Why are my son’s first words in French? (2023)

Why are my son’s first words in French? (1)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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


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


What are French baby's first words? ›

What Sounds Do French Babies Make? When a baby cries in French, it says: “Ouin-ouin”. When it coos, it says: “areuh”. Areuh – is for sure the absolute first French word.

What is the most common first spoken baby word? ›

In American English, the 10 most frequent first words, in order, are mommy, daddy, ball, bye, hi, no, dog, baby, woof woof, and banana.

What is the average age for a child to say their first word? ›

In the first year of life, babies go from babbling to playing with sounds, copying sounds and putting sounds together. First words might start at around 12 months. Babies start understanding and responding to words in the first year of life.

When should I be worried that my baby hasn't said their first word? ›

According to experts, you should expect your baby to speak meaningfully when they're somewhere between 9–14 months. If your child still hasn't said their first word by this time, though, don't worry — many perfectly normal babies don't say a word until they're 18 months.

Do French babies cry with an accent? ›

By recording cries of 60 babies born to French or German parents, researchers discovered that babies cry with the same "prosody" or melody used in their native language by the second day of life. French newborns in the study ended their cries with a lilt at the end typically heard in French.

What words should a 1 year old be saying? ›

By the time your baby is a year old, he or she is probably saying between one to three words. They will be simple, and not complete words, but you will know what they mean. They may say “ma-ma,” or “da-da,” or try a name for a sibling, pet, or toy.

What is the first language that a baby utters? ›

In these months, your baby might say "mama" or "dada" for the first time, and may communicate using body language, like waving bye-bye and shaking their head.

How many words should a 2 year old say? ›

Between the ages of 2 and 3, most children: Speak in two- and three-word phrases or sentences. Use at least 200 words and as many as 1,000 words.

Is it normal for a 2 year old not to talk? ›

A 2 year old not talking is a reason to seek advice from a speech pathologist or a health professional. There is a lot of variation and reason for delayed toddler talking, however, if they are saying NO words at 2, it is a definite red flag for them being at risk of development and learning delays.

What is the youngest age you can talk? ›

After 9 months, babies can understand a few basic words like "no" and "bye-bye." They also may begin to use a wider range of consonant sounds and tones of voice. Baby talk at 12-18 months. Most babies say a few simple words like "mama" and "dadda" by the end of 12 months -- and now know what they're saying.

What is the youngest age to talk? ›

Some perfectly normal babies don't say a recognizable word until 18 months, whereas some babies begin to communicate in word-sounds (like "ba-ba" for bye-bye, bottle or ball and "da-da" for dog, dad or doll) as early as 7 months.

Do bilingual babies talk later? ›

Bilingual children may say their first words slightly later than monolingual children, but still within the normal age range (between 8-15 months) (11). And when bilingual children start to produce short sentences, they develop grammar along the same patterns and timelines as children learning one language (5).

Does TV cause speech delay? ›

It isn't so much that language delays are caused by watching television. It's that children benefit most when they engage in conversations with other people. Screen time can create problems if it displaces conversation time and other important, real-world, developmental activities.

How do you know if your baby has speech problems? ›

Signs of a speech disorder: Says p, b, m, h, and w incorrectly (1–2 years) Says k, g, f, t, d, and n incorrectly (2–3 years) Produces speech that is unclear, even to familiar people (2–3 years)

Does Speaking 2 languages to a baby confuse them? ›

Don't children get confused when they hear two languages spoken around them? The short answer is no. Children are incredibly sensitive to the different ways people speak.

Do bilingual babies confuse their two languages? ›

In a new study , an international team of researchers, including those from Princeton University, report that bilingual infants as young as 20 months of age efficiently and accurately process two languages. The study, published Aug.

At what age does an accent develop? ›

Research has shown that accents become permanent around the age of 12 years old. That being said, it is possible for accents to change over time or for adults to develop a subtle accent after living in a foreign country for an extended period of time.

What are red flags in child development? ›

Can't support head (by 3 months) Doesn't babble or try to imitate sounds (by 4 months) Doesn't bring objects to mouth (by 4 months) Doesn't push down with legs when feet are on firm surface (by 4 months)

What are signs of autism in a 1 year old? ›

Toddlers between 12-24 months at risk for an ASD MIGHT NOT:
  • Point at things.
  • Babble or talk back and forth with another person.
  • Try to gain the attention of others.
  • Smile in response to your smile.
  • Make good eye contact.
  • Show objects to others.
  • Point to request.
  • Respond to their name.
5 Mar 2015

Is it normal for a 1 year old not to talk? ›

The age at which kids begin talking typically ranges from 6 to 18 months. In general, there is no need to worry if your toddler isn't talking and seems "behind"—even if they are at the older end of that range. Of course, if your child is 19 months and still not talking, you may be concerned, but this too can be normal.

