Reflections on love across cultures, inspired by Lauren Collins’ book about her relationship with a Swiss man, by Madeleine Kilminster

First published in The Linguist Vol/56 No/2

The attraction of dating a speaker of a foreign language is that they are endlessly interesting. Getting to know them is one and the same as learning about the entirely other world they come from: their unfamiliar idioms, quirky customs and refreshing views. You crave insatiably to learn their language to be closer to them and to learn how they think. You lap up new words and phrases which stick with you because they are enshrined within the heightened emotions you experienced when you discovered them. They find your accent adorable. You, too, find it delectable to hear them imbue English words with exotic flair.

Love in a foreign language came for me at perhaps one of the most concentrated periods of self-exploration and development that one goes through: my undergraduate year abroad. I fell in love with a German man who was the only other young person on the staff at the school where I worked as an English language assistant. The language differences were at first part of the job: I led lessons in English, he stepped in to translate into German.

As our relationship developed, initially I did not feel that our different native tongues were an overt barrier to communication. Confident in English, he glued together the fractures in my nascent German and I supplemented his textbook terms with colloquialisms. Ostensibly, we were able to convey what was necessary and, with time, to articulate more intimate insecurities, fears and dreams. We began to correct each other less and less; intuiting each other’s speech patterns and what they were trying to say. As in any relationship, we developed a common language of in-jokes and shared experiences unique to us.  

It was not until I read Lauren Collins’ excellent When in French that thoughts about my relationship between cultures truly crystallised. Reflecting on the linguistic and cultural bonds between all human beings, Collins (a North Carolinian) weaves in the tale of her evolving romance with a Swiss-French man and the intricacies, anxieties and thrills of navigating love in a second language.

Among the challenges she experiences from a lack of shared language – slow adjustment to Swiss lifestyle and customs, feeling ostracised from her in-laws – Collins describes underlying difficulties in connecting with her husband. Despite falling in love and forming a life together, she struggles to lift the veil of mystique that surrounds her husband and fears his ‘true’ self may remain forever inaccessible to her.

Even when relatively fluent in your partner’s language, you can be haunted by wondering if you truly know them. I knew moments when, at pains to make the other understand, our speech would dissolve into a key-word-staccato that lost all meaning and we would inevitably give up. Like when you explain a punch-line and it is no longer funny, the impact was often lost. We once spent ages comparing the British and German connotations of konservativ – which he had used off-hand to describe some fellow students. Frustration came in low moments when we would rather mumble ‘dunno’ or ‘s’alright’ but instead had to enunciate to make the other understand. I feared these moments revealed the accumulating debt of understanding between us.

As Collins discovers when she starts learning French, a further challenge is leaving the mental classroom. Casting a shadow over my relationship was a hovering highlighter critiquing everything I said. Wishing to appear as nonchalantly native as possible, I would crowbar in as many ja genau’s, na’s and naja’s as I could. The preoccupation with contriving authenticity created a sense of detachment which prevented me from letting go, acquiescing in a lover’s suspension of logic. It is difficult now to disentangle the rush I felt when I did achieve fluency from the genuine high of the emotional connection.

Perhaps Collins has mastered it. Having increased her fluency and grown into her French self, she and Olivier now live in Paris where they have raised a bilingual daughter. I do wonder, though, whether there are still moments of miscommunication which hint at the immovable unknown between them. Or perhaps it is the enduring existence of subtle enigma and exoticism that can provide a boundless source of the excitement of love between languages.

When in French (2016) by Lauren Collins is published by Fourth Estate; ISBN 978-0008-10059-9.

Madeleine Kilminster is Production Assistant at Scholastic and a member of The Linguist Editorial Board.