Saturday, December 13, 2014

Pas de ketchup?

Readers of my books and this blog know that I love France and all things French (including French mustard, which I go through a lot of), but even I have my limits.

And those limits have been tested with the new Maille mustard bar that just opened in New York. Modeled on the nearly-as-silly olive oil tasting bars, they have some 20 varieties of Maille mustard on tap. You can taste as many varieties as you can stand, guided by, yes, a mustard sommelier to give your tasting notes, and then have a ceramic crock filled up with the condiment of your choice, which will set you back a whopping 25 bucks for a mere 4.4 ounces!

Meanwhile, an 8-oz. jar of Maille in your grocery store costs about $5. But of course, you can't get the blue cheese or cognac flavor there.

Only explanation I can come up: this is revenge for us sending the French the hot dog.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Does language affect how we think?

Nice op-ed in today's New York Times that is on the larger issue of "why save a dying language" touches on the question of whether language affects how we think.

In Flirting with French I discuss this topic in much more depth, especially as it applies to gender. Gender is often said to be arbitrary, and with good reason, given that in French a beard is feminine a vagina is masculine. But in a research project, when subjects were told they were selecting a cartoon voice for a inanimate objects (the objects chosen had different genders in French and Spanish), the test subjects nearly always choose the voice the matched the gender of the object in their language. Thus French speakers wanted a woman to be the voice of a fork -- la forchette -- while Spanish speakers wanted a male to be un tenador.

The one exception was a peanut, which, despite being feminine in French, was assigned a masculine voice by the majority of subjects. I'm no scientist, but I think I detect some investigational interference -- in the guise of that international figure, Mr. Peanut.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Cyber Monday language program deals

Just because so-called Cyber Monday is ridiculous doesn't mean you shouldn't take advantage of it to get a good deal on language-learning software - but which one to choose. Click here to see my full, unbiased reviews of the leading products, but here's a quick summary of some of the sales you'll find today:
  • Rosetta Stone is selling their full, 5-unit software for just $189 today. That's the lowest I've ever seen it. I pains me to say that I paid $600(on sale)  just a few years ago. You choose between the traditional desktop version and the 3-year tablet subscription (the same price). The CDs you have forever; the subscription works beautifully on a tablet, and you probably won't be using it 3 years from now anyway. [Full review]
  • Fluenz is selling their 5-unit software today for $268. A hundred bucks more than Rosetta? Hmm. Two major differences between Rosetta and Fluenz: 1) Rosetta Stone has speech recognition software, which Fluenz does not, meaning that you do a lot of typing in Fluenz. 2) Fluenz has explanations, where Rosetta is supposedly intuitive. Supposedly. [Full review]
  • Rocket Languages is the dark horse in this race and worth a look and selling for $179 today. Less organized their either of the others, Rocket is a good deal when Rosetta is full price and may be attractive to those who tire of the Rosetta's sameness and Sonia Gill's (of Fluenz) vanity. [Full review]
Whatever you choose, bonne chance  (and bon courage!)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Flirting with French makes New York Times bestseller list!

I'll get back to French and France in a moment, but first I want to share the exciting news that Flirting with French, written by the same idiot who authors this blog, has debuted on the New York Times bestseller list for Travel books at #11. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that I've stopped promoting it entirely. Buy your holiday gift copies now, and maybe we can nudge it up to #10, so I get the listing with the capsule description, instead of just the title in the Sunday Times Book Review! Let me help you out.

Click here to buy.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Oeil of the tiger

We take a break this morning from my French language and culture discussions to report on a breaking news story from France: what was first reported to be a tiger is stalking the outskirts of Paris -- and no one knows where it came from.

Sighted first near Disneyland Paris, sending cat bait Mickey and Minnie scurrying for cover, Inspector Clouseau has been tracking it westward, meaning that by the time you read this, it could be climbing the Eiffel Tower.

The BBC is now saying it's not a tiger at all, but some other grand chat, although Le Monde is still calling it un tigre, perhaps to avoid using the unfortunate phrase grande chatte. (And if I have to explain that to not to ask.)

