October 21, 2016
Throughout my adult years, I’ve sporadically tried to become fluent in French, drawn by an unrelenting desire to converse casually and flawlessly in this language I studied in high school. This has led me several times down the subscription path to French language audio magazines, such as Champs-Elysées and Bien-Dire, as well as to the print magazine Paris Match. Each time I subscribe, I enthusiastically embrace the prospect of French reading and learning, only to abandon the effort shortly after.
One year, I took private French lessons on Saturdays. I hauled myself out of bed for the early morning sessions on the other side of town, feeling more lost than proficient during the brain-twisting 90 minutes of only-speak-in-French conversations and tutorials. The accountability of meeting with a teacher kept me going, and I got to be pretty good. I was able to hold my own in a French conversation with a French-speaking customer in a coffee shop, and I could understand random French blurt-outs in movies. Even so, I let the tutoring go, tired of getting up so early and wanting my Saturday mornings at home.
Lauren Collins’ decision to learn French wasn’t a casual choice, like mine. While living in London as a staff writer for The New Yorker, she fell in love with a Frenchman from Bordeaux. They moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and married. Collins, from North Carolina, opens her new memoir about the challenges of learning French with an uneasy meeting at the Geneva apartment with a chimney sweep arriving for the annual, mandatory cleaning. She fumbles her way through the service call and later tells us she felt untethered and displaced living in a non-English speaking country. “’Language, as much as land, is a place,’ she writes. ‘To be cut off from it is to be, in a sense, homeless.’”
Much of her fumbling also occurs in her communications with husband Olivier, who is fluent in English. It’s not so much about speaking French with him as it is about the two of them culturally understanding each other — Olivier’s French literalism butts up against her American enthusiasm. Some of the liveliest moments in the book occur when the two get testy with each other over nuance in meaning, such as when Collins said she would clean the kitchen, and Olivier asked why she said “clean” when she meant “tidy up”.
There’s more to this delightful memoir than personal experience. Collins expertly detours into topics about the nature of language – fascinating topics – such as the controversies of bilingualism in the United States and France; the assimilation of English words into the French language (which the French government tries to stop); untranslatable words and translations gone wrong; and the importance of not just learning the words of a language but understanding its culture, as she experienced with Olivier.
As one would expect from a writer at The New Yorker, Collins’ prose is concise and rich with investigative details. And yet it’s not clear if she ever mastered speaking French. This, of course, I wanted to know about in depth, with all the excruciating moments of confusion. I also wanted to know more about her successes and failures in conversations not just with Olivier but in public. Did she ever become good enough so as not to feel homeless surrounded by French speakers? Does she now think in French? Can she follow conversations and understand French radio and TV?
I recently signed up yet again for another French learning experience, this time with an app that uses Victor Hugo (yes, that Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables) and French-speaking extraterrestrials. They are very funny, smart and definitely not teacherly, which I like. Every day the app sends me a lesson and story, plus personalized corrections — all in French, no English — that take 10 minutes, maybe 15. So far so good. (I think it’s the ET factor that’s making the difference.) Mais, nous verrons si je peux garder avec elle. (We’ll see if I keep with it.)