Why are my son’s first words in French?

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A page from my son’s favorite book, Le Livre des Choses. Illustrations by Sarah Dyer, text by Marie Antilogus. Published by Editions Quatre Fleuves, 2014.

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 said his first word, chien (“dog”), my French husband gloated. It was like a competition that his language had won. When the second word (chat (“cat”)) was also in French, my husband was grinning from ear to ear.

I was thrilled that my son was starting to talk (and that his first words had to do with animals), but I was also 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 mom, 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). Thanks to Facetime, he interacts almost daily with his American grandparents and aunts and uncles, as well. So why were his first words in French?

My husband and I only slightly jokingly came up with a theory: maybe I speak enough English for the both of us. I’m a natural chatterbox, one of those people who talks 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 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 talking?

Still, that seems a bit odd; after all, I can’t be the only chatty parent out there. And I hope I’m not; according to recent findings, talking to your baby is an essential part of helping them build their vocabulary.

So I developed another theory: Maybe I’ve made English sort of boring, compared to French. English is what my son and I use in our everyday routine. I’d like to think that routine is pretty fun and stimulating overall: we spend a lot of time singing, playing, and reading together. But French is probably more contextually exciting. When my husband gets home from work after being away all day, it’s the language he and my son use together. 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, as well. For one thing, although my son talks to my mother and one of my aunts almost every day, he still seems excited when their faces appear on my iPad screen. And he and I have our share of laughs and amazement, too. For another, when it comes to early language learning, excitement doesn’t seem to be so much of a factor; researchers have found that very young children tend to speak the language of their primary caregiver. Which seems pretty logical.

Clearly, my own theories weren’t giving me answers. So I decided to go beyond conjecture and do more research.

Every resource for bilingual parents that I came upon, not to mention related scientific research, showed that the bilingual experience reflects human nature: most of us will adapt to our environment. When bilingual children start making friends in their neighborhood or interacting with the world around them in other ways (like going to school), they’ll usually end up preferring the language everyone is speaking. This is known by linguists as a “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 he’s decided that’s the language 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 his occasional interactions with babysitters and French relatives aren’t for a long enough time to have such an impact.

So I kept searching…and found another theory. It’s actually one I’d heard about before, and even written about: Babies start learning the language(s) spoken in their environment when they’re in the womb. The sound that newborns respond to and prefer most is their mother’s voice. Which is why I hadn’t paid much attention to the theory in terms of my son’s situation: it didn’t seem to be an answer, but just another thing making me wonder why my son didn’t speak English first.

Then again, I learned, research has also shown that babies who were 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 are in French doesn’t mean English wasn’t important to him from even before he was his own little person.

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

French, I suddenly realized, is my son’s “mother tongue” — well, one of them. When I was pregnant with him, I regularly spoke it alongside my native language. And since his birth, I’ve continued. Although I speak to him in English when we’re together, 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 discriminate between two languages).

Although we’re not bilingual from birth like my son is, my husband and I are bilingual. We’d been so strictly trying to use the one person, one language method that I’d sort of forgotten this. Not to mention that while 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. 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.

It seems that, to my son, though, I’m a French speaker, even if the way I speak 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 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 will laugh at my lagging behind. Maybe he’ll even be kind of a jerk about it and lord it over me. 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.

But for the moment, my son sees me as a linguistic equal. I’ve gotten praise from French speakers over the years — 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.

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A version of this piece appeared on The Broad Side, an awesome website that you should definitely check out.

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