When in French: Love in A Second Language — By Lauren Collins

“A thoughtful, beautifully written meditation on the art of language and intimacy. The book unfolds like several books in one: on moving abroad, on communication in human relationships, on the history of language, and in the end, on the delights of cross-cultural fusion.”

The New York Times Book Review 

“Lauren Collins is one of the smartest, most humane, most charming writers I know. Nobody is more observant of fine details, or more curious about the big picture. In When in French, we finally see her mad skills and effortless touch on display in a book-length memoir— a love story about a person, a language, and a whole form of cultural knowledge. Collins makes the world seem like a bigger, more effervescent, more intoxicating place. “

— Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

A language barrier is no match for love.

When in French is at once a hilarious and idiosyncratic memoir about the things we do for love, and an exploration across cultures and history into how we learn languages, and what they say about who we are.

In her late 20s, New Yorker-staffer Lauren Collins moved to London, and fell in love with, and married, Olivier, a handsome French mathematician — a surprising turn of events for someone who didn't have a passport until she was in college. 

When Olivier has to relocate to Francophone Geneva for his work, she decides to go with him. In Geneva, however, Lauren is at a loss for words, literally: not only can she not communicate with the local chimney-sweep when he visits, but, listening to Olivier converse fluently in French every day, she is also made painfully aware that she has never really spoken to her husband in his own language.

She can say, 'au revoir' and 'bonjour' but that's about it. 'Hello and goodbye were a pair of bookends,' she writes, 'propping up a vast library of blank volumes, void almanacs, novels full of sentiment I couldn't apprehend.'

But what does it mean to love someone in a second language?

In When in French, 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"?

What will happen when she has children? she wonders. If they grow up speaking French, will they be stuck with a 'Borat of a mother' who can't properly understand them? So she embarks on a quest to learn French, and, in doing so, must tangle with the intricacies of French culture--which, it turns out, is a far cry from family life back home in North Carolina.

Down the rabbit hole of the French language Collins hurtles: coming to terms with antique French social customs; 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.

When in French is a moving, laugh-out-loud funny memoir about falling in love, learning another language, and living far from home, as well as a freewheeling history of language.

Collins investigates, among other things, how children acquire speech, the history of the idea of 'American' as its own language, and why we don't trust people who adopt accents. (Her own father takes on a southern accent after moving to North Carolina, much to her mother's chagrin.) Plumbing the depths of the mysteries of foreign languages, Collins confesses--with great style, wicked humor, and touching honesty--to the frustrations, embarrassments, pleasures, surprises, and, finally, the joys of learning — and living —French.


Lauren Collins began working at the New Yorker in 2003 and became a staff writer in 2008. Her subjects have included Michelle Obama, Donatella Versace, the graffiti artist Banksy, and the chef April Bloomfield. Since 2010, she has been based in Europe, covering stories from London, Paris, Copenhagen, and beyond. 


Format: New, Hardcover

Publication Date: September 13, 2016

Publisher Penguin Group USA
ISBN: 9781594206443

Pages: 243

Dimensions: 9.25 H x 1.25 D x 5.50 W inches
Rating: ★★★★ (See FAQs)

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