REVIEW: When in French: Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins
A language barrier is no match for love. Lauren Collins discovered this firsthand when, in her early thirties, she moved to London and fell for a Frenchman named Olivier—a surprising turn of events for someone who didn’t have a passport until she was in college. But what does it mean to love someone in a second language? Collins wonders, as her relationship with Olivier continues to grow entirely in English. Are there things she doesn’t understand about Olivier, having never spoken to him in his native tongue? Does “I love you” even mean the same thing as “je t’aime”? When the couple, newly married, relocates to Francophone Geneva, Collins—fearful of one day becoming “a Borat of a mother” who doesn’t understand her own kids—decides to answer her questions for herself by learning French.
When in French is a laugh-out-loud funny and surprising memoir about the lengths we go to for love, as well as an exploration across culture and history into how we learn languages—and what they say about who we are. Collins grapples with the complexities of the French language, enduring excruciating role-playing games with her classmates at a Swiss language school and accidently telling her mother-in-law that she’s given birth to a coffee machine. In learning French, Collins must wrestle with the very nature of French identity and society—which, it turns out, is a far cry from life back home in North Carolina. Plumbing the mysterious depths of humanity’s many forms of language, Collins describes with great style and wicked humor the frustrations, embarrassments, surprises, and, finally, joys of learning—and living in—French.
Dear Ms. Collins,
I can’t seem to get enough of books in which Americans head to Europe. Ah but this one has learning a language thrown in as well as navigating a new marriage. But it’s so much more. In addition to reading about mastering the French language – both the French and the Swiss versions – there are erudite ramblings and musings into languages as a whole and what they say about and how they influence those who speak them.
Does a language make us or do we make a language? Does it change how we view the world? Or how we interact with it? Does language influence how we behave? Are there new things to learn about someone when you speak the same language? Are you a different person in another language? I was impressed with the wide ranging questions and the reading that had gone into trying to answer them.
Then there is how all this affects meeting the in-laws, vacationing in Corsica and how wonderful Swiss birthing centers sound. Foot massages and gourmet meals? Sign me up. At long last the moment arrives when we learn the effort and lessons have not been for naught with translations from one language to another. I learned lots too and have a fun time reading about it. B