It’s been a while.

What can I say? Things got busy and the old head took over – “well, I haven’t written anything today, so tomorrow I’ll have to write something REALLY good” – within a week you are committed to writing something that rivals Holy Scripture and it never actually gets done.

So I guess I’ll just start over and backfill as and when it becomes necessary.

The key novelty in our bilingual life is currently singing; or, more precisely, Piaf singing.

It started with “l’araignée Gipsy”; moved onto “dans la forêt lointaine”; and then, just recently, we have hit paydirt with “mon âne”.  She knows the words to these songs; she requests them; she even knows the gestures. When we sing “lundi matin” on the way to nursery (late as usual) I have to wheel the pushchair with one hand so I can walk alongside her, ready to “serrer la pince” at the appropriate moment.

Of course, as I am not French, most of these songs are as new to me as they are to her; I will see them in a book, or remember a reference to them in a novel I once read, and then have to learn them, music and words, from scratch, before I can then teach them to her.

Not knowing the tune is especially irksome. What I normally do is go onto Youtube.fr and see if someone has posted anything from a children’s karaoke video or a 1980’s kids’ show and then play it practically on a loop while I sing along.

An unexpected find came about this way. I was looking into a song called “auprès de ma blonde”. Sure enough, Youtube had a useful kids’ pop video complete with lyrics and some animation that looked like it had been done with Clip Art.

But another link caught my eye – from the image attached, it appeared to be a grown woman singing this song. Her name was also a mystery – Olivia Chaney did not sound particularly francophone. Perhaps a Canadian? I clicked on it.

Watch it yourself now, if you are somewhere with sound. Ignore the fact that this is an old marching song that has since become a nursery rhyme. Ignore the fact that the scene is the Bishopsgate Institute and that Olivia is not French or even Canadian but very British indeed. Ignore the dowdy dress and tights. Ignore, even, the rolling eyes and involuntary tic-like smile that make her look, frankly, a bit possessed.

Listen, instead, to a woman singing about a husband taken as a prisoner of war by the Dutch and how she would give everything and anything to see him again and then tell me that this single rendition does not tell you everything there is to know about the human heart. Even if you hate folk music, tell me that any composer who omits the human voice from his or her work is not missing a trick.

I dare you.

“Why are you always saying ‘cous cous’?”

This question came from the child who once asked me, “why don’t you talk properly?” so I was instantly on my guard. But, when I gave it a minute’s thought, I realised what he was getting at. He heard me every morning asking Piaf questions. “Qu’est-ce que tu as?” ” Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?” “Qu’est-ce que tu veux?” And, not being a French speaker, but being very bright and middle class, he heard, not ” qu’est-ce que,” but the word he knows that it most resembles – cous cous.

Children, I am learning, are sense makers. From hearing a half or even a quarter of a message, they will infer that a message is there to be found, and they will find it; and, like a drunk singing along to a juke box, they will make up the bits they don’t know. They do this even before they can assess the importance of the message – Piaf is still occasionally exclaiming “‘appy NEW year!” She does not know that this message’s “value” changes according to the date – she just knows that it is something that adults say, so it is worth saying. She and her friends already understand that everything important in this world gets done through language and they want a piece of that action NOW.

They are also great pattern makers. It seems to be one of the ways they learn so much so quickly, by grabbing onto one thing and extrapolating. Incidentally, if anyone’s got a slightly older monolingual child and is frustrated by hearing “I goed there,” “I doed it at school,” don’t be – it’s a sign your child has successfully mastered the “pattern” of the past simple; so strong is this urge to make patterns that they will find patterns even when there isn’t one or when the pattern doesn’t work any more.

Piaf is also exhibiting this in a variety of ways, which has led me to a slight tactical modification. One of her “prêt-á-hurler” expressions is, “papa parle français, maman parle anglais”. Of course, this is excellent, and sometimes gives the illusion that she really knows how sentences work, rather than just having a few she has learnt (her English is much stronger in this respect, as you might predict given her relative exposure to the two languages.)

But, if maman speaks English and papa speaks French, what does Alice speak? Lest she starts defining herself as purely an English speaker, based on the balance of probability from the evidence, I have ceased to ask her, “maman dit ‘trousers,’ que dit papa?” Instead, I know try to remind her that she is as much a French speaker as I am. “Tu sais le dire en français?” “Je ne comprends pas très bien – tu peux m’expliquer ça en français?”