What is the hardest letter for a baby to say? ›

That the hardest sounds for children to learn are often the l, r, s, th, and z is probably not surprising to many parents, who regularly observe their children mispronouncing these sounds or avoiding words that use these letters. Typically, such behavior is completely normal for children.

What is the hardest word for kids to say? ›

And here's how they actually tend to pronounce them.
  • · Amblance (ambulance)
  • · Aminal (animal)
  • · Babbit (rabbit)
  • · Pasgetti (spaghetti)
  • · Binoclars (binoculars)
  • · Confoo'd (confused)
  • · Constructions (instructions)
  • · Hopital (hospital)
18 Sept 2014

What is considered an early talker? ›

Early Language Development

Gifted children tend to begin talking early. While most children say their first word at around 1 year of age, gifted children may begin speaking when they are 9 months old. 2 Some parents report that their children said their first word even earlier than that, as early as 6 months of age.

Do babies with autism babble? ›

Babies later diagnosed with autism are slower to start babbling and do less of it once they get started than typical babies do, reports a study published 31 January in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Because delays in babbling are rare, this could serve as an early marker of autism.

How many words should a 20 month old say? ›

A typical 20-month-old has a spoken vocabulary of about 12-15 words, though many children have far more. But even if your child isn't talking in simple sentences yet, she likely understands many more words than she can say.

Does a babies first word mean anything? ›

“Babies may be babbling 'mama'/'dada' as early as 6 to 9 months,” says McWilliams. “The 'm,' 'p,' and 'b' sounds, quickly followed by 'd,' 'g,' and 'h,' are typically the first sounds babies babble. However, a first word is when the child assigns meaning to their babble.

Can a toddler have speech delay and not be autistic? ›

Not necessarily. While speech delays, language delays, and learning differences are often a hallmark of ASD, a speech delay by itself does not mean a child has autism. In fact, there are key differences between communication delays caused by autism and other types of speech-language disorders.

What is advanced for a 2 year old? ›

While most children at age 2 are experimenting with onomatopoeia (words that describe noises, like “beep beep!”) and starting to ask questions (“Where's Dada?”), a more advanced child might already be speaking in longer sentences with many verbs, such as, “I played and I jumped and I sang!” says Fujimoto.

What age can a toddler count to 10? ›

Between the ages of two and four, children's ability to understand the actual concept of numbers and counting improves dramatically. Most children are counting up to ten, or even beyond, by age four.

Do boys talk later than girls? ›

Speech/Language Milestones

Boys tend to develop language skills a little later than girls, but in general, kids may be labeled "late-talking children" if they speak less than 10 words by the age of 18 to 20 months, or fewer than 50 words by 21 to 30 months of age.

How do speech therapists help toddlers talk? ›

If kids have trouble with articulation or fluency, the therapist will spend time showing them how to make the proper sounds. The therapist will demonstrate the sounds and ask the kid to try to copy them. That means copying the way the therapist moves the lips, mouth, and tongue to make the right sound.

Does speech delay mean low intelligence? ›

Children with speech delay is one of the concerns for many parents. Many opinions believe that children with delayed speech affect intelligence. However, so far, there has been no research to prove that children with speech delay are less intelligent.

At what age should a child be potty trained? ›

Potty training success hinges on physical, developmental and behavioral milestones, not age. Many children show signs of being ready for potty training between ages 18 and 24 months. However, others might not be ready until they're 3 years old. There's no rush.

Is it normal for a 3 year old not to talk? ›

A 3-year-old who can comprehend and nonverbally communicate but can't say many words may have a speech delay. One who can say a few words but can't put them into understandable phrases may have a language delay. Some speech and language disorders involve brain function and may be indicative of a learning disability.

What age should parents have the talk? ›

By 11, you want to start having conversations about sexual choices and safer sex,” says Thornhill. She admits that, as a mother herself, this idea is a bit jarring, but it's also crucial, since research shows that teens make better choices when they know the risks.

What is the longest baby ever born? ›

While touring in the summer of 1878, Anna was pregnant for the second time. The boy was born on January 18, 1879, and survived only 11 hours. He was the largest newborn ever recorded, at 23 pounds 9 ounces (10.7 kg) and nearly 30 inches tall (ca. 75 cm); each of his feet was six inches (150 mm) long.

