Je m’identifie, tu t’identifies, elle s’identifie …

August 21, 2009

One of my worries for Piaf is that, having gone through The Plan without knowing any different, she will subsequently be “rejected” by native speakers as some kind of interloper. 

Maybe I shouldn’t worry – maybe she will be far more philosophical about it than I am, or more accepting, or maybe it’s just too far off to worry about – but I do, just a little.

In this context, it is interesting to see how French people – and especially French children – currently react to us. 

As well as meeting French speakers through attending a Francophone Saturday playgroup not far from home, Piaf also meets two half-French children at the nursery she goes to five days a week while we are at work. This is not entirely a coincidence – one of these families put us on to the fact that the nursery had a place because I knew them from Saturdays – but it is in no way a “bilingual” nursery. It just happens to have more than its share of French-speakers.

In other words, these three children, all under three, meet each other with their parents in a French-speaking environment most weekends and meet each other several days a week in an English-speaking environment.

Typically, a native speaker of a language, especially a child, will “decide” or “perceive” what language another person “belongs” to – usually very early on in the relationship – and will from then on consistently favour that language in interacting with that individual, however many other languages they have in common. In many ways, indeed, this is the driving force behind the OPOL (one parent, one language) principle which our family follows.

Neither of the children have ever heard me address them in English – I speak French to French speakers, English to monolingual English speakers, which is pretty much the same as their parents, as far as I can see. Also, for what it’s worth, both have French-speaking mothers. In other words, they potentially perceive daddies as English-speaking entities. What we have here is the makings of a controlled experiment.

The boy is the older of the two. He always looks startled when I address him in French and vaguely suspicious when I address Piaf in French in his presence. That said, he’s not that chatty and English seems to be his language of choice with everyone except his maman. I have never noticed him addressing me or Piaf in French.

The girl is closer in age to Piaf, though still older, and seems very taken with her. She is boisterous, outgoing and cheerful. Her dominant language at the moment is very definitely French. She is happy to address me in French, though that used to be less the case, and does not seem to find it odd that I use the language myself.

Both of these children routinely use English (or attempt to do so, in the context of their age) with people they perceive to be English speakers.

Having said that this has the makings of a controlled experiment, I realise I have raised lots of questions and answered none. Does either of the children consider me as a French speaker? By rights they should – I speak nothing else to them – but do they? And, if not, is it just because they can tell I am not native, or is it because they have been told I am English? Is it a language thing, in other words, or an identity thing?

In the same way, how do they feel about Piaf (who they know understands French, but who speaks very little in either language) – and are there feelings governed by their perceptions about her or about me? 

Most important, will their views change in the light of her increasing linguistic competence – which could still go either way – or has the die been cast?

We are also missing the control itself from this experiment. How do they interact with each other? I confess I do not know and will probably have to ask their parents if the opportunity arises. 

But the impetus for this blog entry is that last night, after nursery, we stopped off at the playground. The girl and her mother, recently back from a long holiday in France, were there and I went over. When the girl saw us approaching, she lit up. “Maman, regarde, c’est Alice! Bonjour, Alice!”

She addressed my daughter in French! And then she did it again. And again. 

Pure instinct after a fortnight speaking nothing but? Or acceptance of Piaf as a linguistic sputnitsa and a prospect of becoming my ally in providing her with Francophone surround sound in the months and years ahead? 

I still do not know. But I have my hopes.


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