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When in French: Love in a Second Language

3.52  ·  Rating details ·  2,721 ratings  ·  430 reviews
A language barrier is no match for love. Lauren Collins discovered this firsthand when, in her early thirties, she moved to London and fell for a Frenchman named Olivier—a surprising turn of events for someone who didn’t have a passport until she was in college. But what does it mean to love someone in a second language? Collins wonders, as her relationship with Olivier co ...more
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published September 13th 2016 by Penguin Press
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Average rating 3.52  · 
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 ·  2,721 ratings  ·  430 reviews


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Rebecca
Collins, a journalist from North Carolina, married a Frenchman named Olivier she met while working in London. They then moved to Geneva, Switzerland, a mutually unfamiliar place but one where French reigned. For the first time, she was forced to learn a new language to survive. I love how she blends her own story with the philosophy, history and science behind language use.

As she learned how to do things she never expected to have to in French – deal with her in-laws and give birth, for instance
...more
Jacinta Carter
Sep 14, 2016 rated it it was ok
This book started out as a memoir about Lauren Collins attempting to learn French after marrying a Frenchman and moving to his home country. Then it became a history of the French language. Then it turned back into a memoir. This switching back and forth continued through the rest of the book. While both the memoir and the history were interesting, she needed to focus on one aspect or the other for the entirety of the book so we could get a full story, rather than just snippets of two different ...more
Joanne
Sep 19, 2016 rated it it was ok
I found myself skimming through this book because while it was witty and intelligent, with lots of facts about the English language, as well as French, I found it lacked the warmth of the writer. I could only feel surface accounts of her life, not really the emotion. It just left me 'cold.'
I see that she writes for The New Yorker and this style of writing is appropriate for that kind of reportage. It isn't something I look for in a novel.
David Holoman
Nov 11, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: avoid
When I saw the review in the NYT book review for this book, I thought that I might look into it at some point. Then turning to our local paper, I saw that the author would be at our local indy in the coming week, so I went and listened and bought a copy. She was charming and I really wanted her book to be, too.

It isn't. It isn't "Love in a Second Language," as the sub-title describes, and it isn't a charming account of how the language barrier in the star-crossed relationship was ultimately over
...more
Aran Katarina
Apr 29, 2018 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: those interested in linguistics
This book was more about linguistics and the history of language than about the author's personal experiences. Much of the history and linguistics was interesting, however it constituted far too much of the book and I found myself frequently wishing the author would get back to the story or at least tie it into her own experiences.

Although the book grappled with contrasting ideas on the importance of language and how it affects one's perception of the world, I felt that it never made any decisiv
...more
Kirsten
Jun 15, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, memoir
This book can't quite decide what it wants to be - a cute little memoir about falling in love, marrying and living with a Francophone, or an examination of sociolinguistics, or a discussion about what makes France and the French so..... French. As a result, it jumps around a lot. I like all those things, but it never settled on anything. (Part of that is also her writing style, where she would suddenly launch into some non sequitur story, and only a page or two later would reveal the drawn-out m ...more
Beth
Sep 29, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biographymemoir
This book was really good, but was done a horrible disservice by its subtitle, the frothy “Love in a Second Language.” Not only will it attract the wrong type of reader, who will feel tricked, it will repel the readers who would actually like it (they’ll be too embarrassed to pick it up). Instead of a light memoir of a romance with a dashing Frenchman (5% of the book), it’s a detailed look at the French language (the other 95%). Think French Lessons by Alice Kaplan rather than Bringing Up Bebe.
Lene Fogelberg
Mar 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir
In When in French we are invited into the world of American New Yorker staff-writer Lauren Collins, as she moves to Geneva to live with her new French husband Olivier, struggling to learn French and the customs and traditions of Switzerland as well as her new in-laws.

When in French is an interesting read for any language nerd; in large parts, it reads like an essay, full of historical anecdotes and facts about the science, study, and art of language.

