The language of baby talk around the world

What a warm greeting of Coucou in France can teach us all about how to travel

Coucou might translate simply into Hello in French, but we found this greeting was commonly used for talking to babies—as well as pets and close friends, which could be one and the same.

While walking with our daughter in Paris this past spring, while she was eight months old (huit mois, we learned quickly), our interactions often went like this:

Us, walking: [Smiling]
Parisian: [“Coucou, ma cherie!”]
Us, stopped: [“Bonjour! Huit mois.”]
Parisian: [Touches Eliza’s foot or hand and gives her a smile].
Eliza: [Responds with a big still-toothless smile]
Us: [Swoon; then, “Au revoir” and return to walking and grinning]

Is there anything lovelier than an unexpected exchange with somebody new that ends with a happy baby and happy parents?

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Eliza making friends in Paris

We found Parisians consistently warm towards Eliza, and it got me thinking about how widely attitudes towards babies vary amongst cultures. For example, kudos to lawmakers in Japan who are working to end the stigma about babies crying in public. If I were overly worried about our child crying in public, we wouldn’t spend much time abroad, much less out for a meal with her. We’ve certainly had a few moments where I wish we hadn’t gone out, but usually people have been understanding. Anyone who’s a parent themself probably has been through this.

Turns out research shows that talking to strangers is great behavior to model for your children. There’s enough fear in the world so saying hello and making new friends along your travels can be a great antidote to the negativity.

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Eliza being adored in Busan, South Korea

Now, a few months later, Eliza is 13 months and says ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ to just about everyone she meets even when there’s no other common language beyond a wave. Interacting with people is one of her favorite activities and she gives an impressive high five. I chalk up her gregariousness to genetics (have you met Sean?) but also to the way that we’ve interacted with people around her with friendliness and curiosity.

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Eliza high-fiving in Arrowtown, New Zealand

Of course, I can’t speak for all parents, but I’m usually delighted when someone decides to say “Hi,” “Coucou,” or “How old?” I often want to answer “33, thanks for asking!” but hold my tongue. Occasionally a greeting will turn into a longer interaction and you can end up having a memorable and meaningful chat on a street corner while your child looks on, taking it all in.

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