auf Deutsch).

I loved the section on idioms. That truly was the baby Jesus in velvet shorts and is the sort of thing you never learn except through prolonged exposure to a language. The flow chart on how polite to be on different occasions was also amusing, especially for native English speakers who gave up thou a long time ago. All languages have their oddities, and French is no exception, so these are explored too to humorous effect.

The book is littered with French phrases and I think it’s testament to how much languages infiltrate one another that it’s impossible not to keep up. Even if you’ve never studied the language, you might be surprised by how much you already know. This is especially true in English – they say no one is a true beginner in English these days, because music, film and adverts have exposed you to many words and phrases before you even think about stepping foot in a classroom – but French is close behind. Zut alors.

There are so many ways to learn a language, and the author tries a range of options from CDs to online courses and penpals. If I could say one thing to William, it would be get up and move to France. Seriously. No classroom will prepare you for living in a country day to day, doing the mundane things like laundry and grocery shopping to the less mundane things like navigating the ice cream café menu, talking your way out of parking tickets and dealing with uncomfortable trips to the doctor. Alternatively, he could try the Spanish recommendation of en calle, en classe y en cama – or in the street, in the classroom…and in bed. Worth a shot, surely?

Thanks go to the publishers for supplying this book. It was a really fun read.

A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke and other books in this set are also recommended if you like all things French.

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