Interview conducted by Aneta Pavlenko.
Our guest today is Lauren Collins, author of When in French: Love in a second language, an unputdownable story of an American who fell in love with a Frenchman – and with French. Lauren, would you please tell us a few words about your life as a bilingual today?
I am a longtime monoglot who became an improbable late-life bilingual upon meeting my husband, Olivier; moving to Switzerland with him; and, eventually, settling in France with our nearly two-year-old daughter, whose language abilities will very soon be giving mine a run for their money. Learning a language in what I’m forced to admit is midlife has been a transformative experience for me, a sort of intellectual lottery win that’s given me greater resources than I’d ever have dreamed of.
You talk about the isolating nature of language classes, yet you also challenge the myth of learning by osmosis, by simply living in the foreign language environment or watching TV. What motivation and strategies worked best for you?
For me, all the positive motivation in the world is useless; I think “wouldn’t it be nice if” is a far weaker incentive than “what if I don’t?” Especially for adult learners, life can be so busy that there has to be a sense that something unpleasant is going to happen if you fail! I got to a point where I no longer wanted to be the silent idiot at the dinner table; I didn’t want to be isolated in the community I was living in. I especially didn’t want to not be able to partake in my daughter’s life and upbringing in France. The stakes started to feel high, and that’s when I got serious.
Taking an immersion class – 5 hours a day for a month – seemed like a necessary first step, as I’m the kind of person who prefers as methodical an approach as possible. I now see that such an approach to language learning is impossible, but it at least helped to have a basic grounding in French grammar before throwing myself into the messy process of second-language acquisition.
I was fascinated by your comment that, in English, you try to speak in a distinct voice and avoid clichés, while in French you just want to fit in and master the clichés. Do you still feel this way and, if so, have you gathered enough French clichés to argue with your husband?
I think that goes back to the old idea, “You can only break the rules when you know them.” As I’m still in the rule-internalizing stage, nothing gives me a greater sense of accomplishment than deploying some shopworn but situationally apt saying like, “Revenons à nos moutons” (literally, “Let’s get back to our sheep; figuratively, “Let’s get back to the matter at hand”). OK, I still haven’t actually used that one, but just figuring out the call-and-response of daily life, the banal response, the proper filler, seems to me like a big part of mastering a language beyond the textbook sense. I can argue with anyone in French! All you have to say is “C’est une provocation” or “C’est insupportable,” ideally with the word “polémique” thrown in somewhere. Every language has its formulas, and I enjoy trying to get the tincture just right.
You describe yourself as an All American girl who found languages faintly irrelevant until she stumbled into French, but the sheer delight you take in words betrays you as a language aficionado. How did being a writer affect your learning of French?
Being a writer has surely affected my learning of French positively in that I’m already in the longstanding habit of being intrigued by words, or turns of phrase, that aren’t familiar to me, and making the effort to seek out their meanings and to retain them. But there’s a negative side, too, in that, as a person who uses words professionally, I’m perhaps not always as willing or able to make a fool of myself, in the way that one needs to in order to learn a language. When you feel like you have a decent command of your native language, sometimes it’s just so much easier to revert to it, and the pressure you put upon yourself to be articulate can be inhibiting.
Interestingly, it’s not just that being a writer has affected my learning of French, but also that my learning of French has affected my being a writer. I was surprised to find out that bilingualism is a two-way street, the second language influencing the first as much as the first influences the second. I’ve come to see French as a source of inspiration (and even outright theft) for the way I express myself in English.
Your book ends with the birth of your daughter. What are the joys and challenges of raising a bilingual child?
Ask me in a few years. I’m so early in the process that it’s hard to tell. Right now, it’s a lot of joy, but I already fear for the day our daughter begins maternelle and surpasses my French approximately three weeks later. For the moment, English is her stronger language. My husband had the funny but marginally unnerving experience just this week of hearing her say a word—“scoot in”—that he didn’t know.
Your memoir is all the more interesting for the engaging links it makes to academic research. What insights did you gain from this work?
As a journalist, my first instinct was to try to gird my own observations with fact, and the work that I encountered in my research was invaluable in helping me to understand these strange transformations of mind, body, and spirit that I sensed I was undergoing. Whether in learning that researchers at the University of Michigan proved that small amounts of alcohol improve people’s language skills (haven’t we all guessed as much?), or in coming across your own proposal that perhaps the denial of Whorfian effects was a big whopping Whorfian effect itself, I found it enlightening to connect my personal experiences, through science, with those of bilinguals across time and space.
How did your family receive your book and when can we expect a French edition?
So far, so good. A French edition “Lost in French: les aventures d’une américaine qui voulait aimer en français” sort le 11 janvier, chez Flammarion.
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Photo courtesy of Barnes & Noble.
Collins, L. (2016) When in French: Love in a second language. Penguin Press.
Aneta Pavlenko's website.