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It’s all French to me

Posted on Wednesday, December 13, 2023 at 8:00 am

Chandler Cates ‘soars’ as a Golden Eagle.


Comment allez-vous? Très bien, merci!

To some they may just be words on the page, but to others, they are a means for communication and a growth in skills.

Shelbyville Central High freshman Chandler Cates is one of those. He recently won a National French Trivia contest, beating contenders from all 50 states.

Cates was introduced to the competition about two months ago.

“I didn’t really think much of it. I took it; there were some common knowledge questions. And then Ms. [Marilynn] Newman notified me in November that I had made it to nationals, so that was exciting,” Cates recalled.

So he started studying a bit more. When he got to nationals, which met over Zoom, the questions got harder. He competed against other French 1 students of all ages.

“I found the attitude of indifference to winning or losing is the best way to approach things. You try your best to try to win, but if you lose in the process, you become a better man,” said Cates.

The 15-year-old was of course shocked to win but excited all the same.

He decided to take French because he was studying Italian. His older brother, who’s studying finance at the University of Tennessee, is learning Italian for an internship in Rome. He and Chandler thought it would be funny to speak Italian at family gatherings.

“I figured French would be similar to Italian than Spanish, but hindsight, that’s incorrect. But I still enjoy it a lot.”

Cates added, “I also enjoy a lot of French composers like Erik Satie and Claude Debussy.

“His music is very calming. If you listen to Suite Bergamasque, the simplicity of it, it’s kind of like raindrops pattering on a rooftop.”

Cates has been learning French since last February when he started with Duo Lingo to prep for French 1 at SCHS.

Lately, he’s been reading French short stories to increase his vocabulary and even watching the French TV series “Lupin.”

“When I’m reading the stories, I really have no problem comprehending what’s in them, and I can pick up and infer what it’s saying, but as far as speaking, it’s the most difficult part.”

Cates said speaking is definitely the hardest part about French. “It’s the accent. Because there are so many silent letters, and for English speakers, it’s hard to decipher what someone is actually saying.”

He said a lot of it is listening to the language. “If you know how it’s supposed to sound, then you can replicate that with your own voice,” said Cates.

His favorite phrase so far — and one of the most fun to say — is je ne sais quoi (“I don’t know what”), which is intended to capture the indescribable.

Between his easy-going attitude and Tennessee accent, Cates’s talent and eventual national recognition has a bit of that je ne sais quoi quality to it.

But Cates says the key is to practice daily.

“Just practice as much as you can. Try to think in that language. Try to see items in your everyday and figure out what those are in that language, write them down. Speak in front of a mirror if you have to,” Cates said. “If you want to learn a new language, then full emersion is the key.

“I have basic comprehension, like being able to pick out words and phrases,” he says, though admitting he’s nowhere near conversational…at least not yet.

Chandler Cates with his French teacher Marilynn Newman.

For Central’s French teacher Marilynn Newman, she said it took her 10 years to become conversational in French. She has been teaching French for 15 years, 11 of which have been at SCHS.

For her, she enjoys learning French because of the doors that are opened to her in different areas of the world. “When I travel, I’m not fearful,” said Newman.

Plus, learning another language builds neural pathways in your brain, making your cognizance increase.

The importance of teaching a foreign language may be intangible now but influential for the future. She’s has former students who have gotten full rides to Notre Dame, another who’s working on a doctorate at an Ivy League school, and one who’s in the U.S. Navy working on a medical mission.

“All my students do great things. They leave here and they’re world-changers,” said Newman. “I touch the future. I don’t just teach students in my classroom, I touch the future.”

She said often the biggest challenge for students is believing it’s too hard. “French is really not any more difficult than any other world language to learn,” she said.

“Chandler is highly motivated. He is one of those students that you like to see because you don’t have to beg them to do their work. He is excited to learn,” she said.

“Ms. Newman is pretty much the only person I know who speaks French,” said Cates. “I thank Ms. Newman for helping me win, helping me practice and stay motivated and stay in a straight line toward that goal.”

He said his favorite part of the whole process has been discovering something new every day. “It’s very rewarding,” said Cates.

He hopes to attend the Paris trip with her class in 2025.

When he’s not learning French, Cates said he enjoys his science classes and said he aspires one day to study physics or aerospace engineering.