Before moving to France, I swore blind that I would never, ever greet anyone with a coucou. Bonjour, fine; salut, bizarre but ok, but coucou, non, I refused to hail people with a word that made me sound like an idiot bird or a coy two-year-old.
A year on, to my general mortification, I found involuntary coucous spilling from my mouth whenever I spotted the small friends of my offspring. By then, though, my objection to the word had expanded in scope. Although I could hear the difference between the ou and the u sounds in French, and—if I grimaced—could produce the correct variant at any given time, at speed I risked confounding the vowel sounds. There were, as a result, occasions when my cheery greeting provoked a wary attention ! from a nearby parent. You see, coucou, in the mouths of British incompetents, can sound rather like cul cul, and, well, look it up.
Such mishaps have often caused me to wonder just how much of my cultural unease in France is caused by language, and how much by local convention. So you can imagine my delight when I was given a book called When in French: Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins to read. In the book, Lauren, a New Yorker journalist, explores the ways in which language shapes experience by tracing her own journey towards becoming fluent in French. She had a strong motivation for learning the language in the form of Olivier, her French husband, whose very name she could not initially pronounce, and whom she had only ever known through the medium of his third language: English. Their move to Geneva only heightened her desire to be able to communicate with him in his native tongue.
Earlier this week I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Lauren by telephone about her book, and was delighted to discover that she has the same ready wit in person that she does in prose.
With a few economical strokes, in When in French, Lauren Collins conveys the conspicuousness that a non-native feels when trying to live their life in French. “I kept telling waiters that I was dead—je suis finie—when I meant to say I had finished my salad,” she writes. She is deflated when she discovers that in her proudly-typed message to her mother-in-law acknowledging receipt of a coffee machine, she has announced that she has “physically delivered, through the vagina—a coffee machine”. She also gets the impression that she speaks too loudly and smiles too broadly; and she doesn’t understand how to use the dainty washing facilities at her in-laws’ house without flooding the premises.
I wonder whether Lauren’s felt clumsiness is specific to living within a French culture, or whether it is the fate of anyone living in a foreign tongue. In response she observes that “painful feelings of regression are standard fare” for beginners in any language, but that the French are a “particularly tough crowd”. The rigidity which characterises French life means that there is a specific way that you are meant to walk into a shop and greet everyone (thankfully not by saying coucou). “The French are not great freestylers,” Lauren notes, which means that outsiders quickly find themselves uncomfortably at variance with what is expected.
There is a sense, though, in which the daily humiliation Lauren felt when she first arrived is the factor which has contributed the most to her progress in French. “Embarrassment is a strong motivating factor,” she says: “in a vacuum everyone wants to learn French. I made feeble efforts before moving to Geneva, but I abandoned them all. You need a fire in your belly”. The fire of “not being a laughing stock” proves key in her case.
Lauren’s journey from “newly speechless” to what she modestly describes to me as “proficiency” is fuelled with free French lessons provided by the Geneva authorities and charted by the degree of success with which she can argue with Olivier in French. These arguments are not simply a linguistic challenge but also uncover for her one of the major cultural differences between English- and French-speakers. Sitting in on a meeting of the Académie Française (an experience of which I am inordinately jealous), she realises that, to the French mind:
every word has a single definition, and that every definition corresponds to a single word. […] Watching the committee trying to bend an English phrase to fit the strictures of French […] I apprehended, at last, the structural underpinnings of the impasses at which Olivier and I often stalled. In English, I was seeking consensus—mirroring Olivier’s concerns, wanting to meet in the middle. He was pursuing the right answer in the conviction that there always was one.
I ask whether Lauren still argues with her husband to practice her French. “Yes, but French is no longer just for last-ditch conflict resolution,” she laughs “now we argue organically in French”. Has her attitude to compromise changed? She has, she thinks, become more like Olivier, but he in turn has become more like her. In other words, she compromises by compromising less.
One of the striking things about When in French, and in speaking to Lauren, is the extent to which she not only strives to learn a new language, but also to inhabit the culture that it brings with it, and to understand the subtle interplay between the two. At the start of the book, she finds the correct usage of tu and vous confusing and is frustrated by the formality that this distinction implies. “It seemed cold and snobbish at first” she explains. By the end of the book, she feels very keenly the lack of a vous in English when a US customs official addresses her with what feels like an over-familiar “you”. She comes to realise that “in French the grid was divided differently between public and private, rather than polite and rude”.
I ask Lauren about which division of the grid she prefers now. She says that, although the formality and inflexibility of French really annoyed her at first, she has now come to really appreciate it. She gives the example of fixed eating times. At first she did not understand why she could not just “go with the flow” with food. Now she feels that the rigid eating conventions mean that “you sacrifice your sense of independence and freedom, but you gain a sense of social cohesion and solidarity. Eating together means that you know how to get on in groups”.
She has not gone completely native, of course. Although she likes the certainty of French greetings she is still “seriously crap at doing the bise”.
When in French: Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins is published in the UK by 4th Estate, and you can buy a copy here. It would make an excellent present for anyone you know who has tried to live in a different language.
When you’ve read it, please come back to this post and leave a short review.