In any event, it's a welcome diversion from France's other problems: the re-emergence of Sarkozy, crippling unemployment, and the ability of the dough-faced president to attract glamorous women. Bonne chance avec votre tigre, mes amis!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Win a copy of "Flirting with French"

The French Word-a-Day website is offering a free copy of Flirting with French to the reader who wins the "name your favorite food" contest. In that spirit, I'm repeating my recipe for Pommes Anna, a fantastic and easy potato dish, which deserves to be better known (and more widely eaten) in this country:

Pommes Anna

4 medium-sized Yukon gold potatoes (approx 1-1/2 pounds or slightly less)
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, clarified*
Salt (coarse Kosher or sea) and freshly ground pepper to taste (about ¾ teas salt and ½ teas pepper in all)

1.     Preheat oven to 450 F and start the clarified butter, as below.
2.     Peel potatoes and slice thinly (the thinner the better – no more than 1/16 inch) on a mandolin or V-slicer.
3.     Spray the bottom of a 6-inch, nonstick sauté pan with cooking spray, then spoon in 2 teaspoons of the clarified butter, and swirl to coat.
4.     Place a layer of potatoes slices in the pan, overlapping the edges by a third to a half, so that no pan surface is showing. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle on about a teaspoon of the butter.
5.     Repeat building layers in the same manner until you’ve run out of potatoes, then drizzle with any remaining butter.
6.     Cover pan tightly with foil, sear on high heat (that’s on an electric burner; for gas you may need to dial it back a notch) for 90 seconds. No more, no less.
7.     Place in center of oven, and bake for 35 minutes.
8.     Remove foil, reduce oven temperature to 400, and bake about another 15 minutes. The potatoes are done when pierced easily with a knife, and edges are brown and pulling away from the pan.
9.     Remove from oven and invert onto a platter (like an upside-down cake)
10.  Allow to cool 10 minutes before serving. (Do not omit this step – the flavors develop and the texture improves as it sits).
11.  Cut into wedges, like a pie, and serve.

* To clarify butter, melt in smallest saucepan you have, and allow to simmer gently for a couple of minutes until white solids form on surface. Remove from heat, let sit for a few minutes, then, using a teaspoon, skim off and discard the solids.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

French non-Cultural minister outdoes Palin

If you haven't heard, France is abuzz over this past weekend's admission by the French Minister of Culture, one Fleur Pellerin, that she hasn't read a book in two years. What's more, she seemed totally unfamiliar with Patrick Modiano, the French author who recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

"Barbarism is here," declared one French writer, joining a chorus of voices for her resignation.

My thoughts immediately went (unfortunately) to Sarah Palin, who was similarly caught with her pantalons down, so to speak, when she couldn't name, well, anything, including the name of a newspaper she reads. At least Pellerin didn't try to deflect the embarrassment with charges of "gotcha journalism." (Hmm, how do you say that in French?)

It's temping to poke fun at the French for this indignation, but the real point is that the bumbling President Holland has named a mere bureaucrat who has risen through the ranks of French bureaucracy (starting with university)  to  an office charged with the nation's culture. Judging by the photo above, perhaps Ministry of Fashion would've been a better fit.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

90+ ways to know you're becoming French

A reader from France, Lisa Vanden Bos, recently sent me a copy of small, illustrated book (and by small, I mean 3 inches square) titled 90+ Ways to Know You're Becoming French.  A couple of my favorites:
  • Start a series by counting with your thumb (as opposed to your index figure)
  • Find nothing wrong with saying in English, "I am here since three years."
  • Know where the "first floor" really is
(Hint on the "first floor": You might want to take the elevator.)

Fun stuff. You can learn more about the book here . The authors operate a website that serves the expat community in France,  You know how I know that they're becoming French? The website ends in ".fr".

Bonne lecture!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Innocents Abroad

As you might imagine, I've been getting some e-mail from people of a certain age who also have attempted to learn French and have had similar experiences to mine. One such correspondent, Greg Curtis, even enrolled at the Sorbonne -- and lived to tell about it.

Here's his entertaining story, which appeared in Alcalde, the official publication of the University of Texas.

Bonne lecture !

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"Would you prefer I spoke English?"

Okay, so I'm no Orson Welles, and I have this New York-ish accent...but if you want to get a goût gratuite (or is that a "dégustation gratuite" -- who the heck knows; it's French!) of Flirting with French you can hear me read a minute and fifty seconds, courtesy of the New York Times.

