Book Review: Memoir recounts struggle, joy of learning French |

Book Review: Memoir recounts struggle, joy of learning French

Book review
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‘When in French: Love in a Second Language,’ by Lauren Collins

Penguin Press

Of all the things I’ve been, a French teacher is a relatively new one. I was grateful, then, that I found Lauren Collins’s new memoir to remind me of the struggle and joy of learning this beautiful, frustrating language.

The memoir is titled “When in French: Love in a Second Language,” and its pretty, pure white cover would make a beautiful Valentine for your sweetheart, but be aware: This book does not belong to the clichéd genre of “I went to Paris and fell in love and never looked back.”

Collins is a journalist, by trade, and her book reflects her attention to detail and faithfulness to retelling stories as they happened. The book picks up after Collins’s courtship and marriage to a Frenchman, Olivier, when the couple is living in Geneva. Collins realizes that, as long as she can’t speak French, she will be denied a certain richness of experience in her new Old World. This becomes startlingly clear when she argues with her husband, and he tells her that speaking to her in English is similar to “touching you with gloves.”

Collins does explore how bilingualism — and lack thereof — affects her marriage, but she also discusses the complicated relationships with her in-laws, her baby daughter, her family in North Carolina and, of course, her adopted country and new language.

Her writing is by far at its most engaging when she is candidly recounting her own stories. Owing to her history as a staff writer for The New Yorker, Collins seems to feel obligated to give substantial background, and the book covers various aspects of linguistic theory and history. But, she is never more compelling than when giving her anecdotal examples, and far from being asides, these anecdotes become the story. Once, at a dinner party, she had to call her husband’s name across the table, only to realize that she could not: She was unable to pronounce her own husband’s name.

The book elegantly captures the fear and awkwardness of learning a second language, and the reader feels a sense of accomplishment at each of Collins’s many small triumphs in her quest to conquer French. Anyone who has attempted to learn another language knows the struggle, but perhaps they have never understood precisely why it’s so difficult; Collins, who suddenly finds herself immersed in the language, carries this experiment to the extreme. Through her descriptions, we can almost feel the new neural pathways forming.

Moving abroad and learning French are not particularly extraordinary feats on their own. This is not an adventure story about a woman who braves the elements or overcomes some crippling adversity. But leaving a life you know takes a special form of courage, and Collins tells this story with humor, empathy and grace.

My students at Colorado Mountain College, who are all struggling with the same idiosyncrasies of French, appreciated her insights, “When in French” adds a special, vibrant voice to the canon of Americans who — voluntarily or otherwise — attempt a French life.

This book is available at Bud Werner Memorial Library and Off the Beaten Path.

Jamie Burgess is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path and an adjunct professor at Colorado Mountain College. Contact her at

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