Lauren Collins’s look back at her experience of learning French skilfully moves out beyond her own life to look at what it means to speak a language, the history of French, attitudes to language and human relationships.
The subtitle is “Love in a Second Language”, and the novel does look at the relationship Collins has with her husband, Olivier, and at how that relationship changes as she begins to be able to communicate with him in his mother tongue. They met in London, and she didn’t actually begin to learn French until they were already married and living in Geneva. (By the way, the hilarious, disdainful way she talks about Geneva is brilliant. Read the book just for that.) She notes that, as Olivier also speaks fluent Spanish, she only knows him in what is actually his third language. There are things that he does, ways that he interacts and expresses himself, which she finds completely inexplicable, but as she begins to understand French, these things start to make more and more sense. She starts to find English inadequate herself, which is an experience I think anyone who has learnt a second language can relate to.
I think my favourite thing about the book is that Collins clearly loves French in much the same way as I do, in the way that I think anyone who has studied and adored the French language does. It is a beautiful, nuanced, complex language, the study of which has, without meaning to sound pretentious, enriched my life in more ways than I can express. However, it is also the stupidest fucking language on the planet, filled with irritating idiosyncrasies and frustrating exceptions to grammatical rules, which, for many Francophiles, is both the hardest part of learning French and the thing we love the most. Collins is incisive and witty as she looks at these tiny, funny details, which will be familiar to anyone who has learned French. She taps into exactly the mindset of exasperation and delight which, for me, has characterised my French learning experience, at least since I started my A level and started being able to really get into the nuances of French.
For context, I really, really love French. I’ve been learning it since I was five or so, visiting France my whole life, and I lived in the suburbs of Paris for a while. I studied French and Russian at university, and the French half of my degree (although by final year, it was more than half) was pretty much entirely focused on literature. I love writers who use language as a playground, who use French purposefully. In September, I’ll be starting a Masters in French, again looking at literature, specifically at writers who are not native speakers of French but choose to use it for one reason or another, whether that is stylistic, political, whatever.
And that brings me to maybe my only critique of the book. If you don’t have at least some experience of learning French, and if you didn’t enjoy that experience, I don’t know what this book would be to you. This memoir tapped into something that is hugely important to me, that I have spent a lot of time engaging with and analysing. I don’t think you need to have the relationship with French that I do in order to take pleasure in this wonderful book, but I think you would have a hard time relating to it if you have never learnt French, or if you did it for GSCE because you had to and hated it.
That said, this is far from being purely an elegy to French. Collins takes her life as a jumping off point and uses it to bring together dozens of fascinating facts and tidbits about language, whether that is French, her native English or other languages around the world. I found myself highlighting parts that I wanted to be able to flick to quickly just to be able to remind myself of how fascinating language can be. She demonstrates a pretty thorough understanding of sociolinguistics and linguistic psychology, and these are the parts I think do have an appeal beyond those of us who are Francophiles.
I think it’s pretty clear that I have a massive personal connection to this book, and the next time someone asks why it is that I love French so much, I’m just going to thrust a copy of this book into their hands.