The Francophone Baby

by Archibald Graham

When the Johnson's baby boy began speaking French, there was cause for concern.  They rushed him to a doctor and a linguistic expert, who confirmed the diagnosis: the boy spoke nothing but French.
"We would have brought him sooner," apologized Mrs. Johnson, "but his first words sounded so much like English that we didn't think anything of it.  They were only a little different in --"
"Syllabic stress.  Yes, of course," said the linguistic expert.
"-- Which only made them sound that much cuter.  He would look at us and say, 'Ma-maah, Pa-paah, with those big blue eyes of his, and..."
Mr. Johnson eyed his wife suspiciously.  "But why French?  It's a sissy language," he cut in, wondering if the boy had already spent too much time alone with its mother.
"It's unprecedented," said the doctor.  "By the seventh month of gestation, precise body movements of the fetus synchronize with units of the mother's speech.  The baby is born prepared to recognize its mother's sound pattern.  Have you exposed him to French music or movies?"
"Did you read to him in French, before or after he was born?"
"How could she read to him in French if she doesn't speak it in the first place?" demanded Mr. Johnson.
"Well, at least French has a lot of cognates," said the linguistic expert.
"Cognates?" said Mrs. Johnson, startled.
"Yes.  Words that mean the same thing in both languages," explained the linguistic expert.  "Usually derived from a Latin base, or borrowed from French directly into English.  It will help you to understand what he's saying."
"Let's cut the shit," said Mr. Johnson.  "How're we going to get this boy to speak in English, and only in English?"
"If he hasn't started already, in a complete English-immersion environment from birth, I don't see why he would start now," said the linguistic expert.
"How are your own language-acquisition skills?" asked the doctor.

The Johnsons went for second and third opinions, but came away no more satisfied.  Though they tried to keep the case quiet, news of it soon leaked out.  Fortunately, they were possessed of good friends, who rallied to their side to cheer them by collecting news of how others had it worse.
"The neighbors two houses down from me have a toddler that's beginning to speak in Russian," Bill Forrester told the small group assembled in the Johnson's living room.  "They try to keep her inside, but I can hear her when I'm out raking leaves.  It's unmistakable."
"Well, I've got a couple down at the community center," said his wife Jill, a social worker.  "They're immigrants from Peru, but their baby just out of the blue starts speaking this gibberish that no one can understand, so they pull in this linguistic expert - I think the one who diagnosed your child -" she said, looking over at the Johnsons.
"Oh yeah, that brain surgeon," Mr. Johnson said.  He was leaning against the sash of the front window, taking in the proceedings.
"- And he calls in some people, and they finally find out that it's some dialect of Cantonese spoken only in particular parts of Guangzhou, China."
"A Cantonese spoken only in certain cantons?" said Mrs. Johnson.
"All right honey, that's fine," said Mr. Johnson, wondering if this were the kind of cuteness that had gotten the French going in the first place. 
"At least those are spoken languages," said Pauline Knapp, a friend of Mrs. Johnson's from tennis.  "Didn't you hear about the couple with twins, one of which speaks -" she said, pulling a folded newspaper clipping out of her pocket, "'- proto-Germanic, and the other, an unknown composite of Malayo-Polynesian dialects.  The befuddled parents, questioned by reporters, could only scratch their heads.'  Can you believe that?" 
"I can go one better," said her husband, Steven, leaning his head conspiratorially into the center of the group.  "There's this guy at work - great guy, Charlie, right, just got promoted - and he's got this little girl who starts speaking in.Ur."
"Come on man, spit it out," said Mr. Johnson.
"I did spit it out," said Steven.  "The girl speaks the language of Ur."
"You see, you keep trailing off at the end," said Mr. Johnson.
"I'm not trailing off!" said Steven, then quickly returned to his former volume, shooting Mr. Johnson a look.  "Ur is theorized to be the root language of the entire human race.  People have apparently been trying to work back and reconstruct it for two hundred years, and then here comes this girl, right, but then," he said, lowering his voice still further to a whisper, "the FBI just came and took her and they've never heard from her again and no one'll tell them anything.  His wife's beside herself."
At this, the Johnson's little boy toddled into the living room from the kitchen, looking for his mother amongst the guests.  "Maman, je veux un biscuit," he said.
"SHUT UP!" shouted Mr. Johnson, and ripped the curtains shut.

Despite having their case put into perspective in such a manner, the Johnsons soon determined to dispose of their problem through diplomatic channels.  In exchange for an eight-hundred year old chateau in the Bordeaux region, they quietly gave their boy up as a ward to the Culture Ministry of the French government, which armed their prize with Baudelaire and wielded him as an example of the innate superiority of the Gallic tongue.  News of the deal also leaked out, and led to a world-wide epidemic of baby dealing, or "Johnsonizing," by parents with children speaking modern languages; those with children who did not dealt even more lucratively with international scientific foundations.  Decried by church and charitable officials, the practice simply continued underground until the day when Pauline Knapp ran breathlessly through the Johnson's open front door into the house.
The nearly-empty rooms were full of boxes; Mr. Johnson was in the living room filling another box with framed pictures from the mantle and chatting with Forrester.  "...So I'm a little worried about raising the Missus' new baby in France, but they've promised me free tutors in every subject for the kid's entire education that will force English into it -" he said, slamming his fist into his other hand, "- no matter what language it comes out speaking."
"I see," said Forrester, as Pauline puffed by.
"And we're starting a baseball team at the local lycée."
Pauline found Mrs. Johnson, several months pregnant, in the master bedroom taking a break from boxing the contents of closets.  "Did you hear?" she gasped between breaths.  "Did you hear?"
"Hear what?" Mrs. Johnson asked, depositing herself onto the bed.
Pauline caught her breath.  "These children, new cases," she said.  "Born into separate families in different places, no contact between them, everyone perfectly normal, but each child..."  She paused and shook her head, as if considering what she'd said before actually having finished saying it.
"Yeah, each child...?" Mrs. Johnson prompted.
"Each child speaking its own unique language created from scratch," Pauline said, "and absolutely nothing else."
The Adirondack Review
This is ARCHIBALD GRAHAM's first appearance in The Adirondack Review.