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Language Is Home In 'When In French'

Are you a different person when you speak a foreign language? That's just one of the questions New Yorker writer and native North Carolinian Lauren Collins explores in this engaging and surprisingly meaty memoir, about her strenuous efforts to master French after marrying a Frenchman whose name — Olivier — she couldn't even pronounce properly. When in French ranges from the humorously personal to a deeper look at various theories of language acquisition and linguistics, including the relativist position (which Collins espouses) that languages "possess and inculcate different ways of thinking."

The couple met in London "on more or less neutral ground: his continent, my language." But the balance shifted when they moved to Geneva for Olivier's work. The normally voluble Collins found herself at a loss — "nearly speechless." The language barrier, and her dependence on her husband for simple transactions like buying the right cut of meat exacerbated her ambivalence about "unlovely, but not hideous" Geneva, which seemed to her "suffused by complacency." She comments, "Language, as much as land, is a place. To be cut off from it is to be, in a sense, homeless."

Her sense of alienation prompts an examination of America's woeful record when it comes to foreign languages: "Linguists call America 'the graveyard of languages' because of its singular ability to take in millions of immigrants and extinguish their native languages in a few generations," Collins writes. Educated in Wilmington, N.C., and at Princeton, she was — like the vast majority of Americans — monolingual.

Eight months into her Swiss residency, Collins gives up on language acquisition by osmosis and finally enrolls in an intensive French course. The New Yorker's deft excerpt from her book, aptly titled "Love in Translation," wisely focuses on these lively first-hand experiences rather than her research-heavy explications of linguistic theory. As she grapples with grammar and vocabulary, Collins notes astutely that vert (green), verre (glass), ver (worm), vers (toward), and vair (squirrel) comprise a quintuple homonym. "Despite its pretensions to clarity, French can trying," she says, efficiently making her point about the difficulties of gender with this example: Le poêle means stove, while la poêle is a frying pan.

Readers looking for the romantic spark of classic cross-cultural love stories featuring an effusive American and a restrained Frenchman will find flashes of it here ... But there's far more to Collins' book than screwball comedy.

Yet French is actually considered among the easiest languages for an English speaker to learn, especially compared to Arabic or Mandarin Chinese. Collins, whose notably rich English vocabulary includes glossolalia (nonsense speech) and shibboleth (catchword or slogan), finds plenty of terrific French words to love — including frilleuse for a woman who easily gets cold, and belle-mere, far more appealing than our charmless mother-in-law, and more appropriate for Olivier's mother, "a space heater of a person, emitting warmth in extravagant blasts." She writes, "English is a trust fund, an unearned inheritance, but I've worked for every bit of French I've banked."

Unlike Jhumpa Lahiri, who became so captivated by Italian she used it to write In Other Words (and hired Ann Goldstein for the English translation), Collins's goals for learning French were more modest: "I wanted to speak French and to sound like North Carolina." She also wanted to be able to deal with chimney sweeps and butchers, communicate with her in-laws, and "to touch Olivier in his own language." She wonders if he's somehow different from the man she's hitherto known only in his third language (after French and Spanish). And she admits that she feels different speaking French: "Its austerity made me feel more sophisticated."

Readers looking for the romantic spark of classic cross-cultural love stories featuring an effusive American and a restrained Frenchman will find flashes of it here. Among the many cultural differences the couple spar over are her enthusiastic (but to Olivier's ear, profligate) American habit of applying the verb love to express enthusiasm for shoes, avocados, and husbands alike. But there's far more to Collins' book than screwball comedy, and those who have weathered linguistic crossings themselves are apt to find particular resonance in its substantive inquiry into language, identity, and transcultural translation.

Arranged by chapters named for verb tenses, When in French works its way from The Past Perfect (Le plus-que-parfait) to The Present (Le Présent) and The Conditional (Le Conditionnel). Naturellement, Collins ends on an upbeat note with Le Futur — fitting for a new mother about to move with her hard-won French husband, French language, and Swiss-born daughter to the Francophone city of her dreams, Paris.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.