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Learning to love the nuances of language

When American journalist Lauren Collins moved to London in 2010, she did not expect to fall in love with a Frenchman and move to France. “I met Olivier almost straight off the plane, and we lived together in London and then moved to Geneva in 2013 and since 2015 we’ve been living on the Left Bank in Paris,” she says.

For Lauren, it was a crash course in learning French, and in her book, When in French, she documents her linguistic adventures along the way. The book is amusing and readable, but also contains lots of insights into learning a second language as an adult.

“At first, living in Geneva, I struggled with everything to the point where I thought that French was the problem, but since we’ve been in Paris everything has changed and I have realised that Geneva was the problem. I love the French language!”

Now married to Olivier, with a small daughter and another baby on the way, she speaks French fluently but still enjoys the differences between the languages. She notices the frequency and moments of deployment of phrases like ‘I love you’ are different in the two languages, although the underlying feelings are the same. “In the US, we’re always saying we love this that and the other. In French, it’s used more rarely so feels more special.”

She also finds that some French words, like solidaire, just don’t have a simple one-word translation. “Sometimes you need a lot of words to express the same concept. And how do you say bof in English? And n’importe quoi – when Macron used it in that TV debate with Le Pen just before the presidential elections, that was a seminal moment. And it just isn’t the same as saying ‘whatever’ in English.”

She says learning a new language has in some way changed the way she thinks.

“My life in France isn’t in quarantine. When I go back to the States, I still have my new cultural associations, my newly acquired French, my attitudes. It’s the same in Paris, I still have all my cultural background.” It can lead to unexpected culture clashes. 

“When I go back to the US, the lack of a formal way of addressing people is jarring. I like the implied respect that comes with using vous and French formality has overtaken US informality as my normal, although when I first arrived in France, I found it snobbish and undemocratic.

“I was very American and thought that everyone is the same so you should speak to them the same way.”

She notes that in French the vouvoyer/tutoyer rules really differentiate between public and personal life. “When you’re out and about, you use vous with everyone because it’s polite and shows respect, but also you don’t need to bother much because you don’t really know those people.

“What I find amusing is the discussion as to when couples stop using vous and move to the more intimate tu...
In books translated from English to French for example, it’s often the morning after a couple have been to bed for the first time, which always makes me laugh.”

She says she does not believe there are concepts that cannot be expressed in other languages. “That’s why we delight in doing untranslatable translations and finding just the right way to express a concept. But it’s true that there are neater ways of expressing certain concepts in some languages. And some things always fall through the gaps. There are just some nuances that don’t make it through a translation.”

The title of her own book is a case in point. When it was translated into French and published in France, the title was changed from When in French to Lost in French. Both are English titles, but the second is perhaps easier for a French-speaker to understand than the original.  

When in French by Lauren Collins (Fourth Estate) is available from all booksellers

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