The Impossibility of a Second Language

One of America’s funniest writers, William Alexander, has done it again. If you’re not familiar with his earlier works, you still have amazing treats to enjoy. As a summer gardener, I couldn’t get enough of his first book, The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden (2006). That title pretty much says it all—especially about the tomatoes we grow in our gardens in the summer. If you factor in fertilizer, fungicides, containers, cage supports, water and all the time you need to put into growing the blasted things, they cost a small fortune. That doesn’t even include the trips to the shrink for a discussion of why so many of us will spend so much time raising tomatoes that come into their peak season at the same time their price in the grocery store drops below a dollar a pound. Simple explanation: amateur gardeners are sado-masochists.

Alexander wasn’t so hard on himself when he wrote his second book, 52 Loaves: A Half-Baked Adventure, but it certainly demonstrated his perfectionist side. The premise (which is a question) is quite simple: Why is American bread so awful? In truth, most Americans don’t even know that it’s bad because they haven’t lived overseas, particularly in Europe. Why, specifically, is the crust on American bread so terrible? The intrepid Alexander spent 52 weeks, searching for the ideal recipe and, thank God for his sanity, he finally found it.  Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the time for such a search. Fortunately, the book provides the recipe, so you can use his findings as a shortcut.

Which takes us to Alexander’s current book, Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart. This time the stakes are much larger, since obviously you can learn how to garden or bake bread as an adult, but with learning a second language (probably any second language) you’ve started a quest that rarely results in something as tasty as a garden-grown tomato or a crunchy crust on a loaf of exquisite bread. All the information (much of it scientific) illustrates just how difficult it is for an adult to learn a second language, especially for Anglophones to become Francophones.  And Alexander’s book is as much an analysis of learning any second language as the specificity, for him, of learning French. We weren’t design for language formation after a certain age, and we can’t be babies again, so the difficulties are formidable.  Formidable!

As I said, the problem is age.  Or, in Alexander’s own words as he sets off on his year’s adventure, “I yearn to bring sound—speech—to that quiet café of my dream. I can’t be French if I don’t speak French. It’s time to stop yearning and start learning. True, at fifty-seven I’m well into what is politely referred to as late middle age, and my goal of fluency in French won’t come easily.  But the way I look at it, next year I’ll be fifty-eight, and it won’t be any easier then. C’est la vie.  Too soon, however, a linguistics professor tells him “baby boomers don’t have the memory to learn a language.”

Alexander says no to that, so after a three-month review of his high school French, this time using Rosetta Stone Français, he and his wife begin a two-week bicycle trip through southern France, starting in Normandy. Forget the fact that it rains all of the first week. He’s ready to conquer France, except that Rosetta Stone Français isn’t the French he encounters. Nor is it a problem of French rudeness, which as far as he can observe, probably comes from rude Americans—or at least impatient ones. So there has to be a better way to tackle the language. This is where the book becomes much more than one man’s comic account of blundering through a second language. He tells us about the dragoon of a woman who taught him high school French—briefly—such a traumatic experience that at the university he sought out a major that required no language. Then there are accounts of undergraduate experiences in France and some risqué descriptions of various linguistic differences between English and French (why soixante-neuf sounds so much better than 69, for example). There’s a hilarious section on languages and genders, the familiar and the unfamiliar (pronouns). But when he makes a new attempt to communicate with another native French speaker and wonders why the conversational French isn’t going so well, she tells him, “If I correct every error….we cannot have a conversation.” It’s pretty much one setback after another, though all along he keeps trying new approaches.

What finally works best is a brief period of total immersion in a course offered by the New School. Then, he believes that he is ready for more lengthy total immersion back in France, but this time without his wife. What a blow, then, when he gets up his courage to ask one of the instructors, “When I speak French, do you understand me?” And the answer? “No.”

That’s not as bad as it appears, at least that’s what he discovers back in the United States.  Unfortunately, he’s suffered a number of heart attacks throughout the year he tried to learn French.  On one occasion he confesses, “French is wearing me out.” Yet, in a surprising conclusion to Alexander’s always engaging narrative, he confesses to unexpected benefits from spending so many hundreds of hours attempting to master French during the past year.

Très, très bien!

William Alexander: Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart Algonquin, 288 pp., $23.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.                       


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