But the book is also a memoir, mapping the co
...more
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
Jan 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: word-play, france
There are some people who can write so well that I don't even care what they write about; Lauren Collins is one of these people. I love France, but this book really isn't much about France. I'm somewhat interested in languages but I don't know much about the details of learning them. And often I am bored with memoirs. Nevertheless, I read this book, start to finish, in a wave of absolute fascination. I was fascinated with Collins' observations about trying to make one's way in a world where one ...more
Susan
Nov 29, 2016 rated it did not like it
I thought this would be insightful and interesting.

I think there is a lot of good material here, but initially Collins comes across as whiny. She's having an adventure, but is grumbling about her isolation with no apparent effort on her part to learn the language prior to her arrival in the French speaking country! Who wouldn't pick up Rosetta Stone the moment you fell in love with a Frenchman? She didn't.

It should be a memoir, not a biography (my personal distinction is: the author isn't famo
...more
Jaclyn Crupi
Oct 19, 2016 rated it liked it
2.5 This book had my name written all over it - I lived in Geneva! I learnt French! I love Collins's work in The New Yorker! But when in French is much more academic than I was expecting. I loved the Geneva observations (though thought she was a little harsh) and I shared all her frustrations learning French. There's a lot here for Francophones and Francophiles - so much of the humour is in/at the expense of French. There's a lot about linguistics generally, too. I didn't want another American f ...more
Karen Chung
Dec 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
An utter delight. Especially recommended to anybody with more than one language or culture in your life. Monolinguals will certainly find the book eye-opening as well. And the writing is impeccable.
Holly
Dec 20, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016-reads
A more original book than the jacket copy might suggest. While Collins does chronicle her marriage and expat life, describes her ambivalent relations with her husband's family, and describes relationship woes, there is little silliness here. (cf. Danielle Trussoni's recent (awful) memoir). I thought this was both an interesting memoir that mixed personal impressions, interpersonal dynamics, that at the same time introduced/reproduced predominant theories of second-language learning. Add to that ...more
Shelley
Apr 16, 2020 rated it it was ok
Though Lauren Collins seems like a nice enough person, I am now thoroughly chafed by her overwrought writing style. Reading this was a bit like watching Keira Knightley act. Every sentence felt like a strained little performance.

There are some great tidbits here that could have made for a satisfying article. She's definitely clever. But the book is so tedious.
Sarah
Nov 30, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2019-book-club
I didn't really like this book, but there were parts I enjoyed. I found myself zoning out on her rabbit trails about French history and the linguistic lessons, but I really enjoyed the memoir portions. I think she did great research and had a lot of interesting thoughts; but, overall the book lacked cohesion. I wish she translated a lot of her punch lines to English for us monolingual Americans. I am sure they were funny, I just haven't spent years learning French to enjoy them.
Kathryn Bashaar
Sep 02, 2017 rated it liked it
This book is about an American woman's journey to become a French-speaker after she married a French man. He speaks fluent English, but her premise is that they can't truly understand each other unless they both speak each other's languages. Also, as the story begins, they are living in Geneva, Switzerland, and she feels isolated by the language barrier.
Collins is a very good writer. Her stories about her language education are well-written and entertaining. But I felt that the book was not well
...more
Sarah
Oct 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: francophilia
I really enjoyed this book, which was significantly more linguistically-nerdy than I expected. With the word love in the title, I expected more a memoir and love story. However, I was pleasantly surprised at all the linguistics-lite. I learned things about French as a language, even though I've already got two degrees in it. It made me want to be back in the French classroom again (where this knowledge might be useful)! Not to mention back in France... I always enjoy a good trip back to France v ...more
Ann
Jul 27, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: book-club-3
An interesting look at language. It was a little piece-meal, though. She jumped around a lot, and I didn't get a lot of her references. It would have been nice if the author included footnotes for the meaning of the French she used and the very big words she used as well. It's hard to keep up with the flow when I had to stop to look things up regularly.
Christina
Jul 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
French is "Latin, but make it fashion." Ah, I loved reading about the intricacies of French and life in another language. Fascinating to think about how innately tied together are the French language and culture, and how this plays into figuring out how to live in that culture. (Collins lives one of my dream lives.)

