Friday, September 12, 2014

A Charming Flirt

Are you just going to flirt,
or do you plan to get serious?
William Alexander’s Flirting with French is a charming book, though perhaps in the spirit of things, one should say, “ce livre, il a beaucoup de charme[1] In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that while my flirting has not been as hardcore as Mr. Alexander’s, it seems to be of more faithful duration.

Like Mr. Alexander, I am a man in his 50s (I’m a little younger), I have worked in IT, and I took French in high school. Unlike Mr. Alexander, I didn’t struggle with French then or at any subsequent point.[2] Although my French is sufficiently unpracticed to fall shy of where I’d like it to be (a subject I’ll return to later),[3] my command of French is beyond that which Mr. Alexander claims in his book. Did I mention that the book is charming?

There are two narratives operating in this book. One clearly deserves the title Flirting with French. In it a middle-aged man embarks on a year-long quest to conquer the French language. Honestly, whether he learns a word of French or not is irrelevant: we’re there for the journey, not the destination. The parallel text might be called Dancing with Disaster, as Mr. Alexander wrote this while being treated for a serious heart condition, nevertheless doing things that took him far from his cardiologist. In one section of the book, he’s off for an intensive study course in Provence while under treatment for a potentially fatal problem. I think that would leave me too frightened to cope with irregular verbs.

But fright is important I think that dealing with stage fright is an important consideration in learning any language. Language skills break into four (fairly obvious) categories: reading, hearing, writing, speaking. In French, I’m very good at the first one (it’s the easiest), with less exalted accomplishments on the harder ones. But with speaking, the worst part is that you make your errors in public and out loud. The only solution, and I think Mr. Alexander would agree with me, is to say, fuck it, and make your mistakes in a loud, clear voice. In learning a language, it is far worse to keep silent and be thought a fool.

Near the end of the book, in a section that was adopted into a New York Times Op-Ed piece, Mr. Alexander compares his mental ability before and after starting his quest for French. At the beginning of the book, to his shock, he is below average for men of his age; at the end of the book, he has improved significantly, which he attributes to the study of French.

I’m all for the idea that French (or any other language) can save your mind. As I typed this review, I was listening to Édith Piaf (it seemed appropriate), and not only is the music lovely, but I know what she’s saying. That can’t be a bad thing. I suppose if one didn’t want the level of commitment that French requires, you could always go for Esperanto.[4] I cannot believe that you can have a potentially fatal heart arrhythmia without some cognitive effects. Before his final assessment, Mr. Alexander’s heart problem is solved,[5] then he does better on his cognitive assessment.
The copy I received of Flirting with French has these words on the back cover:
Uncorrected. Please do not quote without comparison with finished book.
Algonquin books was kind enough to send a review copy to me through LibraryThing’s Reviewer program; I doubt they’re going to send me a final version from which I can quote.[6] That’s a shame, because I instead have to only paraphrase the section in which Mr. Alexander says that no linguist or neuroscientist would ever use an fMRI[7] to measure language learning,[8] yet that is exactly the discussion I’ve had with a neighbor who is a linguist. While linguists are mostly interested in language communities, the question of whether initial languages and languages acquired as adults are processed in the same area of the brain is certainly an interesting one. So why not? I personally would be interested to see if my brain is treating French or Esperanto differently than English.

While I remain unconvinced that learning French (or any language) will increase your cognitive abilities,[9] I’m still certain that learning another language is a good thing. Mr. Alexander doesn’t achieve his goal within the one-year timeframe, but in a way, that timeframe was unrealistic. Part of learning a language, is creating a groove of unconscious behavior. You say “bonjour” when you enter a shop in Paris because that is just what you do. Habit. His one-year timeframe was insufficient to develop those habits, the mental equivalent of muscle memory. Language learning is all about developing that mental muscle memory.[10]

His book is written and published; I hope it does well. But in no way should Mr. Alexander decide that because the book is done the quest is over.
A violinist has an engagement at Carnegie Hall, and since the day is beautiful, decides to walk from his hotel. Unfortunately, he gets lost, so he asks a man on the street, “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

The man thinks for a moment and says, “practice, practice, practice.”
You’re never going to be French, Monsieur Alexander (or should I call you “Guy”?)[11] but, pratique, pratique, toujours pratique.

  1. Or perhaps not.  ↩
  2. I like to note to people that in any language class there’s an asshole to whom the language seems to come naturally, and I’m that asshole. Part of this is due to good pattern recognition. In teaching my husband Esperanto, I’ve pointed out on a few occasions how the answer is implicit in the question. Is this language skills or just noticing a pattern? And is there a difference?  ↩
  3. And when I do, I should remember to update this part with a link.  ↩
  4. By the rules of this blog, I get to bring up Esperanto whenever I damn well feel like it. Further, I really do think that people in various situations should learn Esperanto.  ↩
  5. Fuck the French! This counts as a happy ending.  ↩
  6. And certainly not in the timeframe in which I wanted to get this review done. For that matter, I really have no desire to own a second copy of Flirting with French, even though I enjoyed the book. I do realize that some reviewers make a practice of giving away their review copies. I, on the other hand, have precious few and consider them part of my library.<br  ↩
  7. Bragging rights: Magnetic Resonance Imaging is based on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. My husband is related to I.I. Rabi, the physicist who discovered nuclear magnetic resonance.  ↩
  8. That’s actually close enough to the actual sentence that I could be accused of plagiarism if I hadn’t announced that I was trying to paraphrase.  ↩
  9. I’d much rather be a monoglot with a healthy heart than a polyglot who has died of heart failure.  ↩
  10. If you ask me “Comment ça va,” I’m going to answer “bien,” unless I’m on my deathbed, in which case I’ll answer “comme ci, comme ça.” If you ask me “kiel vi fartas,” the answer is “bone.”  ↩
  11. My great-grandfather was called “Guy” but it was short for Geatano, not Guillame.  ↩

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