English still has the whip hand, of course – such a strategy might help her move from “I like mole” to “I like taupe” – but it is a beginning, however humble; it is turning her considerable vocabulary from passive to active, a word at a time; and, most of all, it is giving her a fighting chance of becoming, one day, someone for whom “cous cous” can be a question as well as lunch.

Bonne année à tous. Back to work tomorrow and really not up for it – the holidays have been wonderful and have given me an inkling of how life might be in a Communist utopia, where family comes first and no one works more than seven hours a week, probably at writing plays or something vital like that. (I suspect that the reality would be more like Dad’s Army, but with George Galloway as Captain Mainwaring and Bob Crow as the vicar, but I can dream.) 

Which is a roundabout way of telling you that it has been lovely to spend protracted periods of time with my daughter who, I suddenly realise, is nearly two and therefore practically a real person.

Indeed, it might just be that I haven’t had a chance to notice all the things she can do while I’ve been at work and our contact has been very much first thing in the morning and last thing at night, but she really seems to have made huge strides over the last fortnight. 

For example, Santa brought, amongst other things, a toy kitchen and a doll’s house and, for the first time, I have witnessed her playing in an explicitly creative way, acting out little routines, positioning dolls and chairs and beds in a variety of combinations, and so on; and also involving other people (i.e. me and her mother) in the play. Like many children of her age, she was previously happy to play alongside others, but it is only recently that she has played with them, and it was nice to be a part of that. 

She has started to demonstrate, too, a memory for specific things. The day she saw the singing, dancing snowman in a Croydon shopping centre (even Croydon isn’t all bad) and the day she saw the animated tyrannosaurus rex at the Natural History Museum (the best bit of an otherwise frustrating visit for her, though the boy of about her age who was behind us screamed hysterically with fear) she was able to recount what she had seen the same and then subsequent nights. Again, maybe she was already doing this – but, for the first time, I could be sure she was (whereas if she says, “see grandma,” how can I be certain which of her grandma’s many visits she is recollecting, or even if she is referring to past fact or future desire?) 

She has also suddenly developed a keen sense of judgement, as evidenced by her spontaneous declarations of, “I love you,” “t’aime,” “daddy marrant” and “daddy funny”. 

And then, to top it all, she goes and delivers something blogworthy for me. In our regular haunt of the local Caffe Nero (“allons-y café!”), with no real warning, she came out with a linguistic double whammy.

I had my large latte; she had a small paper espresso cup with tap water in it (not intended, incidentally, to help her make believe that she is drinking coffee, à la baby-bloody-cino; just to help her drink from a proper cup without pissing it all down her front.) This is a fairly typical set-up and has been repeated, with slowly evolving variations (bottle to beaker to paper cup) since first we started coming to this area for French playgroup on Saturday mornings, even before we lived here, over a year ago. 

“Papa boit café,” she observed, à propos of nothing – and then, before I had even had the chance to offer a “bravo!” she continued, “Alice boit de l’eau.” Her first attempt at a proper sentence in French, and her first grammatically correct sentence in French, back to back! Not just naming objects she could see in front of her, but a statement of fact built around an active verb and … oh, I’m coming over all assistant lecturer here, but you get the picture.

Now, I realise that this could have been mere coincidence – quite possibly, she has just stuck together memorised chunks of language and accidentally got lucky. It may even be that, in her head, she meant to express the concept, “daddy, buy me a scooter,” and is still wondering why it hasn’t turned up yet.

Frankly, I don’t care. The new year has begun with my non-French daughter, who has learnt French principally from non-French me in an OPOL setting, bothering to produce a French sentence in a proto-conversation (just an observation, remember, not a demand or complaint) and getting it spot on. Call me odd, but I think that’s cause for celebration.

It almost makes going back to non-utopian work seem somehow all right.

De moi, papa; de maman; et surtout de Piaf; passez un joyeux Noël.

Regular readers can probably guess what this is about just from the title. Yes, I hold my hands up – I have bought a Peppa Pig DVD in French. Peppa is still called Peppa Pig, incidentally (not Colette Cochon, for example) which you might think would cause problems for young ears, as it means there are three characters called Peppa Pig, Papa Pig and Papi Pig. But not a bit of it.

However, in other respects, it has not been entirely trouble-free. We arrived home to find it waiting for us one evening and, in response to Piaf’s strident cries of “Peppa Pick! Peppa Pick!” I triumphantly put it in the DVD player, skipped through the trailers and sat back.

