"Talking to you in English is like touching you with gloves."
That’s what Lauren Collins’s French husband Olivier says to her early on in When in French, Collins’s new memoir.
Although the book is about Collins’s time traveling through Europe, falling in love, and learning foreign languages, When in French is less Eat, Pray, Love than it is an informal study of linguistics. Collins is primarily interested in the ways we use language to construct identities and relationships, and how that process changes in different languages. Her personal love story simply provides a useful illustration of her larger theme.
Collins is a staff writer at the New Yorker; she was raised in North Carolina and, like most Americans, is monolingual. Olivier is fluent in English, but it’s his third language after French and Spanish, and he speaks it carefully and cautiously. The couple meets in London — "my language, his continent," Collins says — and they fall in love speaking to each other in English. But there’s one exception — they always call each other by pet names:
We spoke to each other in endearments. My darling, my love, mon amour, ma chérie, poussin, mouton, bébé. This was new to me, not characteristic. The word baby, applied to anyone over two, had always seemed like the adult diaper of endearments.
"Mon amour," he’d say. "Pass me the salt?"
I’d yell across a store, trying to get his attention: "Bébé! Over here, in dairy products."
People we knew, I think, made fun of us. What they didn’t know was that we couldn’t say each other’s names.
Collins reveals this detail in a carefully understated passage of the sort she loves to pull out and use as a kind of synecdoche for her marriage. She and Olivier love each other, but because of their language barrier, they can’t say each other’s names; they aren’t quite sure they know each other on any real essential level.
When Olivier’s job transfers him to Geneva in Switzerland, Collins accompanies him and embarks on a series of language courses as she tries to learn French.
She begins to bump up against the differences in the emotional register of French as opposed to American English. Americans enthusiastically express their love for everything that pleases them; Francophones reserve love for spouses and families. Americans find everything exciting; in French, excitement is erotic.
As she uses French more and more, Collins writes, "I started to feel as though I’d spent most of my life speaking in all caps." In fact, she finds that she’s beginning to develop a full-blown French persona, one that is more severe and contained than her American self.
What emerges is a portrait of how language both muffles and enhances our identities, so that when Collins eventually becomes fluent enough in French that she feels she can touch her husband without gloves, she worries that her French identity has become a mask.
Collins intersperses her experiences with historical anecdotes and scientific studies. She discusses how Nabokov changed his memoirs when he translated them from English to Russian; how linguists first embraced, then reviled, then cautiously returned to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that our languages influence our experiences of the world; how a college student was detained at an airport for traveling with Arabic flashcards.
The result is a thoughtful, well-crafted study of how we create languages — and how languages make us who we are.