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When Lauren Collins left her provincial North Carolina hometown, she writes, “no one would have guessed that I would become an American living in Switzerland with a Frenchman I’d met in England.” But that’s exactly what happened. And when one falls for a Frenchman, one must learn French.

In her emotional, erudite memoir When in French, the New Yorker writer documents her linguistic labors, including the missteps–she accidentally tells her mother-in-law she gave birth to a coffeemaker–on the road to mastery. At times she expounds on the history and philosophy of language; at others, it feels like catching up with a clever friend you haven’t seen since college.

But the most intriguing question posed is as much about identity as language: Are you someone else when you speak and live in a non-native tongue? “I wanted to speak French and to sound like North Carolina,” Collins writes. “I was hoping, though I didn’t know whether it was possible, to have become a different person without having changed.”


This appears in the September 26, 2016 issue of TIME.

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