Lost in Translation

How I learned to speak like an American mom, one baby step at a time

Pacifier istock

Seven years of French lessons was child's play compared to the language learning I'm going through now. Having knocked out English in my early childhood in the U.K., learned to parle français as a teenager, and mastered the American dialect while living in the U.S. for 15 years, I figured I was done with vocabulary-building. Then, as I prepared for the birth of my first child, I had to tackle baby talk -- the American version. The first time it hit me was when my friend told me she was shopping for a "Pack 'n' Play" -- and I had no idea what she was talking about. As I started my own online searches for various baby accoutrements, I discovered an American language that I definitely didn't know. Nappies become diapers; dummies are pacifiers; vests are undershirts; and a cot is a crib. Moses baskets morph into bassinets, pushchairs into strollers.

One discovery stands out as an especially fun(ny) fact: "Breastfeeding" is a term that's used more sparingly
in America. Common in England, it seems it's too pornographic for delicate stateside sensitivities; instead,
in America we have "nursing," which, to me, sounds more like a career. However, in England spit-up is euphemistically called "posset," which I'll admit sounds like something you might wear on your head (and it turns out you occasionally do in the first few months of motherhood).

And then there was my confusion over infants. Back in England, babies are known as babies. I was considered an "infant" from ages 5 through 7 -- the years British primary (translation: elementary) schools designate as the "infant" ones. So I was perplexed here when people started referring to my future baby as an "infant." Weren't they rushing things a little?

Once I'd mastered this new idiom, I soon became confused about a new crop of issues. Which version of baby talk would I choose -- my own or the one my American husband would be using? Which do I speak to my baby -- and which did I want the baby to use? (And in fact, the child's future accent and enunciation were other things to consider. Did I want her to say tomato in a way most Americans laugh at, and salsa in a way that Americans hear as "seltzer?") Then there arose the difficulty of what to do when my parents came to visit: If I adopted the Americanisms of "diaper" and "pacifier," should I then switch back to "nappy" and "dummy" for their benefit?

The situation became even more bewildering when I would Skype with friends who emigrated back to their native England from the U.S. in the first year of their kid's life. They, it seems, keep nappies in a "diaper bag," something even they admit makes no sense. (For the record, nappy bags don't exist in the U.K. -- nappies are hauled around in a "change bag.")

Eventually, of course, I got a handle on the lingo. And with the birth of my little one, I figured that when it comes to language learning I was finally -- to use an expression that's as American as apple pie -- home safe. That said, with my pregnancy 18 months behind me, I've now realized that American Baby Talk was just the beginning.

Looking forward, I see that there's a whole new set of challenges. As I enter the toddler years, I've had to learn that a sandpit is a sandbox. And when my daughter heads off to school, I must be sure to never, ever tell her to pack her "rubber" in her pencil case.

    Baby Sign Language: An Introduction

      Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Parents magazine.