French baby talk

When talking to French children (and animals!), the first rule is to remember to use ‘tu’. Foreigners sometimes forget and French people find it hilarious when a baby, or a dog, is accorded the respect and deference that they associate with the ‘vous’ form of the verb. Don’t be surprised, however, if young French children use ‘tu’ when addressing you. They haven’t yet learnt that they should only use ‘tu’ when talking to other children and their inner circle of family and friends and not every Tom, Dick and Harry, or Pierre, or Jacques.

You may find talking to French children a little awesome. Apart from international cooing sounds, what are the appropriate words, for instance, when beaming parents show you their baby? You can play safe with the exclamations of admiration that will please the doting Papa and Maman: “Qu’elle est mignonne !” or, “Qu’il est beau !” or, more daringly, “Qu’est-ce qu’il (ou elle) vous ressemble !”. If you were really French, you would, of course, say that the baby looks good enough to eat. “Elle est à croquer.” High praise indeed.

To talk to a baby directly though, you will need to have a whole range of French endearments up your sleeve, many of which you may initially feel are more like insults. Can ‘my flea’, or ‘my cabbage’ really be appropriate for a gurgling baby? To French ears, yes, so practise “Ma puce !” and “Mon chou !” and you can throw in rabbits and chicks, “Mon lapin !” or “Mon poussin !”  while you are at it.

Toddlers have a vocabulary that you would be wise to master if ever a young French child is left in your care. It’s not the moment to go running for a dictionary when faced with a screaming toddler becoming more red-faced by the minute. Woe betide you if you fail to recognise that a ‘doudou’ is the comfort blanket he or she has misplaced. Neither should there be a second’s hesitation when you hear ‘pipi’ or ‘caca’. Head for the toilet straight away.

When you want to reduce a potential crisis after a fall, you should master the phrase, “Ce n’est qu’un petit bobo”; ‘bobo’ being an umbrella word when referring to cuts or bruises. If necessary, you can divert a child’s attention by pointing to any cats, dogs or horses that are helpfully walking by. “Regarde le minou/toutou/dada.” Or you can suggest a drink of milk, “Tu veux du lolo ?”.

The child’s parents will no doubt have given you instructions concerning teatime, ‘le goûter’, nappies, ‘les couches’, or baby’s bottle, “le biberon”. And remember, if you want a small child to say thank you when you give them something, you should ask, “Quel est le mot magique ?”.

When that long-awaited siesta time comes, you will suggest ‘un petit dodo’ and perhaps proffer a dummy or pacifier, called either ‘une tétine’ or ‘une sucette’. If you really want to make a good impression, you could have a couple of French lullabies ready too. That is if you have any energy left to sing before nodding off yourself.

You can discover more about the dos and don’ts when meeting French families in ‘Meeting the French’, a Kolibri Languages Practical Guide.

Pam Bourgeois

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