Of course, in doing this for the Times I've certainly killed any chance of being asked to record my own audio book, but I like this clip because it's the type of thing that happened to me often in France.

To set it up, my wife and I have arrived in the town of Dinard after several long days of bicycling in the rain, and an hour earlier, I had struggled mightily trying to understand where the hotel clerk wanted us to store the bikes. Now, I have to deal with her again...and I'm not looking forward to it.

Je lis...

Saturday, October 4, 2014

NY Times Book Review reviews "Flirting with French"

 This Sunday's New York Times Book Review has a colorful (and nice) review of my book, "Flirting with French," under the headline "Old Dog, New Trick." Some excerpts:

In his new book, “Flirting With French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me and Nearly Broke My Heart,” he deals with a lot of pangs, yearnings and fears that readers, especially those around his age — 57 when he set out to learn French — can identify with. How old is too old to learn something new? Is there anything to be done about a memory that’s beginning to sputter?
Bon courage, mes amis. As Alexander discovers, French is the least of it when you’ve reached late middle age.
He throws himself into learning to speak French with Gérard Depardieu-like gusto in a George ­Plimpton-like stunt, toiling over Rosetta Stone, enrolling in immersion classes, joining a conversational group, writing to a pen pal, papering his kitchen with vocabulary-boosting Post-it notes.
But he never gives up. He hurls himself at French again and again almost like a cartoon character who, smacking up against a slammed door, slides to the floor in a puddle of humiliation. His wife, meanwhile, a doctor who has never studied French, turns out to be a natural, able to navigate serenely through brief encounters on the vacation they take in Normandy and Provence.
I did feel a bit like Wile E. Coyote during much of the time I was studying French...

See the full review here

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Paris around the clock

How to tell if you're a francophile: If this slideshow from the New York Times doesn't make you want to jump on a plane to Paris right're not!

Friday, September 26, 2014

The French stomp out cigarettes!?

Legendary singer Serge Gainsbourg with his ever-present cigaratte
The French have almost lost their ability to shock: doughnut-faced presidents have affairs with hot actresses via motor scooter; Metro ads features half-naked models, and farmers plow over McDonalds. But this latest news caught me by surprise: As reported in today's New York Times, the French government has announced a plan to curb smoking that would introduce plain packaging for cigarettes (no more cute camels!), ban smoking on playgrounds and -- get this -- even ban e-cigarettes in some public places, putting them ahead of the US in combating the growing use of e-cigarettes!

This from the country that has always celebrated the cigarette. Thank goodness they banned smoking in restaurants a few years ago -- I remember going to the famous Cafe de Flore, where Sartre and Camus once hung out and and the stink of their Gauloises still hung in the air -- I could barely breathe (or taste my food).

So, kudos to the French. Better late than never!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Can you learn French from listening to popular music?

At some point during my 13 months of studying French I heard that listening to French music is an effective technique for learning the language. How'd that work out for me? The results may surprise you. Read my post on the wonderful music blog Largehearted Boy.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Flirting with French debuts - finalement!

Finally, a book about the experience of trying to learn French as an adult!  

Hope it's good --- because I wrote it.

Flirting with French hit the bookstores yesterday, 4 years after I tackled my lifelong goal of learning French. In addition to telling my story, I explore such topics as why it's so difficult for adults to learn a language; what's holding up the general availability of Captain Kirk's universal translator, and the puzzles of gender and when to use vous and tu.  

Excerpts from some early reviews:
"A charming memoir by a passionate Francophile" - Kirkus Reviews
"Highly readable...His quixotic resolve to transcend his inherent competence recalls the participatory journalism of George Plimpton, the lanky patrician whose unlikely stints in football and boxing lent nobility to failure.  - The Wall Street Journal
"A great book, and not just for Francophiles, but for anyone learning a new language." - The Novel World.
Flirting with French is available at your local bookstore, or click on this link to order from your favorite online retailer.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Wall Street Journal raves about "Flirting with French"

Thanks for the Wall Street Journal and reviewer Danny Heitman for his remarkable review of Flirting with French! Some excerpts:
"Mr. Alexander is a bit of a Walter Mitty who's developed an expertise at playing the novice. His first book, "The $64 Tomato," chronicled his misadventures as an amateur gardener. Next, in "52 Loaves," he reported his experiences as a hobbyist baker, going so far as to grow his own wheat. Now, in "Flirting with French," he discovers that learning a language late in life is as difficult as an uphill climb on the Tour de France."
"This is the man, after all, who once attempted French in a Paris eatery and ended up saying, "I'll have the ham in newspaper, and my son will have my daughter." But despite these comic setbacks, Mr. Alexander's tone remains one of wonder rather than resignation: "The hush of dawn at a medieval monastery, for a magical ten minutes perhaps the most beautiful spot anywhere on earth, as the Norman mist vaporizes before my eyes, lifting its veil from rows of sunlit apple and pear trees, their ripe fruit awaiting the attention of a monk's hands and a chef's knife." If only he could render that as beautifully in French"
"His quixotic resolve to transcend his inherent competence recalls the participatory journalism of George Plimpton, the lanky patrician whose unlikely stints in football and boxing lent nobility to failure. Like Plimpton, Mr. Alexander presents himself as an apprentice, but the reader quickly discovers he is also a master teacher."

Read the full review.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Bon (whatever!)

I received an e-mail yesterday from a Frenchwoman which ended with the salutation, Bon dimanche! And I thought, that's a first -- no one has ever wished me a "good Sunday." But once thing I've noticed (and like) about the French, they are always wishing you a bon something or other.
When you enter a shop you are greeted with bonjour; when you leave it, bonne journée. In the afternoon, you may be wished a bon après-midi or its more loquacious cousin, passez un bon après-midi. Late in the afternoon, come some magical time that only the French know, bonjour becomes bonsoir when you come and bonne soirée when you go. In between, at dinner, you may be wished bon appétit before you eat and bonne continuation during. At the end of the meal, the waiter might wish you a bonne fin de repas or even (and this one is a little too clinical for my taste) a bonne fin de digestion.

My favorite, though is bon courage!, sometimes shortened to just Courage! which, depending on the situation, can apparently mean anything from “have a nice day no matter what may come” to an ominous “good luck,” sometimes with a nuance of “good luck, pal — you’re going to need it!” I suspect in my case, particularly when I trying to speak French, it’s usually the last. And I do need it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Frenchman forces plane to land over legroom

Let's hear it (although hear what, I'm not sure) for the 60-year-old Frenchman whose last name is Alexandre for raising a fuss over leg room on a flight from Miami to Paris. It seems the woman in front of him reclined her seat into his lap, and refused to budge when he complained. After he let his French temper get the best of him, undercover air marshals subdued him, and the flight was diverted to Boston.

There have been several disputes over reclining seats on planes recently, and here's why: Not only are tempers short because flying has just become so flat-out horrible, but while the airlines have reduced the legroom -- the number of inches between you and the seat in front of you -- they have not reduced how much that seat in front of you can recline!

I think it's time for a dialog about reclining seats on planes in general. Are they really necessary? And when we're done there, let's discuss the putting rocking chairs in movies theaters. I mean, are they nuts? You even been behind someone who rocks his chair while you're trying to watch a movie?

In the meantime, be consider of the passenger (moviegoer) behind you. Especially if he's six-foot, four. And has bad back. And can't afford first-class.


Failing at French? Research says don't try so hard.

Well, this might explain a lot: A team of neuroscientists at MIT have published a study that suggests that trying harder to learn a foreign language can actually impede progress(!) That's right, the slacker in the baseball cap slouching in his seat in the back of the class of French class who's not even bothering to conceal his earbuds may be absorbing more then you, the diligent concentrator in the front row.

The researchers theorize that this is because (and I'm broadly paraphrasing here) our adult brains, in trying to take in too much, miss the big picture. But if you let yourself get a little distracted during lessons, you pick up more.

This "less is more" theory is not new, and in fact I discuss it with one of its proponents, Elissa Newport, in my new book Flirting with French as well as in a recent op-ed in the Times, but this is the first time that scientists have tested the theory (using an artificial language) in a controlled environment.

For more details, there's a nice summary in Science Daily.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

French Flix Fix from Netflix

Looks like much of the country is going to have a wet Labor Day - the perfect excuse to stay indoors and watch some good French films via Netflix streaming. By the way, why do the French not celebrate Labor Day? Perhaps because every day in France is a celebration of the laborer, what with the 35-hour work week, 6-week vacations, and retirement in your fifties.

Back to the films, Bicycling with Molière is clever and entertaining, one of these play-within-a-play things, except that in this case, the play in question, Molière's The Misanthrope, is playing out in real life while a celebrated TV actor tries to convince a real-life misanthrope to come out of retirement to play in the production of The Misanthrope that the TV actor is staging. Fabrice Lucini is terrific as the misanthrope.

Another film I saw recently is 2 Autumns, 3 Winters. More typically French, meaning there's not much of plot, and a little offbeat, I found myself drawn into this drama about a couple who meet by chance -- twice. A good rainy day movie. To stay abreast of other French films streaming on Netflix (or playing in a theatre near you), check out the website But check these two films out soon - Netflix can easily yanketh what they giveth.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Passé simple? I don't thing so...

I was recently asked in an interview if my French quest had allowed me to to read any of the French classics in the original. Actually, that was one of my goals in learning French, but when I tried, I came across an unexpected obstacle that no one had warned by about: the passé simple. This is the past tense that was once use exclusively in writing, with the more common passé composé reserved for spoken French.

That's right, French has two past tenses, equivalent in meaning: one for spoken French and one for written! Quelle langue!

When I first encountered the heretofore unknown passé simple in a Balzac story or something, I couldn't figure out what the heck it was. It looked a lot like the future tense, but I knew the conjugations for the verb in question, and it wasn't the future; it wasn't the imparfait; it was just bizarre looking, and I learned later, that is how to recognize the passé simple. If it's weird and doesn't match anything else, it's probably the simple.Which is, trust me, anything but simple!

By the way, the passé simple wasn't the only obstacle to reading French classics. It's often repeated that 90% of a language uses just 2,000 different words. Je pense que non! After a year of study, I couldn't make my way through Le Petit Prince.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Rave review from Kirkus

The very first review of Flirting with French is in --whew!

Thanks, Kirkus Reviews, for your kind review, which begins with "A charming memoir by a passionate Francophile" and ends with "Alexander’s love affair with French, he concludes in this wry and warmhearted memoir, has reaped unexpected rewards."

So, not only is it nice, but even better, they got the book!  Five weeks till publication, but you can pre-order here for less than 15 bucks (cheap!).

Read the full review at Kirkus Reviews.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Nous recevons des lettres

A letter writer in today's New York Times, who in criticizing my op-ed of last week, writes, "It's not surprising that William Alexander hasn't succeeded in learning French to the point where he can converse with a 3-year-old."

I couldn't agree more! And thanks, NYT, for a great sketch!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"The Decline of French Cuisine" - Sound Familiar?

Mark Bittman has a depressing column in today's New York Times about the sad decline of French food, and the attempt of the government to rectify the situation by coming up with with a fait maison (made in-house, or homemade) sticker logo to promote restaurants featuring homemade food. Unfortunately, the way the regulations are written, McDonalds (as popular in France as in the US) could nearly qualify for it.

A couple of thoughts: First of all, let's not scare off prospective tourists with the notion that all French food is precooked, reheated, and just plain lousy. To be sure, there's a lot of that around, but there is still outstanding food to be had. You just need to be a little discerning in your choice. One of the best meals I had in France was at a small inn in the countryside, when foie gras terrine, pigeon, and duck was prepared by the owner - nothing frozen or artificial there.

Secondly, this story sounds oddly familiar. We've already seen this happen with bread in France. After World War II, the prized French baguette was replaced with cheaply made, quickly-risen loaf that tasted like cotton -- if it had any taste at all. Yet in recent years, a new generation of bakers has brought back the old, artisianal loaf, which may in fact be better than the old loaf ever was, and lines once again form at Paris's best boulangeries.

So, there is hope, but it's the younger generation that's going to have to make it happen. And right now, you can find most of them lined up at "McDoo."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Read my Op-Ed in the NY Times

What a week - first, my Vous/Tu chart in the LA Times goes viral (although I am worried that Le Monde has picked it up -- lord, what have I done to Franco-American relations!), and today the NY Times has published by op-ed on the the benefits of failing at French.

You can read the Times piece here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

LA Times Op-Ed on 'Vous" and "Tu" Goes Almost-Infectious!

The good folks at the LA Times tell me that my Guide to Vous and Tu that they published on Sunday has gone, well, if not quite viral, at least infectious. Like a bad head cold. Enjoy the full chart here, while you still can.

Monday, July 14, 2014

I blog for Algonquin Books today

See my guest blog on the Algonquin Books blog, plus some never before seen photos of me. (I can't wait.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Wordsmith Wednesday: Since when?

It's been a while since I've done a new Wordsmith Wednesday feature. Now say that in French: for "since" do we use depuis or il y a? Both phrases denote passage of time, so it 's confusing -- so confusing that I spent a half hour on it in one-on-one immersion class in Provence, without benefit of English examples.

I did (sort of) learn it, however, and since we're under no such no-English-in-this-room-buster constrictions here, let me try to explain the difference, because this is apparently a big deal to the French, and the first question you're likely to be asked by a Frenchman is either "How long have you been here?"  or "How long have you not been (not) speaking French?"

Depuis means both "for" and "since," as in "I've been in France for ten days" - Je suis en France depuis dix jours and "I've been sick since Tuesday" - Je suis malade depuis mardi. 

However, if you want to say, "I arrived an hour ago," you use il y a. So it's Je suis arrivée il y a une heure, which gets confusing, because the English literal construction of that seems to be "It's been an hour since I arrived" and we just said that "since" translates to depuis.

What my French teacher told me -- and how she managed to do this all in French I can't recall, but it's quite a feat -- is that if the action is ongoing, you generally use depuis. If it's something in the past, use il y a. Doesn't always work, but close enough.

If you're determined to get this right (and your effort is probably better spent elsewhere), check out the fine page on this at

Friday, June 20, 2014

Quelle surprise -- la grève strikes again!

The only thing surprising about the latest train strike French train strike (la grève) now into its second week is that I missed it. I managed to time trips to France to coincide with the previous two. Here's how, in 52 Loaves, I describe the one that almost torpedoed my mission to restore the lost tradition of baking bread at a Norman abbey:

The scene at the train station reminded me of stories of the eve of the Occupation, when panicked Parisians packed rail stations and streets, desperate to escape ahead of the approaching Nazis. On this night, however, those of us who jammed Gare Saint-Lazare were merely trying to get out of town before the transit workers went on strike.

When I think about that night, coming after a long day of travel from Morocco, I see a scene, in black and white, of women in long skirts, heels, and nylons, carrying chic suitcases, scurrying toward their huge, steam-belching locomotives as the clock ticks down to the strike deadline. I see men in fedoras and pin-striped suits kissing their wives goodbye, not sure when or if they’ll ever see them again. And I see -- and this is the only even remotely accurate part -- I see an exhausted, sick American, sitting on the platform, slumped against a wall, nibbling on a piece of crust, quietly taking in the scene, waiting for his levain, the rest of his clothes, and his train.
 My next trip to France, a couple of years later, was cut short by another strike, which I barely evaded in a similar fashion, and now the train workers are on strike again. For what reason, you might ask? The right to retire at the age of -- wait, not 60, not even 58 -- but, for many, age 50, a benefit workers fear will be lost if the government succeeds with its overhaul of the antiquated structure. Don't get me wrong -- I love the French trains, which whisk you across the country at almost 200 miles per hour, but the train workers -- they'd last about 2 weeks at Amtrak.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

If you're reading this, you're too old to say "rouge"

I was feeling sorry for myself the other day over my inability to master the guttural French r that seems to originate from somewhere between the liver and the spleen, when I came across something that made be feeler both better -- and worse.

The real chance to master this sound seemed to have ended at about the age of 9 months. This is based on a study of Asian babies. We all know the difficulty that Asian speakers have pronouncing the English sounds l and r -- you know, the stuff of bad Chinese waiter jokes about "flied lice." Well, it turns out the the core problem isn't that they can't pronounce these sounds: Asians can't pronounce them because, aurally, they can't distinguish between them. To native Asians, the l and r sounds, which don't exist in their language, sound the same!

But not to native Asian babies, who can distinguish the two sounds. However, if not exposed to a Western language, they lose this ability not at the age of 6 years or even 2 years -- but at the age of 9 months!

So, two lessons here: 1) Let's be kind to Asian speakers struggling with English; and 2) stop laughing at me because I gurgle and choke when I try to say the French word rouge. I should've started studying French 59 years and 6 months earlier.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Flirting with French at BEA

The publicity team at Algonquin Books unveils Flirting with French (and some facial hair I've never seen before) at BEA (Book Expo America) last week. Nicely done, mesdames!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Un renard in le henhouse?

Cardinal Richelieu must be rolling in his grave. L'Académie française, his 350-year-old institution charged with protecting the French language, has just inducted an Englishman. A bilingual Englishman, but nevertheless a full English-blooded, Cambridge educated Brit!

Sir Michael Edwards, a poet and scholar who writes in both French and English, is the first non-native francophone to be named to this august body founded under the reign of King Louis XIII, and whose charter obligates it to "clean the language of all the filth it has caught." Seeing that one can go to Paris for un week-end, leaving your car in le parking, while you faire du jogging, topping off your workout with un cheeseburger, I'd say the Académie has been asleep on the job.

Coincidentally or otherwise, on the very day that Sir Michael was inducted, the editors of Le Petit Robert announced that they were accepting the words “selfie” and “hashtag” into their dictionary -- and by extension, French.) One can’t help but wonder, is choosing a Brit to guard the French language akin to inviting a fox into the henhouse, or do the members of the Académie figure that their language is better appreciated by francophile foreigners than native Frenchmen these days?

One thing is certain: the Académie has its hands full these days, as the Internet and American technology are throwing all kinds of challenges at the official French language commissions charged with coming up with French version of such terms as "podcast," "wi-fi" and "cloud computing." The tendency of the French to be verbose works strongly against them in this Twitter age. Witness the words they came up with for "wi-fi": accès sans fil à l’Internet. Which is why in French cafés today you see signs for "wi-fi" (which the French adoringly pronounce "wee-fee").

Perhaps they figure an Englishman can help sort this all out. Bonne chance, Sir Michael!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Vote this blog into immortalité!

I Learn French -- that is, this very blog you're reading -- has been nominated as one one the top language-learning blogs of 2014 (which proves the nominator has not been reading it!). Whether you agree or not, click below to vote. Placing high would be trop bien!

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Friday, May 23, 2014

French train désastre - the real truth

You may have heard the news, reported gleefully by the American press, that France's railway service just received hundreds of new train cars that -- zut alors! -- are 8 inches too wide for over a thousand stations.

There's been a lot of finger pointing going on in France right now, but, having spent years trying to learn French, I think I know the real explanation of how the inexplicable could've happened: Someone got confused because the paperwork French!

Happens to the best of us.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Watch your mouth!

15 things you think you're saying in French that mean something quite different! (And can be quite embarrassing)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Is "Bon appétit" Déclassé?

In an op-ed in today's NY Times, an American expat living in France is scolded that "bon appétit" is not an expression used by people who are “well brought-up.” Here's what I've observed in several trips to France:

The French are always wishing someone a bon something. When you enter a shop you are greeted with bonjour; when you leave it, bonne journée (have a nice day). In the afternoon, you may be wished a bon après-midi or its more loquacious cousin, passez un bon après-midi. Late in the afternoon, come some magical time that only the French know, bonjour becomes bonsoir when you come and bonne soirée when you go. In between, at dinner, you may be wished bon appétit before you eat and bonne continuation during. At the end of the meal, the waiter might wish you a bonne fin de repas or even (and this one is a little too clinical for my taste) a bonne fin de digestion.

Well, if bon appétit is déclassé, I can't imagine what the writer's stuck-up friends would make of bonne fin de digestion!

Friday, April 25, 2014

French Food Fight Friday: Asperges aux oeufs et lardons

Nothing says spring (and fertility) like asparagus, and nothing really says spring and fertility like asparagus with eggs. Even if you've never been fond of this once-a-year vegetable, this 10-minute preparation will make you love asparagus. The combination of the yoke and bacon fat running onto the asparagus is irresistible. We find that bulk double-smoked bacon makes a fine substitute for French lardons.

