Bilingual baby babbling

This is the first of what will definitely be many posts on bébé’s language skills. He’s moved on from the “making noise” stage and there is some serious bilingual baby babbling happening. The past few weeks especially seem to have been very interesting (though maybe I’ve just been paying more attention?).

With most of his progress in reaching various milestones (sitting up, crawling, walking), I’m always surprised at how gradual it really is. I think when you don’t spend a lot of time around babies, you imagine these things as big jumps that happen overnight. And while sometimes it can be like that (just today, he stacked 4 blocks by himself, after weeks of simply watching me do it), for many things it’s much slower. I thought walking would be all of a sudden, he just stands up and off he goes! Maybe there are some babies who do it like that, but ours took his time, holding onto furniture, then holding our hands, then pushing up from downward dog (babies are the ultimate yoga masters!) into standing, then alternating walking and crawling, and finally, walking and standing consistently. And there was no real definitive “first steps” hallmark moment. There was the first time I saw him do it, the first time his father saw him, the first time his mamie saw him, etc.

For the moment, language is more gradual than I expected. I think it’s my parents’ fault, telling me about my first word. They said I walked around a family dinner with a book saying “buh buh buh” and then finally “book! book! book!” So I had this idea that bébé would just go from making sounds to making fully-formed words.

That’s not really what he’s doing, but what is actually happening is pretty cool. It’s a mixture of sounds and gestures and syllables. It’s more about communication than words. So when people ask if he’s speaking yet, I say “sort of” because it’s speech that only parents would recognize as such!

Some of his “words” include:

  • “Mo”: food/more. This is kind of my “fault” because I did a little sign language with him starting with solid foods, to see if that would help him tell us what he wanted. The only one I did consistently was “more” and I’m pretty sure he thinks it just means “food.” So I’ve been trying to respond with things like “more milk? more applesauce?” to show him the difference.
  • “Gah”: gâteau. There is very little doubt about this one! His mamie is a typical grandparent and gives him quite a few treats while he’s with her twice a week.
  • “Shah”: cat! He uses the “sh” sound more frequently than the “ka” for cat, and I’m not sure why, since I’m pretty sure he hears us say it in English more. However, he also really likes “The very hungry caterpillar” and he tends to use “ka” for the book, so I know he can make the sound.
  • “Nah”: thank you? I am less sure about this one, but when he asks for a “gah” and I give it to him, he says “nah”, so I have to assume his mamie is also teaching him good manners!
  • “Aga”: again. I first noticed him saying this after singing “The itsy bitsy spider” which ends with the word “again.” Now he says it for books, songs and toys too, helped along by me asking him “again?” usually in an exasperated tone, as he never wants something “aga” only once, usually about five times.
  • “Mmmm”: delicious! This is another one his mamie taught him. It’s not so much a word as the sound along with rubbing his belly. Seriously the cutest thing ever. I would say this helps us figure out what foods he likes, but he doesn’t do it for every food he eats, and when he doesn’t like something, he just spits it out, lol.
  • “Sa”: pretty sure this is for the French nursery rhyme “Savez vous planter les choux,” since he also points his finger down and taps at the same time.

As is typical for this age, he understands more than he can say, and if we ask him to get certain books, he can. His mamie taught him to open and close his mouth like a fish when she asks “Comment il fait le poisson?” and he won’t do it if I ask in English (What does the fish do?). So it seems like he’s already associating certain languages with certain people/situations. We don’t do one parent/one language, but rather a “home” language (English) and a “community” language (French). This will obviously switch when we move to the States, so it’s more a “minority language at home” method, and so far it seems to be working for our family. He makes both Englishy and Frenchy sounds, likes and remembers nursery rhymes in both languages, and doesn’t seem phased when either is spoken to him. The bits of German and Italian he’s getting is another story . . .

Accidentally swearing in French

When you first start learning a language, it’s always a good idea to learn the bad words. This ensures that even if you can’t speak very well, you’ll know if someone is insulting you or not. Since swearing in French was not something I learned from the teachers in my immersion school, my friends and I first had to learn the bad words in English. Then, naturally, we would look them up in our dictionaries to see how to say them in French. However, this was a fairly unreliable method, since even if the dictionary had the word you want, it didn’t always tell you how to use it (our dictionaries were actual books back then, no Wordreference for us!).

Also, in general, there seem to be less truly bad words in French, since so many of the translations of things that would never be heard on American television or radio are perfectly acceptable here. Not that every other word is “merde” or anything, but the French have a relationship with words, and a way of playing with them, that is very different than in English. There are less words in French than in English, so they are very creative in the way they use their words. I am always particularly proud when I can figure out a pun without someone explaining it, and have even made one or two myself over the years.

There are also other ways of being rude than swearing. For example, my husband was telling me that he got so angry at the post office the other day, he left without saying goodbye. More than any bad words he could have said, this showed the person how upset he really was.

