French 101: Tips from a perfect-score student

Natalie McGee, Hoodridge Drive, recently completed ninth grade at Mt. Lebanon High School with a très exceptionnel feather under her cap: she achieved a perfect score on the Level 3 National French Exams. More than 14,600 students took the Level 3 exam in the United States in 2019, and McGee was one of only 29 to earn a perfect score. For her achievement, she received a platinum medal, a certificate, a plaque and the school also received a plaque to display.

McGee has been studying French for four years, and she hopes to eventually become fluent. So, after she returned from French Immersion Camp this summer (yes, that is apparently a thing), we asked her some of our burning questions about the French language and culture.

Have you ever been to France? If so, what is your favorite thing about the country?
I’ve been there once, and it was amazing. At risk of sounding cliché, the food was probably my favorite part, but it’s really the combination of that with all of the art, history, architecture and scenery that make it so magical.

What is the trick to making the “r” sound in French?
I’ve heard several tips for this. I always think about it as a kind of gargling, but higher up in your throat; a combination of a hard “G” and “L” sound, if that makes any sense. Another way to practice it is to say “aga” over and over, but each time, instead of stopping the air flow with your tongue at the back of your throat for the “g,” you leave a little gap and gargle it a little. But mostly it just takes practice.

Also, a good way to fake it is just to “swallow” the r. Kind of tighten your throat and stop the air flow for a split second. It usually sounds pretty similar.

In your opinion, what are the funniest/ strangest French phrases you know?
Huh. Well, I really like “allez, viens!” which is just a way to say “come on!,” but translates literally to “go, come!”

Another favorite is “se trouver” which means “to be located” but translates literally to “to find oneself.”  So, “le livre se trouve sur la table,” or, “the book finds itself on the table,” gives you a funny image of a book wondering how it ended up there.

Faire la grasse matinée,” or to sleep in, translates to “to do the fat morning,” which I like, too.

Can you think of any words/ phrases that the English/ French languages share?
Sure. Entrepreneur, cuisine, déjà-vu and double entendre are all common English words/phrases that were originally French. Words like hot dog, sandwich and jogging are all French words borrowed from English. There are also many cognates that are not specific to either language, such as biscuit, bus and science. It’s actually a funny question, because the Académie Française has been trying to purge the French language of all words borrowed from English.

How accurate do you feel French translation sites and apps are nowadays?
They’re generally pretty good with individual words, but sentences, grammar and idioms especially are usually not accurate. The best apps only let you enter a word at a time and give you definitions and possible uses.

What is the most difficult part of mastering the French language? How did you get past it?
The subjunctive mood. And, seeing as I really have not mastered the French language … well, I still struggle with it. Another tricky thing is training your ear to pick up on very slight differences in pronunciation. That one’s just a matter of being very careful.

Do you have a favorite French language book/ song/ movie?
Probably my favorite French songs include Ca fait rire les oiseaux, and Les Champs-Elysées. Dernière Danse by Indila is good, too. I’m not familiar with a lot of French language books and movies, but I’ve read some Jules Verne translated to English, which I loved, though that doesn’t really count.

Have you ever had escargot? If so, what are your thoughts. What’s your favorite French food?
I have! It’s pretty good. Once you get it out of the shell, it mostly just tastes like tiny piece of chicken with lots of butter, salt and some garlic. It’s strange to look at, but actually eating it is probably less weird than sushi or shellfish or something.

And my favorite food? Real croissants—ones that are crisp and flaky all around, amber in color, and not the pale, squishy ones you find in grocery stores—are a really special treat. French onion soup can be amazing, coq au vin, that sort of thing … and also the sauces. Such a staple to French cuisine, a sauce is present in just about every dish but is so often overlooked. My favorite, hollandaise, could make an old sock taste good.

 

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