What Determines A Baby’s First Words?

What Determines a Baby’s First Words

I was born in Paris in 1974 but I don’t speak French. I just wanted to share this revelation right off the bat as the first thing people say when I tell them I was born in Paris is, “Oh wow, so you speak French. That’s cool”. No, I don’t. It is not because I am daft, however – I do have my challenges and learning languages just happens to be one of them.

As the youngest of six children, I am, indeed, the only one of all my parents’ children who does not speak French as a first or even a second language for that matter. Truthfully put, I am the only one who does not speak French at all, to the bewilderment of most people.

My family had lived in St. Cloud, an above middle-class suburb in France, for a few years before moving back to Nigeria four months after I was born. At the time, my mother worked at UNESCO as Nigeria’s first female Deputy Permanent Delegate. So, perhaps you understand better, right? What other languages, apart from baby gibberish, does anyone expect babies to speak? I know you understand a little better now but for me, it is quite infuriating when I am introduced by my mother or any of my siblings and they say:

“This is Chukuka. He was born in Paris but does not speak French”.

This is immediately laughable until one hour later when they might reveal that I was only four months old when we left Paris. Really? Why bother explaining a whole hour later then?

After our arrival in Lagos, Nigeria, we moved to 62, Adeniran Ogunsanya Street, Surulere. Surulere was a middle-class suburb back then. Our home was located near a bus stop where bus conductors and drivers called and chorused their destinations day and night.

“Yaba! Yaba! Yaba!”

This was amusingly what this poor, I-Just-Got-Back (IJGB) baby from Paris was subjected to hearing multiple times a day. This went on for months and, as expected, I guess it stuck like white on rice.

It is an extremely embarrassing thing to admit (and I hope you do not laugh) but rumour has it that my first three words were “Yaba, Yaba, Yaba”. The PTSD lasts till this day.

In 1977, we moved into another noteworthy phase of my life. My mother became the Principal of Queen’s College, a prestigious girls’ secondary school established by Nigeria’s former British colonialists with the aim of building future elite leaders. As a result, my family had to move from our beloved Surulere to – you guessed it – Yaba!

I mean, really?

It was as though the bus conductors destined our move from Surulere to Yaba by shouting “Yaba, Yaba, Yaba” a hundred times a day, every single day. Thinking about it now, my mother really owes those raucous men for being soothsayers of some sort.

Often, I like to imagine what the case would have been if we had lived in Paris till I could speak; my first words could probably have been, “Au revoir mon bébé Jésus”. I mean, my mother could have said that to me every day before dashing out for work.

See, I’ll probably never recover from hating to hear the word “Yaba” and I’m sure you know why now.

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