In my years in France, I’ve picked up a good number of foul expressions and slang that I use much more liberally than I do their English equivalents. Somehow it just doesn’t have the same weight as in English. I think it’s also still a lingering habit from childhood of using the French word so my parents couldn’t understand what I was saying (this being the main reason for spending all that time looking things up in dictionaries, of course). I thought I knew most of the worst ones, but I accidentally stumbled onto a few more this week. And while at work, of all places!

The first was while talking about the name “Fiona” and I said it was Irish, and I said something like “all ‘Fion’ names are usually Irish,” which made my colleague burst out laughing. I asked her what I’d said, and she whispered that “fion” was a very bad word. The internet translated it as “ass,” which doesn’t seem that bad, but it’s apparently quite vulgar.

For the second, we were discussing hair color (names and hair color are always hot topics in an HR department), and my mangled pronunciation of auburn turned into “aux burnes” which has to do boy bits . . . Later that day, my husband helpfully taught me the phrase “casser les burnes” which means to annoy someone, but I am under strict instructions to not use this in front of his mother, which means it’s definitely pretty bad.

So of all the ways to learn new bad words, what happened this past week was probably the funniest way. If I’d said similar things at a family event, everyone would have been too polite to say anything, though they may have snickered a bit. Even if I generally dislike situations at work where I make mistakes in French, sometimes it can be (unintentionally) hilarious, and I got to learn a few new things as well (though not really things I can use on a regular basis!).

Almost homophones in French

For some reason, lately I’ve been having trouble with almost homophones in French. Not every time the words came up, but often enough that I was worried the pregnancy is affecting my language. Googling only brings up all the ways my actions during pregnancy can impact bébé’s language development (like I didn’t have enough to worry about already), so I have concluded that it’s probably just because I am very tired and I have eight thousand other things to think about besides perfect pronunciation. And maybe since the words are similar they’re stored in the same place in my brain so the right one doesn’t always get accessed immediately. Or maybe they’re Freudian slips, though why I’d have suppressed feelings about ostriches is uncertain . . .

Autriche/Autruche – one is a European country, one is a flightless bird. The country comes up in conversation more often than the bird, but you don’t want to accidentally book a vacation to an ostrich farm instead of Vienna. Also, I heard the expression “politique de l’autruche” the other day, and asked my husband what was so special about Austria’s politics.

Ouragan/Origan – the first is a violent storm, the second a mild Italian seasoning. While contextually the difference should be clear (you don’t look usually for hurricanes in your kitchen cabinets), out of context phrases that start with “I need/I want/Where is/Have you seen/Is there any” aren’t always immediately clear.

Jeun/Jaune – to be “à jeun” means to have an empty stomach, something that has definitely been happening a lot the past few months with all the different tests I’ve had to do. Though the nice lab techs didn’t even bat an eye when I mistakenly confirmed that I was “yellow” (jaune).

Somnifère/Sonisphere – my husband has been sleeping poorly lately and the doctor gave him some sleeping pills. My husband has also been talking about what other heavy metal concerts he wants to go to this summer, since the Sonisphere has been cancelled. I’m sure my mother-in-law was relieved but also slightly confused when I told her the other day “I have been sleeping poorly as well, but I’m not allowed to have any heavy metal concerts.”

Péridurale – this is not a homophone with anything, and the mistake is really just because I have been lazy about learning pregnancy vocabulary (reasoning: I am only pregnant a little while, and words related to babies/kids will be more important in the long run), but I keep saying “épidurale” instead. My mouth just refuses to say the French word. I’m sure this won’t cause too much confusion at the hospital, but who knows how many other mistakes I’ll make that day (having never given birth, I don’t know how exactly I’ll respond to the pain).


I’ve definitely mixed-up other words over the years, especially the first few years here, but I try not to get too discouraged. Even in English, things don’t always come out right 100% of the time! I just try to pay extra attention in important situations, and laugh off my worst gaffes with friends.

Funny French music

One thing that’s fun in a “bicultural” relationship is sharing your culture’s music, movies, books, etc. I know this probably happens in other relationships too, since everyone has their personal taste, but I love that when I show something to my husband, I can be almost sure he’s never heard/seen it before. And having a more personalized knowledge of French/American culture makes it seem like we’re creating our own little subculture between the two of us, blending what we both bring into it.

Discovering French music has been particularly fun for me, since my husband has . . . eclectic taste. He’s made sure I know all the words to the Noir Desir, Les Inconnus, and Michel Sardou songs that make an appearance at every soirée. Indochine or Téléphone are just as likely to come up on his playlist as Marilyn Manson or Slipknot.

In another life, I think my husband would have been BFFs with Weird Al Yankovic, since he just loves making up funny words to songs. Though he tends to worry less about things like rhythm or tune and more about making the words as ridiculous as possible. And it was interesting for me to see that as his English progressed, so did his enthusiasm for including English words and songs in his repertoire. He sings while he’s getting ready in the morning, when we’re in the car, or when we eating dinner. He plays a few instruments and has been in different bands over the years, some more serious, some with the sole purpose of making funny music.

