Parlez Vous Français?

Being fluent in French has been such a huge part of my life and will help me in the future.


by Caroline Hinkebein, Sports Editor

I’m in 5th grade at my grandparents’ weekly Sunday night dinner when my mom asks me to say “pass the mashed potatoes” in French. I groan and complain how I have to speak in French ALL day EVERY day at school, so when I’m at home I want nothing more than to just to speak English. My mom threatens to take my phone away until I give in and tell her the translation for “pass the mashed potatoes” is “va te faire foutre.” If you don’t happen to speak French and don’t know what that means, put it in Google translate. I’ll save you some time and let you know it doesn’t mean anything close to “pass the mashed potatoes.” 

During elementary and middle school situations like this (where I was asked to speak French outside of school and I would act like it was the worst, most painful burden anybody had ever put on me) were common. Back then all I knew was that in school I would get in trouble for speaking English, and at home no one but me knew how to speak French. So I associated my school life with French and my home life with English and I did NOT like the two to mix. 

When I was younger I didn’t know how lucky I was to have this gift, this talent, of being bilingual. Especially since I became bilingual without even trying. In fact I actually have zero memory of how I even learned how to speak French because I learned it so young. From kindergarten through 8th grade I went to Academie Lafayette (AL), a French immersion public charter school where every class I had was fully in French, with the exception of English — and when I reached middle school — Spanish. I had a huge advantage learning this language at such a young age because this made French into something that has always been ingrained in my mind. It will forever be a part of my life. 

In 6th grade, along with everyone else in my grade at AL, I took my first trip abroad to Carcassonne and Paris, France. This was an amazing experience that I remember every detail of to this day (despite inheriting my mom’s terrible memory). I stayed with a host family in Carcassonne for two weeks. I went to school with their daughter every day, we toured the city and I made so many lifelong friends that I still talk to to this day, even though they live 4,742 miles away. A year later, all the French kids that we had visited came to visit us and go to school with us, just like we had with them. I met so many more people that lived all across the south of France from Bayonne to Pau. I even know people from AL whose connection with their French kids was so strong that they’ve gone back to France with their families and stayed with them.

I went to France a second time two years later with my family for soccer, so this time either my brother Jackson, who also goes to AL, or I had to be the translator most of the time. Most people in France know English because it’s a required part of their education in lots of places. And the stereotype about French people being mean is so wrong, they’re all so nice and accommodating and if they can tell someone is a tourist and their French is bad, they’ll speak to them in English. 

The best feeling ever was when this didn’t happen, when you’re ordering food at a bakery and they don’t switch to English because they believe that you’re a native. I’ll never forget this one time when my mom and I were at a laundromat in France and an older lady asked me how the machine worked. I politely showed her and we were making small talk when she looked over to my mom and asked her a question. My mom just stared back at her blankly because despite her few years of college French, she had no idea what the older lady was saying. I then had to awkwardly explain to her how I knew French but my mom didn’t and she was shocked that I wasn’t a native. See, you can be fluent in French but the accent is what pulls it all together. I was lucky enough to be taught by mostly natives of French countries so I picked up the accent pretty easily from them. 

There are some downsides with learning in French most of my life, one of which being the transition into high school. Since I had learned every subject in French, there were genuinely some things that I knew or understood in French but didn’t in English. For example, in Science class 8th grade year, we spent a whole unit memorizing prefixes and suffixes for science terms that our teacher preached would help us tremendously in high school. The problem with this was, I had memorized them in French and when I got to high school obviously everything was in English. So all those terms I had memorized really didn’t help me that much at all, other than the ones that happened to be the same words in French and in English. 

I’ve also had a lot of problems with pronunciation, even after having almost a full two years of learning entirely in English instead of entirely in French. I’ll be having a normal conversation with my parents or my non-AL friends, and I’ll say a word a weird way and they’ll look at me kind of funny even though to me it sounds completely normal. This happens especially with words that are spelled the same in both languages but have different pronunciations. The worst is when it happens when I’m reading something out loud in class because no one else will understand why I’m messing up on such a simple word other than me. 

French is a super cool language and now that I’m older and out of AL I can step back and appreciate the opportunity I was given to know it. It’s so interesting to me how it all works. How there are special little sayings like “tomber dans les pommes” which translates directly to “falling in the apples” but actually means passing out, and you wouldn’t know that unless you were a native speaker. Or in my case, because I was taught by so many fantastic native speakers. It’s so weird how I watch seniors in my class struggle with the crazy, practically non-existent rules of whether an object is a “she” or a “he” while I just say the word out loud with a girl “la” or boy “le” pronoun in front of it and guess the correct one right every time because it just sounds right to me. Things in French make no sense but also complete sense at the same time. Like how my name, Caroline, has three syllables in English, car-o-line, but has four syllables in French, car-o-lin-e. 

After years of refusing to speak French outside of school, and sometimes even in school unless a teacher was talking to me, I now try to use it any chance I get because I’m terrified of losing my French. All my fellow AL kids know what I’m talking about. Going from speaking French from 8:30-3:45 all day every day to only speaking for 40 minutes max in your once a day French class is a big change and can make you feel out of practice for something that came so naturally for as long as you’ve known. I find myself forgetting simple phrases that should roll off my tongue and it makes me sad at the thought of one day not being fluent anymore. 

I plan to continue taking French classes throughout high school and college and maybe even use it as a part of my job someday. My dream life would be to move to the south of France, either in a big city or right next to a beautiful French field of lavender, and settle down with a pretty French boy. But until then, mom, the correct translation for “pass the mashed potatoes,” is “passe la purée de pommes de terre.”