Piaf watched half the first episode, then … “Peppa Pick! Peppa Pick!” Already, for her, Peppa spoke English. It therefore followed that this Francophone sow could not be her. 

I tried to reason with her. Pointing one by one to the characters on the screen, we established that, yes, that was Peppa; that was George; and there were Mummy and Daddy Pigs. Yet she was still not entirely convinced and we ended up compromising and watching Casimir for the rest of the evening.

The next day, however, she had fully accepted that Peppa, like her, was bilingual, and watched her in French with no complaints.

Here’s hoping she likes the Dim Dam Doum DVD she’s getting in her stocking and that the pig-love is just a blip.

Talking of stockings – or, perhaps, souliers – Piaf met le Père Noël for the first time recently in Balham – and he spoke French! She was a bit disconcerted to see him in the flesh rather than just in a picture and was probably a bit young but, with a February birthday, next Christmas seems so long to wait – she’ll be nearly three by then, practically an adult! French Chistmas songs were also the order of the day, including five full verses of Douce nuit – I don’t know that many verses in English …

I found myself feeling slightly snooty to hear other parents speaking to each other in English. Typical, I thought – let les rosbifs in and they take over …

Today’s treat is a suitably festive number from Johnny who, I was glad to hear recently, is well on the mend. Joyeuses fêtes, Monsieur Smet!

Once upon a time I blogged about TV5 and how it played a part in our bilingual weekends (saturday morning is a very “French” time in our household, because it is maman’s lie-in.) We don’t watch it half as much now, because the children’s programmes are currently a bit rubbish – not only less suitable for children of Piaf’s age, but also a bit try-hard, very Americanised or Japanesised (what a fantastic new word – use it today, I dare you.)

Back in the day, this is what we used to wake up to. Pacha et les Chats – the best thing to come out of French Canada since Rumeurs . Good times.

In the Spy vs Spy world of bilingualism in our house, maman has just upped the stakes by buying a Peppa Pig Christmas DVD.

Until now, DVDs (apart from Baby Einstein, which were nothing to do with me and which I wanted to hide whenever we had visitors) have been in French and, while hopefully fun for Piaf, they have been purchased primarily to provide alternative verbal “models” of French in the house. Some have been more popular with Piaf, some less so; some have been more tolerable to maman, some less so (Bonne nuit les enfants still mildly terrifies her, though Piaf doesn’t mind it at all); some I have seen so many times I could quote them for you. But the “golden thread”, as we say in the public sector when we want a break from thinking, has been about seeing French as a widespread phenomenon and a gateway to pleasant experiences. 

Peppa Pig, of course, is in English.

I hope it goes without saying (especially if maman is reading this instead of working) that I want my child to be bilingual in French and English, rather than monolingual in French; and that, even more than that, I want her to be happy. Nor, having watched it, can I criticise Peppa. It is witty, intelligent and attractive and Piaf clearly loves it.

Hence my dilemma – because she loves it so much that she asks to watch it even when maman is not there, i.e. at previously Francophone moments. And, hard though it is to confess, I lie. 

I have no problem at all with lying to my child per se. If she takes a notion to play with a favourite doll (or car, or felt-tipped pens, or paper bag) just before bedtime, I will, without hesitation, tell her “no.” If she asks why, I will, equally without hesitation, tell her that, as it is bedtime, the doll (or car, or felt-tipped pens, or paper bag) is tired. If I want her to watch DVD x rather than DVD y (typically because I have seen DVD y many times in the recent past and it is doing my head in) then DVD y will turn out to be “missing” and DVD x presented as a fait accompli.

But I can argue that I make these choices for the “good” of those concerned, be it my daughter’s physical health or my own mental health. What “good” am I defending when Peppa Pig is “lost” until Trotro is in the machine? Peppa is no worse than Trotro, and is definitely better than some of her other DVDs; and, if she is to be bilingual, then how can I honestly object to exposure to her other native language, especially when her mother has often grinned and borne it through interminable episodes of Bumba or Léo et Popi?

And yet lie I do and I still manage to sleep at night. I lie because, though English is important, she already gets vastly more exposure to English language, culture and mores. Though she knows many French words, she will often start by using the English word and need to be prompted with “que dit papa?” before producing the French equivalent. Of the 96 weeks she has been with us to date, give or take, perhaps two in total have been spent in wholly Francophone surroundings. She has all the time in the world to watch Peppa Pig; Petit Ours Brun can’t wait.

