• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

SPRING FUNDRAISER

Is it time for our Spring fundraiser already? If you enjoy what we offer, and have the means, please consider donating. The sooner we reach our modest goal, the faster we can get back to business as (un)usual. Please, stay safe and we’ll see you down the road.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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.                       

 

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 29, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Tim Wise
Protest, Uprisings, and Race War
Nick Pemberton
White Supremacy is the Virus; Police are the Vector
T.J. Coles
What’s NATO Up to These Days? Provoking Russia, Draining Healthcare Budgets and Protecting Its Own from COVID
Benjamin Dangl
Bibles at the Barricades: How the Right Seized Power in Bolivia
Kevin Alexander Gray - Jeffrey St. Clair - JoAnn Wypijewski
There is No Peace: an Incitement to Justice
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Few Good Sadists
Jeff Mackler
The Plague of Racist Cop Murders: Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Joshua Frank
In Search of a Lost Socialism
Charles Pierson
Who are the “Wrong Hands” in Yemen?
Andrew Levine
Trump Is Unbeatable in the Race to the Bottom and So Is the GOP
David Schultz
Trump isn’t the Pope and This Ain’t the Middle Ages
Ramzy Baroud
Political Ambiguity or a Doomsday Weapon: Why Abbas Abandoned Oslo
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
A Growing Wave of Bankruptcies Threatens U.S. Recovery
Joseph Natoli
Conditions Close at Hand
N.D. Jayaprakash
No Lessons Learned From Bhopal: the Toxic Chemical Leak at LG Polymers India 
Ron Jacobs
The Odyssey of Elias Demetracopoulos
J.P. Linstroth
Arundhati Roy on Indian Migrant-Worker Oppression and India’s Fateful COVID Crisis
Melvin Goodman
Goodness Gracious, David Ignatius!!
Roger Harris
Blaming the COVID-19 Pandemic on Too Many Humans:  a Critique of Overpopulation Ideology
Sonali Kolhatkar
For America’s Wealthiest, the Pandemic is a Time to Profit
Prabir Purkayastha
U.S. Declares a Vaccine War on the World
David Rosen
Coronavirus and the Telecom Crisis
Paul Buhle
Why Does W.E.B. Du Bois Matter Today?
Mike Bader
The Only Way to Save Grizzlies: Connect Their Habitats
Dave Lindorff
Pandemic Crisis and Recession Can Spark a Fight for Real Change in the US
Nyla Ali Khan
The Sociopolitical and Historical Context That Shaped Kashmiri Women Like My Grandmother in the 1940s
Louis Proyect
Does Neo-Feudalism Define Our Current Epoch?
Ralph Nader
S. David Freeman: Seven Decades of Participating in Power for All of Us
Norman Solomon
Amy Klobuchar, Minneapolis Police and Her VP Quest
Maria Paez Victor
Venezuela in the 2020 Pandemic
Ron Mitchell
Defending Our Public Lands: One Man’s Legacy
Nomi Prins 
The Great Depression, Coronavirus Style: Crashes, Then and Now
Richard C. Gross
About That City on A Hill
Kathleen Wallace
An Oath for Hypocrites
Eve Ottenberg
Common Preservation or Extinction?
Graham Peebles
Air Pollution Mental Illness and Covid-19
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Unearned Income for All
Evan Jones
The Machine Stops
Nicky Reid
Proudhon v. Facebook: A Mutualist Solution to Cyber Tyranny
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What is a “Native” Plant in a Changing World?
Shailly Gupta Barnes
Why are Our Leaders Still Putting Their Faith in the Rich?
John Kendall Hawkins
In Search of the Chosŏn People of Lost Korea
Nick Licata
How Hydroxychloroquine Could Help Trump…Politically
Jill Richardson
Tens of Millions of Are Out of Work, Why on Earth is Trump Trying to Cut Food Aid?
Susan Block
Incel Terrorism
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail