This is a delightful memoir of the author’s travails trying to learn French. In the process, he discusses a number of fascinating studies about the ability to learn languages, and the reason why it is so much harder for those who are past adolescence (the author embarks on his quest at age 57).
He begins with a very brief and entertaining history of language, and then provides more detailed information about French in particular. He observes that it is the official language of twenty-nine countries and is spoken by some 175 million people. He also explains why it is so difficult for non-speakers to pronounce.
One of the parts of the book I found most interesting was the section on translation, and why it has proven to be so hard for computers to get it right. The author tells a great story about IBM. For its work on a translation algorithm, it obtained the transcripts of the Canadian Parliament proceedings, which by law must be recorded in both English and French. This gave the computer program some three million matching English-French sentence pairs. Nevertheless, the computer came up with some bizarre output based on the material, such as translating the English word “hear” into the French word “bravo.” It turns out that in the Parliament, whenever members approve of what a speaker says, the English speakers shout “Hear, hear!” while the French speakers shout “Bravo!” But there are much more subtle ways to confuse a translation program. Idiomatic phrases don’t translate well, nor do words with double meanings. Think about this sentence for example, the author suggests: “Fruit flies like spoiled peaches.”
Evaluation: While I’ve concentrated on the informational content of the book rather than the author’s personal experiences, most of it reads like a stand-up comedian’s act. It is often hilarious, and at all times interesting. [Many of you may be familiar with this author from his first book, The $64 Tomato, chronicled his misadventures as an amateur gardener.] I read this book aloud to Jim on a car trip, and both of us spent much of the time laughing, and the rest bemoaning our own failures, like the author’s, with French pronunciation. Bottom line: Très charmant!
Published by Algonquin Books, 2014