Asperges aux oeufs et lardons

Serves 1:

8-10 fresh asparagus spears
2 eggs
6-8 half-inch chucks of double-smoked bacon
Olive oil
2 TBL Vinegar (for poached eggs)

  1. Preheat oven to 450 F.
  2. Snap off asparagus bottoms where stem becomes woody
  3. Cut bacon into about 3/8 - 1/2 inch pieces. 
  4. Place asparagus on small roasting pan or rimmed cookie sheet (the smaller the better). Sprinkle on a bit of olive oil and toss, then season with salt and pepper.
  5. Toss in bacon pieces
  6. Place in oven till bacon is crisp but not over-cooked, about 10 minutes. Turn off oven, but leave asparagus in with door open to keep warm
  7. Meanwhile, boil water in a small saucepan. When simmering, add 2 tablespoons vinegar (this helps keep the whites together). Break egg into a small custard cup or something similar and slip gently into water. Repeat with other egg. Spoon simmering water over eggs until whites are just set, about 2 minutes.
  8. Place asparagus and bacon onto plate, top with eggs, and season eggs.
Bon appétit!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Learn French (No Joke!)

When I felt ready to tackle a dual-language book (French on page, and the equivalent English on the other)I struggled through a chapter or two of classic French short stories, all the better to get the maximum cultural impact, before throwing in the towel. Among my many problems was that these classic works use the obsolete passé simple, a tense used only in written French, and now hardly at all.

I think I would've been better off with Jeremy Taylor's Learn French with Jokes. Although the French is better than some of the jokes. A sample:

« Docteur, docteur, je ne peux plus sentir mes jambes ! »
« Ce n'est pas un miracle, nous vous avon amputé des bras. »

[sentir = to feel]

"Doctor, doctor, I can't feel my legs!"
"I'm not surprised, we amputated your arms."

As in the sample above, some less obvious words are defined on the French page, and there are a few exercises to make sure you're not just reading the English.

The jokes in the iPad version have French audio, read by a lovely French voice. It really enhances the book. So, if you want to try something offbeat, give this a try, and impress your francophone friends with jokes -- in French. Links to all of the various media versions at

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Saved from the...cliché

A story in today's New York Times about an endangered French textile mill uses the phrase "facing the guillotine." Pity the maligned French, who are still living down this razor-sharp form of execution, even though they haven't used the guillotine since Napol-- what?? Since 1977?

That's right. The French last used Robespierre's favorite toy in just 1977, less than fifty years ago -- after the breakup of the Beatles, and the founding of Apple Computer -- to cleanly slice off the head of one Hamida Djandoubi, who went to the grave with the consolation that some day something called Wikipedia would be invented -- and his dubious honor would get him into it. (I've been wondering what I have to do to get my name into Wikipedia.)

The French doubtless would still be using the guillotine today if they hadn't abolished capital punishment in 1981, for up until that time it remained France's standard method of execution.

So I apologize to the Times for being about to castigate them for referring to what I thought was a cheap shot about a long-abandoned symbol of France. However, I won't let them off for using the cliché!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Beurre Blanc, Demystified

See as how it's both Friday and Lent (although Lent is probably observed in France about as much as Tag der deutschen Einheit -- German Unity Day), it seems like a good time to discuss one of my favorite classic French sauces: beurre blanc. It's one of my favorite things to dress up any white fish: mahi mahi, orange roughy, you name it. Best of all, this white wine and butter sauce is really simple and quick to prepare. I like to throw in some fresh herbs (whatever is around), but that's totally optional. Here's the recipe:

Beurre Blanc with Herbs
3/8 cup white wine
1/4 cup vinegar
1 large shallot, finely chopped
6 Tablespoons butter
1-2 teaspoons assorted fresh herbs (use less for strong herbs such as thyme, more for milder one such as basil and parsley)

  1. Simmer shallot with wine and vinegar in a small saucepan until reduced to a couple of tablespoons.
  2. Strain out shallot and return liquid to saucepan (you skip this step if you're lazy and don't insist on a silky-smooth sauce)
  3. Add chopped herbs, whisk in butter a tablespoon at a time until sauce is creamy and smooth. Serve immediately over seared, grilled, broiled, or sauteed fish.
Bon Appétit!