Je fredonne, tu fredonnes, elle fredonne …

August 4, 2009

One of my first worries about speaking French to Piaf was that I would make mistakes. The very fact that I was such an influential language model for her and from so early on meant, I decided, that any faulty pronunciation, any wrong gender, any mistranslation, would become lodged in her as yet unformed mind, never to be shifted.

 What I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to was how much knowledge was quite simply lacking.

 The main area – ironically but utterly predictably – was language for the parent-child bond. As I had never been a child in France and had not had French parents myself, with a few rare exceptions I simply didn’t know what nursery rhymes parents sang, what games they played, how I would discipline Piaf when the time came, non-swearwords for use in the presence of minors, the vocab of nappies, wipes and changing mats, affectionate names for animals, for parts of the body, for milk, bedtime, love. I had a lot to learn and it couldn’t really wait.

 A lot I picked up from books I read to Piaf (right from the beginning, I have read to her every day and suspect I would have done the same in English) though sometimes I would guess or talk round a difficult word and then look it up after bedtime, ready for tomorrow. My friend and former student Manu, not only a “Français de souche” but a hands-on father himself, helped out whenever I asked.

But what I couldn’t do without was music. To me, it was unthinkable to have a baby and not to sing to it, just as my priority in the first car I ever bought was that it had a cassette deck. We might struggle for words here and there, but there was no way we were going to go short of songs.

I downloaded nursery rhymes on iTunes. I bought CDs in Grant & Cutler. And I improvised.

I improvised by singing songs to her that I had always liked, 60s and 70s kitsch with a good time feel to it, songs that reminded me of sitting in someone’s garden in Normandy with no more pressing worry than who was going to drive into town for smokes. They felt like the sort of songs parents should be singing to babies, whatever their language. I sang them at bedtime; I sang them to distract her when she cried without really being sad; I put together play lists and danced her round the kitchen in my arms.

With this in mind, I want to share with you two of Piaf’s favourites, one by the evergreen Johnny, and one by the late, great Joe Dassin. I hope you like them – but, if you don’t, it may well be that you have better taste than me. Or just that you’re not 18 months old. Amusez-vous bien.

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