A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR
‘Talking to you in English’, he said, ‘is like touching you with gloves.’
A language barrier is no match for love. New Yorker journalist Lauren Collins discovers this first-hand when, in her early thirties, she moves to London and falls for Olivier, a Frenchman. As their relationship begins to grow, Lauren senses that there are things she doesn’t understand about Olivier, having never spoken to him in his mother tongue. (Does ‘I love you’ even mean the same thing as ‘je t’aime’?) And when they move to French-speaking Geneva, Lauren suddenly finds herself no longer able to talk to the local handymen or shop owners, let alone her husband’s parents.
Fearful of one day finding herself unable to communicate with her own children, Lauren decides to learn French. Along the way, she faces a series of challenges, from awkward role-playing games at her Swiss language school, to accidentally telling her mother-in-law that she’s given birth to a coffee machine. But there are also unexpected pleasures: the delights of learning French words that have no English equivalent and the joys of winning her first argument against Olivier in his native tongue.
A funny, thoughtful memoir, When in French considers how language shapes our lives, from how we think, to how we fall in love, and what happens when two languages, and two very different cultures, collide.
‘I love Lauren Collins’s writing: as sparkling as Champagne and as nourishing as the most perfect French meal’ Hadley Freeman
‘Lauren Collins understands everything about language, love, time and place.This is a brilliant book’ India Knight
‘I devoured Lauren Collins’s sharp, funny tale of bilingual romance and learning to speak French. Part acerbic love letter to that language and part meditation on language itself, When in French is so charming it made me want to learn French too’ Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
‘Nobody is more observant of fine details, or more curious about the big picture … Collins makes the world seem like a bigger, more effervescent, more intoxicating place’ Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed
‘When in French is a celebration both of the weird and compendious ingenuity of language, and of the value of maintaining a spirit of linguistic and emotional inquiry’ Observer
‘A thoughtful, beautifully written meditation on the art of language and intimacy’ New York Times
‘I would recommend Lauren Collins’ lovely memoir to anyone who has ever tried and failed to learn French…a highly engaging primer on language…and a touching and funny love story’ Guardian
About the author
Lauren Collins began working at the New Yorker in 2003 and became a staff writer in 2008. Since 2010, she has been based in Europe, covering stories from London, Paris, Copenhagen, and beyond.
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.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Funny, thoughtful, beautifully portrayed
When in French is part memoir and part study of language, as Lauren Collins journeys from being a non-french speaker to fluent. Along the way, she dips into history, philosophy, the psychology of relationships and culture, and more.
I enjoyed this book a lot. Collins shares her mistakes, predicaments, and triumphs with honesty, carrying the reader along with the real-life issues involved with not just living in a different language, but working out what does and doesn't translate between cultures too. She provides many laugh-out-loud moments, but also stretches of more thoughtful introspection as she considers, for example, the differences between her own East-coast-American upbringing, and the stiffness of Geneva. The characters that pepper the narrative (from the author’s nudist mother-in-law to her sexist brother) are beautifully portrayed, and although I was interested to follow her digressions (into idiosyncrasies of other languages, etc.), I was always keen to return to her story.
A fascinating insight into many aspects of language divide, perhaps most importantly on how translating words and translating meaning are two different things.