When in French: Love in a Second Language
Penguin Press, 2016. 256 pgs. Nonfiction.
Lauren Collins and Olivier, her eventual husband, met at a party in London. She was American, he was French, and England provided neutral ground: her language, his continent. Though Olivier spoke English fluently, an occasional language barrier arose between them. “Talking to you in English is like touching you with gloves,” he lamented.
The couple married and moved to Geneva, where Collins took on the formidable task of learning a second language as an adult. When in French is part memoir about her experiences and part study of how primary and secondary languages shape us. In one memorable passage, she explains that based on the differences in the way French speakers and Americans use the words aimer and to love, “I love my parents, my friends, my colleagues, the woman who gives me extra guacamole at Chipotle, hydrangeas, podcasts, clean sheets. Olivier has only ever loved me.” I enjoyed the personal stories, which were sometimes very funny, but I was just as struck by Collins’ beautiful writing.
Even more than that, I was fascinated to learn a little bit about how we interact with the world through the filter of language. Collins describes one culture, for instance, that only uses cardinal directions when describing where something is. They never use left or right or give directions in relation to landmarks. As a result, members of that culture have a constant, nearly flawless awareness of North, South, East, and West. When in French is filled with countless absorbing tidbits like this, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would recommend this book for readers who enjoys cross cultural memoirs or anyone who knows the struggles and joys of learning a foreign language.