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Flirting with French by William Alexandra


William Alexandra  is a man with a mission – he wants to learn French, to understand what is is to be French, in fact to be French. American born Mr Alexander doesn’t just want to speak it like a student after a couple of years study; he wants to parler proper French, like a native. The result is a brilliantly funny and eloquent book: Flirting with French…

William says “Some Americans want to visit France. Some want to live in France. I want to be French…”  but it is well-known fact that older learners struggle to learn a new language so 50 something William decides to look into how best to learn and what he can do to help himself. Not content to be told the facts, he delves into the science of linguistics. If you think that sounds a bit dry and dull – you couldn’t be more wrong. This is a brilliant book that anyone who has ever tried to speak French or learn any new language will identify with. It is funny and quirky, William’s observations made me laugh out loud several times on a train to Paris from La Rochelle startling my fellow passengers.

Right at the start William reveals he has a “un petit problem” which he gleefully point out means BIG problem. In French – and there’s the rub, or the issue… the language is peppered with colloquialisms and phrases that just don’t translate into English – literally. Consider: if I tell you Mr Alexandra has a dicky ticker, you may know that in English that means he has a heart problem. Try translating that into French and I shudder to think what the literal translation sounds like to a Frenchman! Colloquial expressions that are in everyday use “screw with your mind” says William and then he proves it in a hilarious way that changes how you’ll think about learning French.

I loved how William articulates his confusion and bewilderment at some French language idiosyncrasies. He gives an example of a phrase a Frenchman might use to describe something he likes, “the tops or the best”. “C’est Le petit Jesus en Colette de velours” or “it’s the baby Jesus in velvet shorts” says your French friend. WHAT? I actually didn’t believe it but so amazed was I that I asked a Frenchman if this was a real expression. “Yes of course, why not?” was the answer. Well what do you say to that because when you think about it, we in the UK might say that something is “the bees knees”, now how does that translate into “its the best” for a Frenchman or anyone who doesn’t know UK colloquialisms. It’s this understanding of the every day expressions that really throws a spanner in the works for everyone and anyone who tries to learn French or a new language. 

William writes as if he’s having a conversation with the reader and even when he’s talking technical, like how verbs work, grammar and the history of French language – he makes it huge fun and absolutely fascinating.

He doesn’t do anything by halves, having his brain scanned before he embarks on his determined course to learn French and then again after he’s finished, many months later, to see if there is a tangible effect. He gets a penpal, tries learning with a CD, online, watches TV with French subtitles, immerses himself on a residential course in France. When a heart problem causes havoc with his plans, he almost gives up – but he is nothing if not determined and with the support of his wife – he soldiers on. He meets with Google language experts, scientists and teachers in his quest. He studies, considers, examines and attempts every way he can think of to learn French and to be French.

His conclusion is that it IS harder for older learners to grasp a new language but it can be done… and that brain scan – did it yield any results? Oh yes and it might surprise you!

This is an entertaining, thoughtful and witty book for anyone and everyone who wants to learn French or had every tried to learn French or any other languge and wonders why it is so hard

But, “courage” as the French say,  take heart, keep a sense of humour and go for it anyway because as William discovers, the results may surprise you too.

Interview with William Alexander – and yes he is just as funny to talk to in real life!

Courtesy of William Alexander, the full tutorial on the question of is it tu or vous in French?


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