When in French: Love in a Second Language
(Penguin Press, 2016)
French and German. She was from Berlin and he was from Paris. They each spoke the other’s language fluently, if not flawlessly, and had decided to enforce an alternate-day system. The first day, they spoke to each other only in French; the next, only in German. (To the rest of us in the hostel—we were all hiking a multi-day trek between villages and had formed an informal sort of coalition—they spoke English, with very few errors.)
Casting aside my American admiration for the breezily trilingual, I couldn’t help but wonder how the couple’s dynamic changed from day to day. Did the balance of power shift back and forth to the one who was in his or her native language? Did they feel like different people in each language? Did they perceive the other spouse differently in each language?
These questions are at the heart of Lauren Collins’s new memoir, When in French, a collection of musings on translation, linguistics, and cultural identity, all underpinned by a satisfying love story. Collins, a staff writer for the New Yorker, moved from New York to London, where she met her now-husband, a Frenchman named Olivier, with whom she later moved to Geneva. The book chronicles her changing relationship with Olivier, beginning in London, where their fledgling romance took place in English. It may have only been Collins’s native language, but Olivier’s English was nearly flawless, she writes. And at any rate, they were both cultural outsiders in England. (On their first date, both were mystified upon overhearing people at a nearby table use the term “budgie smugglers”—a man’s Speedo swimsuit.) Over the ensuing years, Collins learned to speak French, for practical reasons and out of a desire to better know her husband and his family. Her newfound bilingualism led her to discover the ways in which identity is formed by and inextricably linked to language, a thesis that places her book firmly on one side of an ongoing linguistic debate.
Collins’s is the best kind of memoir: the kind that uses the author’s own experience as an entryway to—and a bridge between—a number of universal topics. She writes about linguistic fads and theories, such as the oft-cited anecdote about Eskimos having fifty words for snow (she debunks this one: it’s more like fifteen plus suffixes, and explains that “Eskimo” is a group of languages, further divided into Inuit and Yupik); about language differences among different social classes and regions, both in the United States and in England; about the way English is never mentioned in the Constitution, and how Benjamin Franklin wanted to reform the alphabet with six new letters such that each letter represented only one sound; and about the workings of the famous Académie française, which valiantly and pedantically strives to uphold the integrity of the French language and protect it from English lexical interlopers. She also writes about vomiting on Donatella Versace and wrestling with her in-laws’ French douche, a tub with a standard (and notoriously impractical) French handheld showerhead.
When Collins met Olivier’s parents for the first time, she was unable to speak very much French—there’s an amusing anecdote about her excitedly telling her future mother-in-law that she had given birth to a coffeemaker—and as such, finds herself largely mute, feeling simultaneously exposed and liberated. “It made me consider whether there was some ineffable part of a person that transcended socialization,” she writes, “an essence that remained once the top notes of politesse faded off. Could Olivier’s family smell something fundamental about me, and if so, what was it? What did I exude when I couldn’t talk?”
She wanted to learn French to communicate with Olivier’s family and to help smooth over the gaps in her marriage. Olivier once remarked sadly that speaking to her in English was like touching her with gloves on. The two of them, she writes, often had trouble communicating despite Olivier’s fluency. Minor linguistic choices—the use of a personal pronoun instead of a definite article, for example, or misunderstandings arising from a figurative usage instead of a literal one—often exploded into “linguistic warfare.”
But it was practicality that finally forced Collins into an intensive language course. When she and her husband moved together to Geneva, she was unable to buy furniture or a train ticket without his assistance, and felt helpless and lonely in a city that she couldn’t understand. The rest of the memoir is outlined by her increasing grasp of the French language, the way in which it changes her relationship to her husband, and eventually, the birth of her (to-be-bilingual) first child in Geneva. It explores with equal depth her cultural acclimation to the French language and to Geneva—which, after the hospital sends her an esthetician to give her a complimentary post-childbirth foot massage, she decides is not so bad after all.
Collins writes that, at least according to her own experience, speaking and listening and living in French changes her conception of herself and her relationships to other people. This discovery plays into an ongoing debate in the field of linguistics: the controversial question of whether or not we are different people in different languages. On one side of the spectrum is the Sapir-whorf hypothesis, which suggests that our worldviews are profoundly influenced by the structure of our native language; on the other side is Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, which claims that all humans have basic grammar hardwired into their brains from birth, and speech is wholly separate from culture.
Collins finds herself closer to the Sapir-whorf camp. Take, for example, her American tendency towards overstatement and immediate enthusiasm. While at first she’s offended by her husband’s restraint—and he appalled by her gushing—she comes to realize that these opposing attitudes are influenced by their respective native languages:
English and French are opposing systems as much as they are languages—the former global, casual, and convenient; the latter particular, hierarchical, and painstaking. I have no way of foreseeing that French will reshape the contours of my relationships, that I won’t always consider people intimates until proven not to be. 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.
Her better understanding of the French language leads her to a more empathetic relationship with her husband, whose previous hesitations about marriage she suddenly understands. “Where I had once interpreted Olivier’s reticence as pessimism,” she realizes, “I now saw the deep romanticism, the hopefulness, of not wanting to overstate or to overpromise.” Speaking in French and living in Europe begins to reset her own intimacy spectrum, too. Recounting a routine call to her American credit card company, she’s taken aback when the customer service representative tells her, “Have yourself an awesome day, much love to you and your family, and thanks for doing business with American Express.” The profession of love from and presumed intimacy with a complete stranger strikes her, for the first time, as out of place.
When in French is written in English, and Collins’s writing style, fittingly, is casual and intimate. In New Yorker style, she mixes sophisticated syntax, complete with semicolons and em-dashes, with personable, funny details (that extra guacamole at Chipotle). If she were to write her story in French, it would likely turn out to be a different story with a completely different voice. Nabokov, she writes, agonized over trying to translate the memoir of his childhood in Russia into English, even though he spoke the language perfectly; in Nabokov’s words, his memory was “attuned to one particular key—the musically reticent Russian—but it was forced into another key, English and deliberate.”
The key of French is more rigid and unforgiving than that of English. One of Collins’s moments of triumph occurs late in the memoir, when she has an argument with her husband in French, “relishing the severity of [her] French persona.” In French, she feels able to meet her husband’s demands for clarity, precision, and forceful debate, demands that felt abrasive when he made them in English. But in displaying this power of fluency in a different language, she has also taken on a different persona. “It felt good to touch Olivier in his own language,” she writes. “We could grapple bare-handed. But I sometimes worried that I had traded in the gloves for a mask […] It was hard for me to discern where the line between adaptation and dissimulation lay.” By learning French, Collins added another dimension to her personality, just as her husband presumably did in learning English. Speaking both languages with each other allowed them to take turns wearing the mask.