Alice Kaplan, French Lessons

The first book I bought for my Kindle was Alice Kaplan’s memoir, French Lessons. I’ve read a few books about anglophones trying to make their way in France, and I enjoy them, but this book was different. Kaplan is a teacher and an academic, so her interest in French promised to be different from Sarah Turnbull’s or Polly Platt’s. (Almost French is a favorite of mine though—I even used it in class this year.)

The book was pretty much all I hoped it would be, and more. Of course the parts that spoke to me most were about her love of France and French and her feelings about teaching and learning languages. But there are other interesting chapters about what might be “fetishism” of French in American French departments, the relationship there among Anglophone and French expatriate professors and their relationship with the French language. That’s a career path I’m never going to go down but even from my limited experience with French departments (I was a French minor in college and took three French classes in graduate school) I could see some of it ringing true, or at least lingering (the book was written in 1987). And the bits about studying literature—even the parts about deconstructionism—were interesting to me as an ex-literature student.

My favorite parts, though, were about

1) living in and getting attached to a second culture and language
“Why do people want to adopt another culture? Because there’s something in their own they don’t like, that doesn’t name them. … French still calls out to me in the most primitive way. If I’m in a crowded room and there are two people speaking French all the way on the other side of the room, I’ll hear, loud as day, as though a friend were calling my name.”

“I’ve been willing to overlook in French culture what I wouldn’t accept in my own, for the privilege of living in translation.”

2) teaching languages,
“Talking cures: like analysts, language teachers are always in search of the foolproof method that will work for any living language and will make people perfectly at home in their acquired tongue.”

“Language teaching methods make for a tale of enthusiasm and skepticism, hope and hope dashed.”

“Moments like this one make me think that speaking a foreign language is, for me and my students, a chance for growth, for freedom, a liberation from the ugliness of our received ideas and mentalities.”

3) our relationships with our students, ,
“PhD students write their dissertations, and I don’t want to fail them the way that de Man failed me. How do I tell them who I am, why I read the way I do? … What do students need to know about their teachers?”

4) and smaller, sillier things that I remember about learning French myself.
“To this day I hesitate when I write ‘bras,’ still tempted to spell it without an ‘s.'”

The next time someone asks me why I like living in France, I might just tell them to read this book.

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2 thoughts on “Alice Kaplan, French Lessons

  1. I agree with her on why we adopt a second culture and a second language. I feel the same… I feel whole as a multilingual person.

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