When in French : Love in a Second Language
by Lauren Collins

Overview - 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.  Read more...

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More About When in French 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.

  • ISBN-13: 9781594206443
  • ISBN-10: 1594206449
  • Publisher: Penguin Press
  • Publish Date: September 2016
  • Page Count: 256
  • Dimensions: 9.3 x 5.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 0.95 pounds

Related Categories

Books > Biography & Autobiography > Literary
Books > Travel > Europe - France
Books > Humor > Topic - Marriage & Family

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2016-05-30
  • Reviewer: Staff

This smart memoir by New Yorker writer Collins is an extended essay on how the languages we speak shape who we are. Collins is an American living in London who speaks little French when she falls in love with a Frenchman who speaks excellent English. They marry and move to Francophone Geneva, where Collins decides to learn French after envisioning herself as a mother who can’t understand half of what her own kids are saying. Throughout, Collins shares excerpts from works of history, philosophy, psychology, politics, and literature that show how pervasive language’s influence is on every aspect of our lives. Political goofs result from mistranslation. Even the meaning of love might depend on how you express it: Does “Je t’aime” mean something different from “I love you”? The transitions can be clunky as Collins shifts between story telling and embarking on academic discussions, but her writing is often elegant and exact. Agent: Elyse Cheney, Elyse Cheney Literary. (Sept.)

BookPage Reviews

The language of love

When New Yorker staff writer Lauren Collins moved to London, she thought that would be the farthest she’d ever be, both physically and culturally, from her native Wilmington, North Carolina. Then she met Olivier. “Soon I was living with a man who used Chanel deodorant and believed it was a consensus view that Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was on account of the rain,” she writes in her wry memoir, When in French

Collins and Olivier established their relationship in England, a somewhat neutral zone: his continent, her language. But when his job took the couple to Geneva, Collins began to realize that she could no longer put off learning French. It wasn’t just because she was shut out of everyday life in Geneva or because she had mistakenly implied in a note to her mother-in-law that she had given birth to a coffeemaker—without knowing French, she was unable to truly understand her husband. “Talking to you in English is like touching you with gloves,” says Olivier.

So Collins embarks on a quest to learn French, starting with a language class and working her way up to newscasts and episodes of “The Voice: La Plus Belle Voix” on TF1. 

In between unsparing recitals of her pratfalls and triumphs on the road to conquering her husband’s langue maternelle, Collins flashes back through their relationship, exploring its cultural divide. She also investigates the questions that her pursuit raises. Does speaking a different language change who you are as a person? How does language shape a culture? She visits the Académie française, researches an Amazonian tribe that requires its members to marry into a different language group and unearths other tidbits of trivia and history that will fascinate lovers of words and language. 

Still, the heart of the book lies in Collins’ personal story, which she tells with humor, humility and a deep affection for the people and cultures involved. Whether she’s describing the grinding exhaustion of learning a foreign language or the euphoria of a breakthrough, her determination makes the reader root for her. When in French is both an entertaining fish-out-of-water story and a wise and insightful look at the way two very different people and families manage to find common ground.


This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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