Oui, Je Parle Français, But I’ll Never Keep Up with the Children…

Scheenagh Harrington chews the fat about why talking French and all that is fun for the whole family – and has become easier than she ever imagined.


I’ve always loved language, right from the get-go. I don’t have many memories from my early childhood, but I do have strong impressions of reading The Emperor’s New Clothes from a big white book, and filling dozens of half-sized lined books with stories written in chunky pencil.

I’m a talkative soul too, as anyone who has ever managed to claw their way from my presence will tell you. Words are my bag, baby. My thing.

At school, when it came time to learn French, they couldn’t have found a more pathetically eager pupil. I vividly recall opening my copy of ‘En Avant’, and learning about Xavier and his pals. It was music to my ears, even though I didn’t dare fully unleash my accent in front of my fellow classmates. I may have known it kicked ass, but they would have kicked my arse had I dared to show off. Such was life in Hull in the 1980s.

Sadly, while I sounded good, my sentence structure was, well, flawed would probably be the kindest way to describe it. That hasn’t really changed since moving to France. My accent’s rounder, fuller, but my verbs are still a godawful mess.

The same can’t be said of our children. Our eldest daughter was three and a half when we came over, and picked up a few colours and numbers before the move, but essentially knew bugger all. We watched in fascination as, during the first few weeks, linguistically she rebooted before our eyes, babbling as her brain switched between English and French.

Now, of course, she flips effortlessly between the two – though still talks rubbish, but it’s of a different sort. Our eldest son is four and just about able to communicate in both tongues, yet already it’s obvious he’s more confident in French than English. He’s conveniently deaf in every language when it suits him, and like his big sister, can spout complete bollocks with the best of them.

Yet I am filled with pride at my little bilingual brood, and here’s the strangest thing of all: there are some moments when only a French word will do. It has become such an integral part of our lives that when I want to say something’s been damaged, it’s abîmé, when our baby boy gets stuck trying to squeeze between bits of furniture, he’s coincé, and the only time our eldest boy will do as he’s told is if I command him in French.

Neither me nor my better half speak French anywhere near as well as our kids, but it’s a conscious choice to select words from our adopted tongue in order to enhance our English conversation, and talking becomes all the more musical for it.

I have met so many people who have come over to France and – for whatever reason – decided not to ‘have a go at the lingo’. Maybe they felt foolish or embarrassed at not being able to communicate, or decided that they were too old to start learning anything as complicated as a new language, I don’t know.

For me, it was a chance to dust off a long-held love, to bring my light out from underneath its bushel and show off my swanky accent, safe in the knowledge my arse was safe from a kicking.

Of course, within two or three words, the immediate response from natives is “are you English?”, gently reminding me that I’ve got some way to go…