All is fair in love and bilingualism.

Okay, it’s not quite Christmas, but Advent is here.  At least, that’s my excuse for breaking out these two Christmas crackers. 

Claude François, c’est notre cadeau de Noël.” Tout juste, Auguste …

A whole year later, in 1978, and he’s at it again. Surely that’s the same jumper?

It is time to start Christmas shopping.

Piaf’s main present, from both of us jointly, is to be a wooden play kitchen. (And before you cry, “gender stereotyping,” two of her favourite toys currently are a football and a set of magnetic cars – she just likes playing at cooking too. So yah boo sucks.)

Her mother and I will then obviously get her a few smaller bits so that, once we have used enormous flat shovels to dig her out from the avalanche of gifts her grandparents will doubtless send, we can spend some time playing with her individually on the big day, rather than just watch her fry the same plywood egg over and over again.

With potential postal strikes and international delivery times in mind, I have just ordered a couple of my “bits” – a new Charlie and Lola book (courtesy of Librairie Pantoute in Québec) and, on the basis of a half-forgotten spread in Popi magazine, a Dim Dam Doum DVD. 

Now, don’t get me wrong – there isn’t a fictional stuffed Francophone monkey in the world I would trust more than Popi. But, when it comes to buying a DVD about three caterpillars made out of felt, I want reassuring. 

With this in mind, I looked it up on Youtube.fr and saw this.  

And then this.

Suffice it to say that my doubts have been quashed and the order placed. Ça promet bien, le Noël.

A post I’ve wanted to make for some time is how I came to be doing this at all.

I mean, I know I wrote this, right back at the beginning, which explains the why of it – but the how of it is down to the people who put me in a position even to think that someone like me could sustain a non-native bilingual existence with my first-born for a matter of weeks, let alone the 21 months we have so far clocked up between us, one day at a time (as we say in the After School Club.) 

I have been lucky and had a lot of talented teachers in all disciplines in my life, most of which was (at least, prior to the After School Club watershed) spent in full-time education. But a few of them have given me confidence that I was able to take outside the classroom, confidence which saw me through the lessons of the many rubbish teachers I have also had, and, in a way – though the faults are all my own – helped create the Francophone monster that is Papa et Piaf. 

Here they are. 

Martin was probably the first, though he came on the scene at about the same time as Nadia (see below). The first teacher to make me realise that French was a language that people actually used, rather than a verbal trigonometry. He smoked immensely and, again, his failing made him seem more human. He was a caustic, cynical man in some ways and regularly referred to hapless students as “cretins”, which was one of the many things I liked about him – he didn’t pretend to like everyone just because they were children. This meant that, if ever he did show signs of liking you, you could actually believe it might be true. 

And he was, in other ways, tremendously kind. I remember going to see him once after the lesson because I thought I didn’t understand the perfect tense (yes, I really was that much of a loser.) I ended up actually crying (a loser AND a wimp – hands off, ladies, I’m practically married!) When he saw how distressed I was, Martin spent half his break talking me through it (remember, this man was probably a forty-a-day smoker who self-medicated on Gauloises and must have lived for his breaks. )

Several years later, he also enlivened A-level by actually telling us things we might want to know, and hinting at the dirty bits in Camus. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have bothered doing French past GCSE.

Nadia arrived at our school when I was in what was then called the third year. She came to teach us Russian, taking over from a man who had learnt his Russian spying on Soviet air traffic. She was a real Russian; she was very short; she claimed to have a brown belt in karate; she was clearly mad. Nadia, again, made a language seem much more than lists of declensions (of which Russian has many). With her, we could imagine people actually living, loving, arguing, even doing karate in this then very rare language (perestroika didn’t really get underway until my GCSE year.) When I sat A level, Nadia coached me. When I applied to Oxford, Nadia gave me extra lessons, free of charge, which is basically what got me in. When I wanted to go to Russia, Nadia helped me sort it out, and gave me a few pointers on how to get extra hard currency through customs. When I thought that Chekhov was tosh, Nadia reassured me that I was not alone. And she also said one of the nicest things a teacher had ever said to me. We were flying to Moscow together. Somehow, we were talking about my family, particularly my mum. “Well, she’s done a good job,” said Nadia. It took me a second to realise what she meant and, when I did, I must have been pink with pride. A teacher thinking that I was not only a good student, but a good person? There was hope for me yet.