So when he started singing about a “beau lavabo” (beautiful sink) the other day, I thought it was just another one of his silly songs. But it turns out, it’s an actual song. One he was so excited to have remembered after all these years (it came out in 1989, when he was pretty young), he made a special request that I share it on my blog, so that even more people could be exposed to this weird craziness.

Your tidbit of French culture for the day, Lagaf’s “Bo le lavabo”:

How to say “I’m pregnant” in French

Oui ! Though I’ve been doing it for the past few months, it still sounds crazy when I say I’m pregnant in French (or in English!). It’ll keep happening until July, when I’ll have to switch to saying I’m a mother, which is like a whole other level of crazy, so I’m just focusing on the pregnancy part for now.

With each person or group that we’ve told, we’ve tried to find a new way to do it. A package of Grandmère coffee for my mother-in-law, a Skype date with my parents and a well-timed email, a surprise toast with the family at Christmas, funny ecards for Facebook . . . - We're, or more specifically, I'm pregnant

Quick meme


So for the blog, I thought I’d naturally take a more literary approach. I’m not sure how much I’ll write about my pregnancy, since there are many other people that do a very good job of discussing the ins and outs of being a pregnant foreigner in France. And for the moment, there’s really not much to write about anyway, besides boring stuff like “My pants don’t fit anymore” and “Today I got another blood test and am really tired.” I know I’ll have more to say as things progress, but I’ll try to avoid posting exclusively about the topic, since I know not everyone that reads my blog can relate to the subject, and I do still hope to maintain my other interests despite this big change. (That’s possible, right moms?? I’ll still have other interests, right??)

When announcing the news, I know all of the American expressions and how to change them around to meet my needs (a bun in the oven –> a French fry baking, bwahaha). I decided look up a few fun French expressions as well, since we still have some people left to tell, and it gets boring saying the same thing over and over.

“Avoir un polichinelle dans le tiroir”  – To have a marionnette in the drawer. A “polichinelle” is a type of marionnette with a big belly.

“En cloque” – Equivalent to knocked up, it’s also how they translate the movie with that title. A “cloque” is a blister, which is just a charming image, non?

“Avoir un poulet au four” – To have a chicken in the oven. According to my colleagues, this is said more in Luxembourg. There’s also the more French expression to have a brioche in the oven. It’s interesting to know both languages seem to agree that making a baby involves baking . . .

“Tomber enceinte” – To fall pregnant. It seems strange to me to talk about “falling” pregnant, though you also say you fall sick or in love. Still, doesn’t it make it sound like you tripped on the sidewalk and fell into a baby puddle and when you got up, you were suddenly pregnant?

“Elle est mère de son arrondissement” – I don’t know if people actually say this, but I thought it was hilarious. It’s a play on the words “maire” (mayor) and mère (mother), as well as between the more administrative meaning of “arrondissement” as a city district, and the action of rounding or “arrondir” something.


This is obviously not intended to be anything like a complete list of all the fabulous expressions that exist to say “I’m pregnant” in French, these are just the ones that stuck out to me. So if you know any other funny ones, let me know!

My frequently misspelled words in French (and English!)

Sometimes, French and English can be horribly similar. Sometimes it can be nice, like when you’re expecting a super weird expression or phrase that will be impossible to remember and it turns out to be easy (without remorse = sans remords).

Other times, it gets in the way of writing either language correctly. Misspelling is a big pet peeve of mine (their vs. there anyone?) but I’ve noticed that since I’ve started working in Luxembourg, I’ve gotten so much worse, not just in French, but in English as well. I spent most of middle school misspelling common words thanks to my French elementary school, so this seems to be a recurring theme in my life that I doubt will ever work itself out completely.

Part of it is the general mix of languages in Luxembourg, in ads, in conversations overheard on the street, in the newspapers. Part of it is switching back and forth between French and English so frequently, sometimes within a single sentence. While I work 90% in French orally, a lot of our written communication is in English (translated by moi, bien sûr), and you can only misspell words when you write, not when you speak!

When I get mixed up on Facebook or in emails to friends or family, it’s not a big deal. But in a profession setting, it annoys me how much I need to spellcheck. In English!!

There are the single letter changes that I usually catch on my own, like dance/danse, future/futur, chocolate/chocolat.

Then there are the really tricky ones, that no matter how many times I run spellcheck, I’m still convinced it’s wrong. The words that will never look right in either language ever again.

Is it adresse or address or addresse or adress? Apartment or appartement or appartment  or apartement? Envelope or enveloppe? Development or developpement or developpment?

So far German hasn’t been too much of an added confusion, but I don’t use it very often for the moment, and it has fairly straightforward spelling. I’m signed up for classes this Spring, so we’ll see if it gets worse the more I write it!

What are your frequently misspelled words in French? Any other languages mixing things up for you even more?