Le Petit is in the sponge phase of language acquisition. When my husband and I hold a conversation while le Petit is nearby, without even looking up from his puzzle or his blocks, he distractedly repeats words and phrases he overhears. The context doesn't seem to matter; he picks words for their complexity, their music or their unusualness. Who knows? He's storing it all for later. So what if right now his biggest preoccupation is learning the names of the colors? Some day he'll have to know what "à bon eschient" means, and then he'll drag it out of the depths of his memory and ask us, "Why...?"
We're not there yet. But we still should be watching our tongues. I'm doing my best to moderate my language, an effort I could already see paying off last week when I yelled, "Oh, SHH--SHH--SHOOT!" Le Petit ran off down the hallway repeating me. He repeated it again a few days later, with the proper emphasis and intonation. I was glad I'd had the presence of mind to catch the "I".
My husband, as I've mentioned before, makes much less of an effort. One of his favorite expressions, "casser les c---lles," which he never uses directly when talking to le Petit but often uses within his earshot, literally translates in English to "break my balls." Accurately translated, it means to annoy, to bore, to torment, to frustrate. A long, unnecessary meeting at work, a difficult colleague, a sink full of dirty dishes, an bowl of green peas spilled onto the dining room floor: all of these things can (and frequently are in our household, and usually at the top of the lungs) described as "ça, ça me casse les c---lles!"
Le Petit has been paying attention. And one night, after my ordinarily understanding and patient husband roared at le Petit to go back to sleep at half-past two in the morning, I held him in my arms and heard him say clearly between sobs, "Casser les c---lles!"
The phrase resurfaced regularly after that. Whenever voices were raised for whatever reason, le Petit would interject. The argument would be suspended and, trying not to laugh, I'd explain to le Petit in a neutral voice that "we don't say that. We say ennervé."
Needless to say, my strategy didn't work. I warned my mother-in-law (as much as a cautionary tale as anything, since her language is almost as "vert" as my husband's), so no one was entirely surprised when in the middle of one of the heated, inconsequential dinner arguments frequent at my in-laws' table, a tiny voice weighed in.
All conversation stopped. My mother- and father-in-law covered their mouths with their napkins and tried so hard not to laugh that they cried. My husband intermittently yelped in laughter and gasped for air. Across the table from one another, they couldn't meet each others' gaze. Le Petit repeated himself, and the hilarious feedback loop continued. Only I managed barely to remain calm and repeat to le Petit "we don't say that. What is it we say instead?" but an uncontrollable smile pulled at the edges of my mouth. Meanwhile, le Petit sat there, pleased with himself, triumph on his face.
A week later, we had just closed the front door of my apartment and my mother-in-law was digging in her purse for the keys. "Merde!" she murmured reflexively.
"Merde!" declared le Petit from his stroller.
"We don't say that, we say mince," I admonished.
"We don't say that, we say zut," my mother-in-law said simultaneously.
Get your lines straight, thought le Petit. But upon hearing "we don't say that," he said with a grin, "Casser les c---lles!"
It echoed down the hallway, passing through paper-thin doors to once again impress our neighbors.
And that was when I decided to give up once and for all.