What age Einstein learn to talk? ›

Einstein, a certified genius, was also a late talker (according to some biographers). He didn't speak full sentences until he was 5 years old. Einstein's speech delay clearly wasn't an impediment to his intellectual prowess and awe-inspiring accomplishments.

What is the youngest baby to ever walk? ›

Freya Minter is the youngest baby on record to walk!

Freya Minter was six months old when she took her first steps, leaving the rest of her age bracket in the dust.

What happens if you speak to a baby in two languages? ›

Children who experience two languages from birth typically become native speakers of both, while adults often struggle with second language learning and rarely attain native-like fluency.

Can learning 2 languages cause speech delay? ›

The idea that two languages causes language delays in children has been a long-standing myth in the United States. However, research has dispelled this myth. Children are able to learn two languages at the same pace as other children who are learning only one language.

Do smart babies talk early? ›

Where early talking is concerned, it may be linked to giftedness. The Davidson Institute cites a study showing that among 241 “profoundly gifted” children, 91 percent started taking early. On average, they said their first words at age 9 months.

Does watching CoComelon cause speech delay? ›

There is also no proof the show causes tantrums or speech delays.

Does CoComelon cause delays? ›

“Cocomelon is so awful for children. It's over stimulating which can delay a lot of developmental milestones," one mum claimed. Another mum shared on Reddit that her little one was so addicted to CoComelon, she would tantrum to the point of harming herself when she wasn't allowed to watch it.

Does CoComelon cause developmental delays? ›

"It's overstimulating – which can delay a lot of developmental milestones.” Another parent, Karly Mathias, also went on to detail her toddler's behavioural issues after watching CoComelon. She revealed that when her toddler Jasper recently had his 18-month appointment, there were concerns about his speech.

What is Einstein Syndrome? ›

Einstein syndrome is a condition where a child experiences late onset of language, or a late language emergence, but demonstrates giftedness in other areas of analytical thinking. A child with Einstein syndrome eventually speaks with no issues, but remains ahead of the curve in other areas.

What are the symptoms of language disorder? ›

Symptoms common in older children and adults with DLD include:
  • Limited use of complex sentences.
  • Difficulty finding the right words.
  • Difficulty understanding figurative language.
  • Reading problems.
  • Disorganized storytelling and writing.
  • Frequent grammatical and spelling errors.
13 Oct 2022

Is my child speech delayed or autistic? ›

Summary. Children with autism often have speech delays, but speech delays alone do not mean your child has autism. Autistic speech delays usually occur along with other communication issues, such as not using gestures, not responding to their name, and not showing interest in connecting with people.

What French words should I learn first? ›

Build your confidence up by starting with some basic words and phrases to start building your French word bank:
  • Bonjour = Hello, Good morning.
  • Au revoir = Goodbye.
  • Oui = Yes.
  • Non = No.
  • Merci = Thank you.
  • Merci beaucoup = Thank you very much.
  • Fille = Girl.
  • Garçon = Boy.

What are the first 10 words a baby learns? ›

The 15 Most Common First Words
  • Dad (or Dada, Daddy, Papa, etc.)
  • Mom (or Mama, Mommy, Mum, etc.)
  • Hi (or Hiya, Hey, Heya, Hello)
  • Buba (or Bub or Baba)
  • Dog (or Doggy, Puppy)
  • Ball.
  • No.
  • Cat (or Kitty)
22 Mar 2021

What level of French is considered fluent? ›

C1 – Proficient User

Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.

What is the easiest French word? ›

Basic French words at a glance

Bonjour. Hello. Merci. Thank you. Merci beaucoup.

What is the hardest word to learn in French? ›

  • DROIT.
  • DOIGT.

How much should a 2 year old talk? ›

Between the ages of 2 and 3, most children: Speak in two- and three-word phrases or sentences. Use at least 200 words and as many as 1,000 words.

Do babies know kisses mean love? ›

Kissing your baby is an expression of love and affection. Even infants understand that, as evidenced by my boys (now pre-schoolers) who as babies would often calm down from a tantrum when I gave them a hug and a kiss.

At what age should a baby talk? ›

Most babies say their first word sometime between 12 and 18 months of age. However, you'll start to hear the early stages of verbal communication shortly after birth. "From birth to 3 months, babies make sounds. There's smiling and cooing," explains Loeffler.


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