Assuming, at this moment, you are a non-speaker of French, it is safe to say you know a few words here and there, am I right? You might be shaking your head “no,” but if you think really hard, words like ”bonjour” and  ”oui” come to mind don’t they? That’s good; use those to your heart’s desire. What I am here to caution you about it using the other words.  You know what I mean, the phrases with meanings you aren’t quite sure about, but come tumbling out of your mouth whenever the topic of speaking French comes up. Be especially careful of song lyrics.

The summer of 2001 was the summer of what everyone called the “lady marmalade song.” It was everywhere. Mothers and children sang it in their cars on the way to play dates without considering the content of the song. Prostitution. Come fall, I had my first French class. I was as excited as any 14 year-old-girl with a taste for French cinema would be. “Finally,” I thought, “I can watch without subtitles!” then the class began. The teacher looked out into the faces of the students and asked if anyone had taken a French class before. Silence. (It seems to me that anytime a teacher wants to get their class to be quiet, they should ask a sincere question and await a response). “Does anyone know any French at all? I’m sure there must be someone who at least knows how to say please and thank you.”

Before I tell you about what happened next, I should tell you a little about myself. I have no brain to mouth filter. That is to say, sometimes words just come out of my mouth before I have the chance to perform an internal check for practicality, propriety, and all-around _____. Usually this leads to me inadvertently embarrassing myself or others.

So, back to the story:

The teacher looked around hoping to break the ice by having a student offer up at least a *”oui, oui” That’s not what he got. Without raising my hand, or any other preamble for that matter, I said the little bit of French I knew. That line from the “lady marmalade song”. From that song about prostitution. To my teacher.

As the last few syllables left my mouth I knew I had said the wrong thing. How wrong was visible on the very red and embarrassed face of my teacher.

After laughing it off, he explained my gaffe to the class—my turn to be red in the face—with a warning that I will pass on to you: “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words are even more dangerous.” He meant that words can be used like weapons, against others or ourselves, if we do not know how to wield them responsibly.

Do I continue to sometimes speak before my brain has time to process my meaning? Yes, but only in languages I am very comfortable using, lest I ask someone to “coucher avec moi” again. So to those reading this wondering if they should learn French—yes, you—my advice is to do exactly what you’re doing, find a classroom to learn in, and not a pop song.

Have you ever accidentally said something inappropriate in another language because you weren’t quite sure of the meaning? Let me know, I’d really like it if I weren’t the only one.