Tag Archives: language

Grocery Shopping in French

“Ground beef. Like, beef– cow meat– but it’s all ground up in little bits.” I did my best unofficial international sign language to accompany my explanation.

“Ah! Bœuf haché?” The grocery store employee led me to the freezer and pointed at the package of meat, eyebrows raised. “This?” He asked. It didn’t look exactly like the ground beef at Walmart, but it appeared to be ground beef nonetheless. I smiled and thanked him, placing the package in my cart.

There are only a handful of affordable grocery stores on the island of Sint Maarten, and my options are to pay $170 a trip to shop in English or $102.75 to shop in French. I choose the language barrier and saving seventy bucks.

I spend a lot of time staring at labels, trying to make out what this can or that box holds. I’ve become pretty good at guessing, and I’ve even picked up some French in the process (although don’t ask me to try to pronounce it). Whenever I learn to speak French, I’ll have a head start. I will know the word for every single food item ever invented.

Some of the labels are easy. I babysat for a bilingual family, and their kids called milk lait at all times. The cow on the front also helps.

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Others aren’t so easy. I always thought fromage was just the word for “cheese,” but apparently it’s the word for every single dairy product on the planet.

This is not cheese. It’s yogurt. When I bought it, I needed yogurt, but it looked like it could be  cottage cheese or whipped cream. I decided that the risk was worth it. Ben hoped it would be whipped cream, so he was disappointed.


This does not say fromage, but it IS cheese. Thank goodness this bag is see-through, or I would have been even more confused than I already was.


The hardest products to find are the ones I don’t know the French word for, can’t see through the packaging, and don’t even recognize the packaging. It took me a few trips and some asking around to find baking soda. I was looking for the small orange box, but apparently Arm and Hammer doesn’t do French.


I suspect the packaging issue is why I still can’t find baking powder. My friend Aqiyla went shopping with me yesterday, and she couldn’t find it either, although she speaks French. You don’t realize how powerful branding is until you’re dropped in the middle of unrecognizable foreign brands.

One thing that is not hard for me to locate, however, is Nutella! I think I have a Nutella radar built into my brain. I’m OK with becoming more European, if it involves chocolate for breakfast. Yes, please!


I have encouraging moments, too. I’m getting to the point where I can read a lot of French words, even if I couldn’t use a single one in conversation. I can understand most French signage around town, and I can tell the difference between all-purpose flour and pastry flour. I can even scan package ingredients for allergens and be fairly confident that I won’t send anyone into anaphylactic shock.


I never thought I’d say this, but there are days that I really miss Walmart. But at the same time, I’m glad I have the chance to make shopping a bilingual adventure. After all, I never quite know what I’m going to come home with…



Yo Hablo un Poco Español

Yo hablo un poco Español. Imagine me saying that in a very bad Mexican/American accent, and you will hear the best of my Spanish. Actually, I’m not sure if the grammar is even correct (perhaps someone can enlighten me in the comments). Sometimes I try “Yo hablo poquito Español,” but either way I am met with chuckles and amused smiles. Not sure if it’s the white girl accent or if I’m just saying everything wrong.

You’d think that I would have learned Spanish just by living near the Arizona-Mexico border, working with Spanish-speaking people, and going to Mexico a dozen times. Nope. Living in Phoenix taught me enough Spanish to pronounce “gila,” “agua,” and “cholla” correctly and navigate my way through Food City.  Unfortunately, the people I asked to help me learn mostly liked to teach me insults and laugh when I asked someone to “give me the hooker” when I wanted lettuce. Thanks, guys.  Muchas Gracias.

Me in 2007 with my dad and friends in Mexico, not knowing Spanish



Fortunately, my Spanish has been steadily improving since I moved to the island. On the plane ride here, I set next to a Puerto Rican lady for a few hours. I used all the power of my jet-lagged brain to recall the words I learned in Spanish 101. Her English was even worse than my Spanish, and we got along just fine. Through Spanglish plus hand gestures, we had a conversation about how to avoid pickpockets in San Juan. I understood enough to be glad I was catching a connection to Sint Maarten!

San Juan


Since I’ve been here, I’ve been practicing on the Duo Lingo app and watching lots of Spanish movies. There are a few Spanish-speaking kids in the group I tutor, so while I teach them English, they teach me Spanish. They learn a lot faster than I do. Some of them learned conversational English in a month, and I’m just over here struggling with Spanish adverbs. I told them they must just be smarter than me. They laugh. And then they correct my Mexican accent.

Teaching as a Learner

There comes a moment in language learning when you realize that you’ve made a major breakthrough. Those moments are some of the best moments of life. It’s kind of like the moment you find out you’re hired or that you won the scholarship. That moment came for me a few days before Christmas when Ben turned the radio to a Christian Spanish station. We were tired, and we just listen to it in silence as we drove. Suddenly it hit me: I could totally understand everything the speaker was saying. I almost jumped right out of my seat, I was so excited. I could understand!

Don’t ever, ever, ever give up on the things that you want to do. Even if they don’t come easily to you.

I’m still struggling with adverbs, and I still don’t know whether I should pronounce “ll” the Mexican way or the Caribbean way. I still can’t speak or hear it as well as I read it. But I’m making progress, and it’s encouraging. Trilingualism, here I come!