Flirting with French

This is not a book review, but simply my reaction to a book review to a book I will, quite frankly, most likely never read.

I happened upon Claire Lundberg’s review of William Alexander’s Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me and Nearly Broke My Heart. and, well, it nearly broke my heart. It seems to be a book whose very existence manifests the worst aspects of anglo North Americans’ outdated and backwards attitudes toward languages and language learning.

It’s no small feat to learn a language to an advanced level of proficiency as an adult. It takes hard work, time, and risk-taking. IT takes acquiring a whole range of linguistic features that may be foreign to you (such as grammatical gender, a new word order, etc.)
The author poses the question: “Why do adult language learners even bother trying [to learn French], when faced with […] seemingly insurmountable odds?”  This idea of being so intimidated by French that you just throw up your hands and not bother learning it, in spite of your interest and desire in doing so, smacks of English-speaker privilege. Millions of people around the world work their butts off to learn languages for work, education, and travel. English speakers aren’t often in this position, as their mother tongue is the modern-day lingua franca. The author has obviously has never had to learn another language. The question of “Why bother?” is slap-worthy; toughen up, buddy, and just do it, like millions of us have.

Monolingual anglo North Americans tend to fall into two categories: those who think it’s this crazily difficult, impossible challenge, and those who think language learning is a breeze, and that they could do it in a snap if they wanted to. Alexander show that he’s simultaneously in both camps. From the review: “[T]he first half of the book catalogs all the steps Alexander takes that are not actually taking a French class. Instead, there’s Rosetta Stone, a French pen pal, French in Action videos from the 1980s. He takes the reader on a trip to meet IBM’s universal translation program team and along on his seven-hour odyssey through Julia Child’s croissant recipe. These become—as he freely admits—avoidance techniques rather than aids in his quest for fluency. “It was, all in all,” he tells us, “far more entertaining and less stressful thinking about learning French than actually learning French.”” Though some are capable of learning a language simply through a series of informal, language-based activities, and though these types of activities can definitely complement more formal learning and play a role in someone’s learning, most learners you actually have to put in some work. Taking a class, studying, reading, writing, speaking, listening in some sort of systematic and guided way. The vast majority of learners need the guidance, scaffolding, expert knowledge and encouragement that a teacher provides. Learning French is not akin to putting together a piece of furniture from IKEA; the DIY approach is a naive and simplisitic one.

The book and the review delve into the cultural tropes and stereotypes that Americans (especially those of Alexander’s generation) hold of the French, and how these played into the intimidation factor. But over and above that, they unfairly attribute French’s difficulty on several things that are by no means unique to French and France: intimidating and difficult social interactions (um, do you think this is easy for someone learning English?), the existence of a language governing body/language police (tons of languages have these, and they actually can make learning easier), the similarity of certain common French words to sexual terms (Coke and cock, anyone? beach and bitch?). All of these things are part of the trials and tribulations anyone experiences learning any language. Different languages have different challenges sometimes, but the idea that one language is just so much more incredibly difficult to learn than the rest is simply false.

I really wish this book didn’t exist. If only the books target audience (middle-aged, monolingual North Americans with a 1960’s ideal of France) had more familiarity and experience with actual language learning, this book would simply not hold any cachet.

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