That’s lovely and all, but it also means you’re missing out on one of the greatest, cutest demographics of Francophones.
Babies and children are a joy to talk to, especially if you’re just starting to learn French. Francophone kids employ a more limited set of vocabulary and tend to speak more slowly than adults, and like little ones anywhere they tend to be more creative, compelling and goofy than stodgy old farts like us.
That said, there are challenges. I have to admit I have a bit of trouble understanding a dear one-year-old Nantois friend, who communicates with what I personally hear as the single syllable pah. His parents have translated this all-purpose missive for me, variously, as “mother,” “father,” “milk,” “foot,” “dragon” and “outside.”
But even as they sharpen their skills with enunciation, French children (and their parents) still employ a lot of unique vocabulary that you’re not going to hear out clubbing, on a date or in your business meetings. Thus this post, which should quickly get you up to speed.
Be aware as well that some of this childhood vocabulary is also used by older Francophones, especially when they’re being ironically cutesy and childish. For example: “Envie de faire dodo ?” (Do you want your nappy time?), when said to you on a dance floor at 4 a.m., is either a come-on or, more likely, an indication that you’re no longer dancing quite as sharply as you were at the top of the night.
38 Words for French Baby Talk
Here I’ve defined “French baby talk” as the language you’ll use to talk to babies and about babies.
1. areuh areuh — This is the meaningless noise that babies make, like our “goo goo ga ga,” as interpreted by the French ear.
2. mama — (f.) This is the short version of maman (“mommy”) which is what very young children call their mothers.
3. papa — (m.) The informal version of père (father). When you have an ornery, fiesty, poopy or vomity young Frenchman on your knee, you can say “Allez hop, tu veux aller voir ton papa ?” (“Here we go, wanna go see your dad?”)
4. bobo — (m.) This is an “owie” but also, hilariously, the French term for a “hipster” (shortened from bourgeois bohème, or “bourgeois bohemian”). Please, dear readers, please please please head over to Paris’ third arrondissement and punch a mustachioed 20-something in the face so that you can try out the phrase “le bobo a un bobo ?” (“the hipster has an owie?”).
5. toutou — (m.) a doggy; un chien is the standard word.
6. dada — (m.) a horsey; un cheval is the standard word.
7. dodo — (m.) This noun refers to the act of sleeping or to bedtime. “Au dodo !” means “let’s get to bed!” The horrific life of actual Parisians (as opposed to the glorified fantasy of daily red-wine-and-baguette picnics under the Eiffel Tower) is often described as métro, boulot, dodo (metro, work, sleepy time).
8. lolo — (m.) breast milk; le lait is the standard term.
9. zizi — (m.) This is the willy or wee-wee; la bite is the slang that older kids and grown-ups use for the penis, and le pénis is the standard word.
10. prout (m.) — This is a fart, and also, according to the French ear, the onomatopoeia for the sound you make while performing one. I personally find it a challenge to even form that French r and particular ou vowel sound with my front end.
11. pipi — (m.) This is wee, that is, the childish term for urine. Grown-ups may call it la pisse, and doctors, l’urine.
12. popo — (m.) poop
13. caca — (m.) This is also poop. Faire caca is a common way to talk to children about doing number two, and you can even leave off the noun object itself to get a sentence like Il a fait dans sa culotte. (“He pooped himself,” or literally, “He made in his underpants.”)
14. doudou — (m.) This is any blankey or cuddly object that a small child drags around. This may be used as a feminine word with some speakers.
15. nounours — (m.) This is more specifically a teddy bear.
16. ouah-ouah — (m.) This can be a term for doggy, and it is also more commonly what the dog says.
17. minou — (m.) This is a kitty or a pussycat. It is used with children in this sense, but be aware that among adults it can have the same, crude second meaning as the English word, referring just to the female sex genitals (not to a woman herself) and does not sound harsh or sexist.
18. joujou — (m.) This is a toy; the standard word is jouet. Faire joujou is the verb for “to play” (jouer in standard French). I’ve found that “t’as envie de jouer ?” (“do you feel like playing?” is pretty worthless for trying to distract a sobbing young Frenchman, whereas “montre-moi ton joujou preferé” (“show me your favorite toy”) works wonders.
19. maître/maîtresse — (m./f.) This is the term for “teacher” that is used by primary school students. It is common for children to use just these words in directly addressing their teachers, in addition to the obvious Monsieur/Madame (Mr./Ms.) last name here.
20. élève — (m./f.) This is used to describe students in primary and secondary schools; primary school students are also often just referred to as les enfants (“the children”).