Mary was the one-woman welcoming committee when I arrived at Oxford. She had given me my place (when my first choice college had, foolishly, rejected me); she had patiently and politely answered some nonsense letter I had written to her before starting (about something nothing to do with her, like bedding or grants – I had so little idea about how Oxford worked that I just wrote to the only person whose address I had on paper, and it was hers, on my offer letter); and she welcomed me, along with my fellow first-year starters, into her North Oxford sitting room in October long, long ago. 

I was not, at that point, studying French. I was at college to do single honours Russian (the English faculty had decided it could struggle by without me.) I was amazed that I was at Oxford, and was liberated by having no idea what to expect. 

The intake that year seemed beyond good. A half-Russian man; a half-Polish woman; a frighteningly gifted man who had taught himself Hungarian for a laugh; and me. And this woman, Mary, was posher than anyone I knew – she had a ‘cello, for heaven’s sake! I almost gave up, there and then.

But Mary did not give up on me. Always quick with praise and measured with criticism; always acting as if my admission had been a considered choice and not a slip of the pen on some long, closely-printed list of names; always taking her students seriously, even when we spoke nonsense. After two terms, I had even started to believe her. 

Colin took me on when I decided that, though I still wanted to study Russian, the particular joys reserved for single honours students – extra linguistics, the Lay of Prince Igor and the Memoirs of Prince Avakkum, these latter two to be read in Old Church Slavonic – were not for me. He found a place for me in his already crowded French group.

As I made the group an odd number, he also agreed to see me individually for tutorials. As I began to develop interests, and as they began to align themselves with his, he would occasionally let me set my own essay title. He even gave me a 10-year-old bottle of home-made white wine, which turned out to be the best sherry I had ever tasted. This, I decided, was what Oxford was about. 

So much so that, after a couple of terms, in the last tutorial before the vacation (it was a hollow joke to call them “holidays”) I diffidently mentioned that I had been thinking of a future in academia. 

Silence. 

If, at that stage, he had turned around and started an awful, mocking impersonation of a deranged simpleton, it would not have surprised me. Of course I had been fooling myself. I was, perhaps not hopeless, but very much an also-ran, and clearly a pretentious one at that.

Instead, he said, quite quietly, “Yes, well. I was thinking of giving you a scholarship, but you don’t work hard enough.”

In a flash, several truths became apparent to me. I was not an idiot; I was not delusional; and, most important of all, the age-old myth fell apart. At school, I had been effortlessly successful. Then I had come to Oxford and had been effortlessly mediocre. I had assumed that my dear old mum was right, that the bar ha been raised and I could no longer clear it. Instead, it turned out, no-one here was effortlessly anything. The people who succeeded did so because they were very bright, but because they also worked exceptionally hard. I started taking their lead. The following term, I worked harder than ever before or since (as well as acting, rowing, and writing at a “jolly good sport” sort of level) and got my mini-scholarship (or “exhibition” as they call it). I went on to narrowly miss a First and come out of that with enough confidence intact to go on to do research at Edinburgh. Without Colin’s quiet honesty, I’d have ended up pretending to want to be a school-teacher and wondering why I hated my life (I did that anyway, years later – but at least I had a go at what I wanted to be.) 

Ian was the last one. Believed by his Edinburgh undergraduates to have it in for English loafers, he nevertheless took on an Oxford graduate, to all appearances a dilettante (it took me about a term to tell him I was working twenty hours a week and that that was why I was a bit behind on the reading) who came armed only with an undergraduate dissertation on Daniel Pennac, an author almost no one had then heard of, apparently word-processed by a five-year-old, and of which Oxford’s examiners could not decide whether it was a work of genius or the ravings of an imbecile. 

Ian gave me the benefit of the doubt and, when he realised I was broke, did all he could to enable me to make some sort of a go of my doctorate. He sent me to France twice; he found me teaching hours (my poor undergraduates, I am so sorry you were lumbered with me); he got me published; and he let me stay round his house once so I could return from Nice to do a conference paper. He also took me lunchtime drinking at the Southsider. Ian made me believe that, not only could I become an academic, but that I could live as an academic, perhaps for my whole life. The question of what the hell I was going to do with this bizarre commodity called life was finally, and to my immense relief, solved

Of course, I went on to piss all that up the proverbial wall, but that was no fault of his. And I did come out of it speaking really rather good French …

So, if any of the five of you end up reading this, thank you. I couldn’t have done it without you.

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