An American Mom Gets to the Bottom of Her French-Speaking Baby

Heat_Relief!PARIS — Most parents wonder what their child’s first word will be. In a bilingual family, you also wonder what language it will be in. When my son’s first word turned out to be “chien” (“dog”), my French husband gloated for weeks, as if that moment was somehow a parenting victory for him.

When my son’s second word was also in French, my husband grinned from ear to ear. I, on the other hand, felt happy enough that my baby was starting to talk, but I was confused.

English is the language my son hears and interacts in the most: I’m a part-time freelance writer and full-time stay-at-home expat mom in Paris, and I only speak to my son in my native language, unless we’re with other French-speakers (which is fairly rare or generally for short amounts of time). And thanks to Facetime, he interacts almost daily in English with his American grandparents and aunts and uncles, as well.

So why were his first words in French? It was something I felt I needed to get to the bottom of!

My husband and I only slightly jokingly came up with a theory about our son: maybe I speak enough English for the both of us. I’m a natural chatterbox, one of those people who talk to themselves without even realizing it, and when I have an audience – like, say, an especially attentive baby — my verbosity only increases. I know my son understands a lot of what I say. For example, if I suggest that he sit down, he often does. He reacts to “Where is…?” and “What sound…?” questions, as well as words like “bottle,” “cheese,” “ball” and “cat.” But maybe he thinks it just makes sense to keep letting me do all the English talking?

So I developed another theory:

Maybe I’ve made English sort of boring, compared to French. English is the language my son and I use in our everyday routine. Although I’d like to think that routine can be pretty fun and stimulating most of the time, maybe French is more contextually exciting. When my husband gets home from work in the evenings, it’s the language he and my son use to sing and play. It’s what my son hears when our boulanger greets him with a smile and an offering of a piece of baguette, or when he meets other kids at the library or the park. It’s the language in which his enthusiastic French grandmother fawns over him and teaches him songs and games.

Still, there are some inconsistencies with this theory. My son talks to my mother and one of my aunts almost every day, but he still seems excited when their faces appear on my iPad screen and speak English to him. And he and I have our share of laughs and amazement in my mother tongue. Then I learned that very young children tend to speak the language of their primary caregiver – so excitement doesn’t seem to be so much of a factor in early language acquisition at all.

Clearly, my own theories weren’t giving me real answers as to why my son seemed to be favoring French over English. I decided to do more digging!

Every resource for bilingual parents that I came upon, not to mention related scientific research, revealed that the bilingual experience reflects human nature: most of us adapt to our environment and do what we have to to fit in. When bilingual children start making friends in their neighborhoods, or interacting with the world around them in other ways (like going to school), they usually end up preferring the language everyone around them is speaking, which becomes their “majority language.” No matter how important their other language used to be, it’s now the “minority language.” Some bilingual kids might not even want to speak it for a while.

So maybe that’s all there is to it: My son sees that outside our apartment, the world is speaking French, and that’s what he needs to focus on. Then again, he doesn’t deal nearly as much with the outside world as he does with our world at home. He doesn’t go to school or daycare, and it didn’t seem like his occasional interactions with babysitters and French relatives are for a long enough time to have such an impact. I still felt stumped.

I kept searching…and found another theory. It’s actually one I’d heard before, and even written about: Babies start learning the language or languages spoken in their environment when they’re in the womb. Linguists have also found that the sound newborns respond to and prefer most is their mother’s voice. Which of course still left me wondering why my son didn’t speak English first.

As my quest continued, I learned that research has also shown that babies who are exposed to two languages in utero are born with an ability to differentiate between the two languages, but show no particular preference for one or the other. Reading that, it was like a door cracked open ever so slightly: Just because my son’s first words were in French doesn’t mean English wasn’t important to him.

And then I read this: “Many parents of bilingual children are bilingual themselves….” The door flew open completely almost flew off its hinges.

French, I suddenly realized, is my son’s “mother tongue” — well, one of them. When I was pregnant with him, I’d regularly spoken it alongside my native language. And since his birth, I’ve continued. Although I speak to him in English when we’re alone together at home, once we head outside, I have to switch to French. And when my husband is home, without realizing it, we speak in a mix of English, French, and downright Franglish (luckily, exposure to this blending, known by linguists as “code mixing” won’t mess up a bilingual baby’s ability to distinguish between two languages).

Although my husband and I aren’t bilingual from birth like my son is, we are bilingual. We’d been so strictly trying to use the one person, one language method with our son that I’d sort of forgotten this. Not to mention that although there are many things I appreciate or even love about French, I’ve never felt as comfortable or close to it as I do to English. For me, English is someone I’m intimate with, while French is a just a friend. My spoken French is also my “tell”: when I walk down any Parisian street, I could have been born and raised here, for all anyone knows…until I open my mouth. My American accent has diminished over time, but it’s still extremely noticeable.

But it seems that, to my son, I am a French speaker, even if the way I speak it is a bit different from the way other people around him do. I feel a sense of understanding now, and something else, as well: a greater sense of belonging. French has often made me feel like a foreigner (which, of course, I am) and I realize that a part of me had always expected it would distance me from my son. At some point, he’ll speak it faster, know jokes, slang, and obscenities I don’t, and may even laugh at my lagging behind. Maybe he’ll even be kind of a jerk about it and lord it over me at some point. I know most parents will experience ridicule from their progeny in one way or another, but when you start out with the disadvantage of not being a native speaker of one of your kid’s languages, it’s just more obviously your destiny.

For the moment, though, my son apparently sees me as a linguistic equal. I’ve had praise from French speakers over the years about my ability to speak their language, but always with the understanding that I’ll never truly be one of them. Now, for the first time, a native French speaker just accepts me, accent, grammar errors and all. It’s something totally unexpected, and so is the fact that knowing this makes me feel like our little family knot has grown even tighter.

Still, I am looking forward to hearing my son say something in English one of these days!

Alysa Salzberg is a writer, blogger, and worrier.  She lives in Paris with an eccentric Frenchman, a baguette-stealing baby, and a dog-like cat. Besides them, she loves reading, travel, and cookies.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Jennifer Rensel/in the public domain

  • Joan Haskins

    Alysa, it is so nice to read your writing again! Enjoy that baguette-stealing, bilingual baby!!

  • Amy Abbott

    Alysa I am so happy to find you here I love the broad side

  • GabbyAbby

    Alysa! I knew this was you! Such great observations and lovely to see baby is already yacking ~ cheers to you and your eccentric Frenchman and your baguette stealing baby. Fantastic to see you here.

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