21. étudiant/étudiante — (m./f.) Be careful not to use this with children; this word is generally reserved to describe university students.
22. professeur — (m./f.) This is a teacher of junior high, high school and university students. Occasionally, professeure is used for a female teacher, though the Academie française hates this. The shortened prof is actually the most common way to refer to a teacher at these levels, and avoids the complicated issues of feminization of nouns describing job positions.
23. bibi — (m.) This is a baby’s bottle, and is short for biberon.
24. hop-là — Say this when an inexperienced walker takes a tumble, like our “oopsy-daisy.”
25. nounou — (f.) This is the babysitter or nanny; children who are too young for la maternelle (see below) may aller chez la nounou (go to the babysitter’s/day care) while their parents work.
26. risette — (f.) That little scrunchy, contented half-grimace that babies make and that their parents delightedly interpret as a smile has no proper descriptor in English, but now you at least have the word for it in French. “Tu fais une risette ?” (“Are you making a little grin?”) is what a mother might crow to her delighted young man before she realizes that the source of his pleasure is having just defecated himself.
27. coco — (m.) This is a childish term for “egg,” borrowed from the term coquille (shell). The standard French term is œuf. Mon coco means “my darling” and coco is also the standard word for “coconut.”
28. quenotte — (f.) a “tooth”; the standard word is une dent.
29. tantine — (f.) auntie; the standard word is une tante. This baby talk word is a little bit old-fashioned, so you might not be able to use it so much with modern babies.
30. tata — (f.) This is another word for auntie, but be careful as it doubles as a dated pejorative for “homosexual” or “sissy.”
31. tonton — (m.) uncle; un oncle is standard.
32. pépé — (m.) grandpa, gramps; un grand-père is standard.
33. mémé — (f.) grandma, granny; une grand-mère is standard. For both of these baby talk words for grandparents, keep in mind that there are tons of variations, just as there are in English!
34. menotte — (f.) This is a child’s cute little hand or fist; une main is the standard word. In its plural form, les menottes are, in contrast, handcuffs.
35. non — This, of course, means “no” and most kids seem to go through a phase in which it’s just hilarious to say this in response to everything.
36. faire sisite — This is the childish slang verb for “to sit down”; s’asseoir is the standard version.
37. casse-pieds — (m./f.) This is what you call a child who is getting on your nerves (but please not to his face). It literally means “break-feet.”
38. jouet de bain — (m.) bath toy
Understanding Schooling in France
When a kid boasts that he’s in CM2, you should of course respond “C’est très bien !” (that’s very good!).
But here’s a cheat sheet so you actually know what these kids are talking about. The French system of grades or levels is bewildering to people from anywhere else, but is naturally a central part of kids’ lives and is important to know if you want to understand them. I’ve also found this information to be key for getting through quite a few adult conversations that start out with something like “Quand j’étais en CE2…” (“When I was in CE2…”).
You’ll almost always hear the grade level referred to in conversation as an abbreviation like those above, so if nothing else remember the abbreviations and the corresponding ages. If you forget what something means, you can also just ask “Vous aviez quelle âge ?” (“How old were you?”) to get context for your interlocutor’s forthcoming story of childhood misadventure.
École maternelle — This is nursery school, simply called la maternelle for short, where most children enter the French education system, at age 3. (In Switzerland, it’s called école enfantine.) The first-year students start in petite section (PS), or the little section. Four-year-olds start in moyenne section (MS), or the middle section. And five-year-olds start in grande section (GS) or the great/older section.
École primaire — Elementary school is mandatory from the age of six, and children are divided into the following levels:
cours préparatoire (CP) — preparatory course, started at age 6
cours élémentaire première année (CE1) — first-year elementary course, started at age 7
cours élémentaire deuxième année (CE2) — second-year elementary course, started at age 8
cours moyen première année (CM1) — first-year middle course, started at age 9
cours moyen deuxième année (CM2) — second-year middle course, started at age 10
Collège — French junior highs/middle schools stretch on for four horrific years. The grade levels count down backwards to the bac, or baccalauréat, the end-of-high-school exam. We thus have:
sixième (6ème) — sixth, started at age 11
cinquième (5ème) — fifth, started at age 12
quatrième (4ème) — fourth, started at age 13
troisième (3ème) — third, started at age 14
Lycée — French high schools last for three years, and at this point students may already be divided up according to their perceived destinies in the job market. Lycée général (general high school) is for those who pursue a university education, lycée technologique (technological high school) leads to a shorter course of study after high school and the lycée professionnel (professional high school) is intended to prepare students for work directly after high school. These schools may actually coexist together in lycées polyvalents (universal high schools).
