Author: William Alexander
APA Style Citation
Alexander, W. (2014). Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed me, Seduced Me and Nearly Broke my Heart. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
William Alexander loves everything French: French croissants, the aesthetic of the country, vacations on a bicycle traveling between small villages, and the beautiful sound of the language. He is determined to master the French language and become a Francophile in earnest. While Alexander wants to learn French, he still has trepidation from the memories of his high school French teacher Madame D. He dropped the course after his sophomore year and made it through college choosing majors for which he did not need a foreign language to graduate. After he graduated, he took a trip backpacking across Europe with France as the last country he visited. While he did not know the language fluently, he thought he could get by with the French he had learned in high school. He saved money for the entire trip to go to one fancy French restaurant to end the trip in style. He ordered rogons de veau for two, thinking he had just ordered a nice cut of veal. He and his companion could afford nothing else, so they waited for the meal only to receive two small kidneys with no garnish or accouterments… so much for his high school French.
In his mid-fifties, Alexander attends a linguistics conference only to be told that he was essentially too old to learn French like a native speaker. Presenter after presenter emphasized the advantage that younger children had over adults for acquiring a new language. It seems that Alexander’s critical period for language had long since passed. Still, he was determined to fight biology and become fluent in the language he so adored.
In a study with Russian and French babies, just ninety-six hours after birth both sets of babies showed a preference for their native language over others. All languages have different cadences to which babies adapt quite early. Italian has many i and o sounds, French can be distinguished by its nasal vowels, and Scandinavian languages contain hard g sounds. Babies even cry in phonemes (the smallest unit of sound in a language) consistent with their native language. If not exposed early to these different sounds contained in language, adults often have a difficult time adjusting to the new sounds present in the language they are trying to acquire. For example, many Asian speakers who learned English as adults cannot make the “r” and “l” sounds in English or differentiate between those two sounds. Researchers found that seven-month-old Japanese babies can distinguish between “r” and “l” sounds but by ten months of age they cannot.
Alexander cites Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures book for moving the study of language from vocabulary to syntax. Chomsky proposed that language could not be explained solely by mimicking others because adults do not say things like “Tommy hitted me”, but nearly all children do. In this case, children are overgeneralizing the past tense of hit (which is still hit) and applying the rule more broadly than it should be applied. Nearly all children demonstrate these types of errors as they work their way through language. Chomsky believes that children are innately wired to learn language through what he described as a language acquisition device. This common innate ability to understand the basic rules of language is known as universal grammar. In a study conducted by Elissa Newport and Jenny Singleton, deaf children who were not exposed to proper syntax, still intuitively used American Sign Language correctly which seems to support Chomsky’s view. However, cases such as Genie who was found in Los Angeles, California as a teenager and who had never been exposed to language further complicate the issue. While Genie initially learned two-word strings quite quickly, she never acquired the ability to produce a negative question or ask a question. She remained in the stage of speech typical of a toddler. While we may have an innate ability to learn a language, Eric Lennenberg extended Chomsky’s theory by suggesting that there may be a critical period before the teenage years in which language is most easily acquired. Genie is a single case study that cannot be generalized to the entire population and she may have been intellectually disabled from birth, but similar case studies seem to point to the same conclusion.
Biological evidence now exists that those exposed to multiple languages early in life have more brain area devoted to language. Once neural pruning begins in adolescence, removing those neural networks that are not useful may make those that remain more efficient, we may lose the ability to rewire our brain to be more focused on language. This lends biological support to Chomsky’s belief in the inborn nature of language.
Alexander cites many examples of the intermingling of languages during a foreign invasion or language diffusion by more peaceful means, many of which remain today. In English courts, individuals are told to “cease and desist,” which essentially are synonyms and the phrase is redundant, but this combination harkens back to when the Normans (temporarily) made French the official language of England. The cease is English but the word desist comes from the French verb desister. The word mortgage in English is derived from the French: death contract”, which many who have experienced foreclosure may relate. Curfew comes from the French term couvre-feu which was the time that people had to cover their fire.
Alexander laments the quirks to the French language, such as their lack of numbers beyond sixty, for which one has to add to even say the number, for example, seventy is “sixty-ten” (soixante-dix), and seventy-nine is “sixty plus ten plus nine” (soixante-dix-neuf). Temps can refer to either weather or time. In other difficulties in learning the French language, Alexander cites the gender which must be memorized for each object and impacts the meaning of the sentence when used incorrectly. Especially for English speakers who are not accustomed to objects having gender’s this can be quite a challenge. French idioms while humorous in English do not always translate well. For example, the French counterpart to the English idiom “It costs and arm and a leg in English” is “it costs the skin of an ass”.
The French take their language very seriously and have established the Academie Francaise to publish an official dictionary of the French language in an effort to keep the language “pure” and free from too much foreign influence. Of course, they have had to make some changes to keep up with modern times, “wifi” and “podcasts” have made their way into the French language and appear much as they do in other languages. Others foreign words such as “le jogging”, “les cheesburgers” and “le weekend” have grown common in the French language much to the dismay of the l’Academie.
Despite the linguists warning that it would be difficult to learn language during middle age, Alexander forges ahead, tackling Rosetta Stone, finding a French pen pal (Sophie) who will write to him in English while he responds in French. Alexander finds a Meetup.com group and takes an immersion weekend class in New York. For his final push, he enrolls in a two-week immersion class at the esteemed Millefeuille Provence in southern France. It is said that once one becomes fluent in a given language, they no longer have to translate the meaning in their original language, so they are essentially “thinking in their new language.” Sadly, the linguists might be right. Alexander is never fully able to understand and speak in French although he does improve considerably during the course of the book. He is generally able to understand his instructors and get the idea of what the speaker is discussing (receptive speech), but finds that outside the controlled environment of the classroom or Rosetta stone; real day-to-day French is difficult to follow and even more difficult to speak (productive speech).
The French Blog: William Alexander’s blog
Genie: The Secret of the Wild Child
Noam Chomsky: Chomsky speaks about language and cognitive processes
Are You a Polygot?
The Development of Language: A Critical Period in Humans
L’Acedemie Francaise (In French, but worth the look for the pictures alone)
The Secret to Learning a Foreign Language as an adult
Human Language Development
The Future of Language will be one of Decline and Diffusion
Psychological Figures and Concepts
American Sign Language
Critical Period Hypothesis
Linguistic Acquisition Device