I was drawn to this book because I could see there were many parallels with my own life and experience. Falling in love with someone whose first language is not your own is wonderful but challenging too. When I first met A-, I did not really think of how his first language being different from my own meant more than simply having another language. It turns out it is possible to be lost in translation several times a day, even when communicating solely in English.
Lauren Collins’ book is the story of how she fell in love with a Frenchman while working in London, and then moved to the continent once they were married, to Geneva. Collins, an American by birth, speaks no French. Collins relationship begins in a ‘neutral space’. For her, it was London – she an American emigre, he a Frenchman. They commute to see each other. Collins discovers in her move to Geneva that she is no longer on neutral ground. Even though Switzerland is not either of their homelands, everyday interactions in Geneva often take place in French (or German or Italian or Romansh), and she is not up to par. Her French husband can more easily assimilate in a city where he is at ease with the language.
“‘Hello’ and ‘good-bye’ were a pair of bookends, propping up a vast library of blank volumes, void almanacs, novels full of sentiment I couldn’t comprehend. It felt as though the instruction manual to living in Switzerland had been written in invisible ink” (p.3).
The book is her story of how she finds her feet, and her way in a new language. It is not just the language that stumps her though, her French husband and his French friends have complicated relationships and ways of being, that are derived through the languages (both verbal and non-verbal) they use. She explains how in different languages winks and blinks have different meanings, drawing on both Clifford Geertz and Charles Darwin’s work on facial expressions. In their stalemate over whether or not to get married, Collins finds herself at a loss to understand her Frenchman’s position. “I couldn’t tell whether Olivier’s friends resisted marriage because they had different values than I did, or because people of their generation and background were uneasy about the relationship between their private lives, the church, and the state. There were too many variables” (p. 108).
I was particularly interested in the section Collins writes about cultural ways of being and thinking. She examines the debates around whether languages shape one’s worldview. Her deliberation on the role of the Academie Francaise is fascinating, particularly, as Collins considers, the idea that “central control of a pure French by Parisian authorities is a myth: Kinshasa is the world’s second-largest French-speaking city” (p. 167).
Overall the book is a wonderfully researched, enthralling story of how one American girl learns French, and French ways of being. I connected with it because I can see within it so many similarities with my own life. Does ‘I love you’ really mean the same spoken in Spanish as in English? (My dictionary suggests the Spanish have many words for love – amor, querer, adorer, encantar…) I most enjoyed when Collins writes about the holiday they have with both sets of parents, and the way they manage to communicate through basic Spanish (the two fathers) or gestures and body language (the mothers), coming up with an adapted form that allows them to understand each other.