seconde (2de) — second, started at age 15
première (1ère) — first, started at age 16
terminale (Term/Tle) — last, started at age 17
Baccalauréat — This incredibly important exam, usually referred to simply as le bac, marks the end of high school for almost all French students. It’s actually an entrance exam for universities and technical schools. It’s graded out of 20, with 10 considered passing. Very few students get anything over 16. The questions are kept very secret until the test and then widely discussed in the press each year. In addition to French, the test is increasingly taken in Catalan and the other languages of France by small numbers of students, thanks in particular to better elementary and secondary education in those languages.
A Few Classic Children’s Characters to Help You Learn
If you’re going to speak with French children, it’s worth knowing a few of the popular characters who are particular to their world, beyond obvious international favorites like Harry Potter.
“Le petit prince” (The Little Prince) — The famous watercolor illustrations and story by Antoine de Saint-Exupery tell of a pilot (and our narrator) who winds up lost in a desert where he meets a young prince from a small asteroid. “S’il vous plaît…dessine-moi un mouton !” (“Please draw a sheep for me!”) the prince demands of the pilot, in one of the story’s most famous lines. The pilot attempts to comply, but the prince is unsatisfied with any of the pilot’s drawings. Finally the pilot draws a box and says, “Ça, c’est la caisse. Le mouton que tu veux est dedans.“ (“This is the box. The sheep that you want is inside.”) This bit of creativity satisfies the prince. The general failure of adults to be creative is one of the book’s major themes.
Titeuf — This boy with an immense blond cowlick has been a star of comics, a TV show and a film, and is very popular in France. In their adventures, the boy and his friends attempt to understand the weird and mysterious adult world, including romance. One of Titeuf’s catchphrases is “C’est pô juste” (“It’s not fair,” which would be c’est n’est pas juste in standard written French). The French legal system has taken the time to determine that it isn’t in the interest of children to be actually given the name Titeuf by parents who are fans of the character, since one is meant to laugh at him. The name is therefore not allowed to be used in real life.
“Le petit Nicolas” (Little Nicolas) — This hero of a series of French children’s books and two movies is France’s answer to “Dennis the Menace” or “Home Alone.” Nicolas and his friends live in an idealized 1950s France and get into capers that satirize both children’s misunderstanding of adults and the boring, hypocritical world of the later. Here he is on vacation, in the sequel film:
Now It’s Your Turn…
This should be enough to get you off to a good start in communication with the tadpoles.
There are also a few cultural differences to be aware of. The main one is that French children are expected to act in a very civilized, stoic, quiet sort of way—and compared to Anglophone children they generally do. In short, they behave like tiny adults.
Anglophone journalist-parents sometimes describe this French parenting style in approving terms. For whatever an insouciant tonton‘s opinion is worth, I think this French parenting style negates childhood. Why should an eight-year-old be expected to sit perfectly still and not clown around for an entire three-hour meal?
Contrast that to Italy or Spain, where, if an 8-year-old’s stray soccer ball smacks a stranger in the head in a plaza, as long as there’s no blood, everyone expresses their admiration for the budding star athlete.
But go on, ask the littlest French ones what they think of all this. You now have the vocabulary.
Mose Hayward blogs about French games, battles with the inanimate, and other diversions.
And One More Thing…
If you like learning authentic French, then you’ve got to try FluentU.
FluentU lets you learn French from real-world content like music videos, commercials, news broadcasts, cartoons and inspiring talks. Since this video content is stuff that native French speakers actually watch on the regular, you’ll get the opportunity to learn real French—the way it’s spoken in modern life.
One quick look will give you an idea of the diverse content found on FluentU:
Love the thought of learning French with native materials but afraid you won’t understand what’s being said? FluentU brings authentic French videos within reach of any learner. Interactive captions will guide you along the way, so you’ll never miss a word.
Tap on any word to see a definition, in-context usage examples, audio pronunciation, helpful images and more. For example, if you tap on the word “suit,” then this is what appears on your screen:
Don’t stop there, though. Use FluentU’s learn mode to actively practice all the vocabulary in any video with vocabulary lists, flashcards, quizzes and fun activities like “fill in the blank.”
As you continue advancing in your French studies, FluentU keeps track of all the grammar and vocabulary that you’ve been learning. It uses your viewed videos and mastered language lessons to recommend more useful videos and give you a 100% personalized experience. Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store or Google Play store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.