Minus one star because of the book's marketing, which makes it seem like only memoir. It's really part history, part memoir, part linguistics theory. Had I known that this book conta
...more
Barry Welsh
Jan 14, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
4☆ clever, funny account of an American learning French that also serves as a primer in linguistics. Highly recommended for anyone who has learned, or is trying to learn, a second language.
Maya
read this morning in bed. lovely, well-researched, considered. I found different ideas of intimacy - American/Anglo-Saxon 'letting it all hang out', versus romantic French notions of presentation or composure very interesting.

“Bilinguals overwhelmingly report that they feel like different people in different languages. It is often assumed that the mother tongue is the language of the true self. (…) But, it first languages are reservoirs of emotion, second languages can be rivers undammed, freei
...more
Nancy
Jun 24, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: about-france
I was pleasantly surprised by this book. Originally I thought it was going to be another one of those woman meets Frenchman , woman marries Frenchman and amusing anecdotes ensue. While it was that, there was so much more to the story and Collins uses her relationship with her husband, family & friends as a jumping off point to explore the way in which language effects our relationships and our lives. Very well written, amusing and informative. I enjoyed this very much ...more
Bastian Greshake Tzovaras
Meh, I really wanted to love this one. But then the personal anecdotes are nice, but not enough to really make it a worthwhile read for me. And at the same time it seems most of the linguistics recited here come straight out of Guy Deutscher's Through the Language Glass. Which I had read earlier this year (and loved).

tl;dr: too little new for me to have much fun. Worthwhile for people in bilingual relationships that haven't run into much linguistics before.
Meghan
Dec 16, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2016
"When in French" is a fun and funny exploration of linguistics theory through the experiences of a first-time French learner. As an American francophone (and an American dating a Frenchman), it was pertinent and personal. Stylistically, I thought the book was overwrought and overweight with frilly vocabulary. But I enjoyed reading about her romance with Olivier and the French language, and appreciated the linguistics and history lessons sprinkled throughout.
Patricia
Dec 19, 2016 rated it liked it
This book was like my last EKG - all over the place. At first annoying. Who marries into another culture without first taking an intensive language course? Why marry a Frenchman and then spend the ensuing two years complaining about French? Annoying! Then lots of backstory about language. Unexpected, as I imagined the book would be a light hearted romp. Some of it interesting. Some not so much. I'd give it a 2.5 for my enjoyment, but a 3 for the work the author put into it.
Julie
Jun 03, 2017 rated it liked it
While I greatly enjoyed a lot of the facts Collins shared about the French language and language acquisition, I would have preferred either a more straightforward memoir or a study of language acquisition. I didn't find the book entirely cohesive. It did give me hope that someday I'll be bilingual too.
Aude Hofleitner
Apr 10, 2017 rated it it was ok
I liked the book OK. The writing is not great and it gets long at times. The author also changes topics in a weird way which I don't think adds anything to the style, I mostly found it odd.
There a few funny anecdotes on cross-cultural and cross-language differences.
Jane
Nov 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir, one-of-a-kind
This was just wonderful fun to read. Smart and romantic and, at times, hilarious. Clearly Lauren Collins loves language and the way she navigates between English and the language of her new love, Olivier, is filled with wit and delightful, particular words. I copied some of my favorite passages and have been reading them to my brother and to friends. I think my son, who studied language and loves the way thinking, culture and language intersect, would love this book.

Here are the passages, simpl
...more
Elizabeth
Dec 31, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir-biography
3.5, rounding up. I liked the second half much more than the first. If you haven’t learned a second language (French in particular) and you aren’t interested in language acquisition or French, then this book is really not for you. I have a degree in French, studied abroad in Strasbourg and was a high school French teacher, so my interest level was there and I could relate to her observations of and experiences with the French language and people. That being said, the book feels a little rambling ...more
RH Walters
Apr 14, 2017 rated it liked it
This is an enchantingly personal story of an American falling in love with a French man, and learning his culture and language. Collins switches between the story of her marriage and other issues related to linguistics in the U.S. and the world at large. She’s a fun and clever writer musing about some of my favorite topics, so this went down a treat. She quotes studies that say it takes an average of 600 hours to learn another language. Even though this seems like a modest investment, I’m lazy e ...more
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