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A charming memoir by a passionate Francophile

At the age of 57, Alexander decided to fulfill his lifelong dream of learning French --the first step, he thought, to transforming himself into a Frenchman. 'I have such an inexplicable affinity for all things French that I wonder if I was French in a former life,' he writes. Even though many second-language researchers believe that after adolescence, few students 'will ever achieve near-native proficiency in a foreign language,' Alexander was determined to try. His 13-month marathon of language learning included five levels of Rosetta Stone, two Pimsleur audio courses, hundreds of podcasts, all 52 TV episodes of French in Action, two immersion classes (one, in France, lasting two weeks), reading dual-language books, watching TV5Monde, emailing with a French pen pal and Skyping with another. The author also studied the history of the language, its unfathomable assignment of gender to nouns, and some curious idioms, and he considers how vocabulary reflects social assumptions: Why, he wonders, is there a word for husband but not for wife? For son but not for daughter? After all his efforts, he realizes that he has learned 'a lot of French,' but 'I have not learned French. And that is a major distinction.' But he did make significant progress: At the beginning of his project, he had an MRI to determine his brain's activity when listening to French or Japanese, which he knows not at all. A year later, his scans show markedly more activity when hearing French, and he scored higher on a college entrance exam, too. But most exciting was his vast improvement on a cognitive assessment test. 'Studying French,' he announces joyfully, 'has been like drinking from a mental fountain of youth!' Alexander's love affair with French, he concludes in this wry and warmhearted memoir, has reaped unexpected rewards.