How love can help you learn a new language

How love can help you learn a new language

When the writer Lauren Collins set about learning French, she had no idea how it would change her life. Rebecca Laurence takes a look at the benefits and pitfalls of bilingual relationships.

Cologne, Germany, 1970: Carol, a sparky red-headed Englishwoman catches the eye of a handsome Tunisian man named Chedly. There's a mutual attraction; just one problem stands in their way: they don't speak each other's language.

Settling for German, the pair attempt the first words of their fledgling romance in a foreign tongue. Three months later they are engaged and 46 years on from that, children, grandchildren - and some English lessons - later, they're still together.

Carol and Chedly Mahfoudh's story is just one of countless others: couples who met, fell in love and forged a relationship despite linguistic and cultural hurdles.

"Language, in delineating a boundary that can be transgressed, is full of romantic potential", writes The New Yorker's Lauren Collins, whose own adventures in bilingualism feature in her new book When in French: Love in a Second Language, which is in equal parts humorous memoir, love story and serious exploration of the relationship between language and thought.

Although US-born Collins and her French husband Olivier spent their early years as a couple conversing in English, they couldn't in his native language.

"We didn't possess that easy shorthand, encoding all manner of attitudes and assumptions, by which some people seem able, almost telepathically, to make themselves mutually known" Collins writes.

After a particularly tricky discussion, in which they each painstakingly seek to clarify what the other means, Olivier complains, "Talking to you in English is like touching you with gloves."

"That really crystallised the distance that I would always have to live with if I didn't learn his language", Collins tells BBC Culture. "I think we all have these intentions and fantasies about learning a language but it's a really hard thing to do unless you have a real burning reason," she continues.

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