Before we get started, an update – I still have not collected any leaves for my lions. I will keep you informed through the week of how close this particular endeavour comes to failure and humiliation. (Ironically, I am currently studying for the PRINCE2 project management qualification to improve my job prospects – I hope it never comes out that I struggled to sort out a children’s collage activity.)

But onto grander projects altogether. 

Piaf seems to be going through something of an intellectual spurt. Of most immediate relevance is that she is beginning to acquire a word in each language for some things (though this is very much a minority and, of the concepts she has only one word for, the vast majority of those words are English ones.) Still, this is the beginning of what Saunders described as Stage 2 in linguistic development – and, having the double whammy of being first-time parents and parents of a bilingual, however many researchers tell you something will happen, you don’t quite believe it until you see it.

She is actually requesting vocabulary now, rather than waiting for it to be given. Sometimes it is expressed merely by a questioning glance, a pause; other times she will bluntly state, “dat,” and wait for the name to be supplied. Of course, whoever is being asked the question replies in his or her “own” language. Now that she is showing awareness that everything has (at least) two labels, the assumption must surely be that she will ask for the missing one when she’s ready. 

But beyond language – if anything is ever really “beyond” language – she is showing signs of increased intelligence too. She is more dextrous, more independent, more confident – she is starting to run as well as walk, she refuses to be helped with feeding (however much in her interests such help would be), she puts her own shoe on (the right one – the left still has her baffled.)

She is, all of a sudden, interested in the alphabet, in numbers, in colours. All of this has had its root at nursery, where she routinely mixes with older children. In the case of the alphabet, it transpires they have an electronic toy that sings the alphabet song (the one to the tune of Twinkle, twinkle, little star/Ah! vous dirai-je, maman?) and she relentlessly pounds the “play” button. (Those nursery staff really do earn their money. Imagine listening to that all day!) With numbers, she has heard the older children counting and has started copying them. Colours have probably come up in conversation and around play – a favourite expression at the moment is “blue-car!” 

It really is wonderful to see this happening. I can quite understand why apparently every parent goes through a phase, however brief, of thinking his or her child is a genius. After all, this sudden Renaissance-like bloom in learning is happening at a time while Piaf is still acquiring massive amounts of knowledge, day in, day out, of how life actually works, and also still developing physically. It must be a bit like starting a brand new job with no hand-over from the previous incumbent; learning that job, therefore, by trial and error, including the goal, strategies and conventions of that job; performing at 100% from the off, so that everything you do is at least adequate; still fitting in an hour at the gym every night when you leave; and doing it all in a country where, initially at least, you don’t speak the language. No wonder Piaf can sleep for 12 hours at a stretch!

In this context, speaking two languages instead of one, which a lot of people (including me sometimes) think is such a major achievement, such a big deal, probably doesn’t even make the top ten on her list of priorities. I think a lot of people forget that she isn’t learning a “foreign” language – she’s learning two foreign languages, and attempting to make them both native ones. 

But it also makes me wonder. You see, especially when we lived in Peckham, I was responsible for a lot of the picking up and dropping off at nursery, simply because I have a cuddly, flexible, “work-life balance” public sector employer, and maman doesn’t. So I would spend a lot of time pushing Piaf around in her buggy. It was soon impressed on me by Those That Know These Things that rule number one if you want your baby to be clever rather than slow (in babies, it seems, it is one or the other – no babies are “average) is talk, talk, talk. And I got the same advice from Those That Know These Things if you want your baby to be bilingual. 

What do you talk about with a non-verbal, comparatively immobile (if only because of the straps) baby in a pushchair? Well, what I talked about was either spotting things of a given colour (qu’est-ce que tu vois de … vert? [Silence] Oui – un arbre!”) and counting games (“comptons les piétons que nous doublons ou croisons.”) 

In other words, for months I’ve been giving her every possible encouragement and opportunity to respond to concepts of number and colour and she has shown no genuine interest, then at once she wants to know it all. 

So – did that earlier exploration provide anything beyond the inevitable (and pleasurable) bonding, or was it just noise and socialisation? And, if it did, why is her reaction so sudden rather than gradual?

Also, even now, it is hard to distinguish what she “knows” from what she echoes. It is clear, for example, that she knows there are several colours in the world. But, unless explicitly told otherwise, Piaf maintains that all cars are “blue-car!” Similarly, she can say the names of some numbers – but they are not in sequence. And then, how closely is the concept of numbering (“chiffres”) linked to the concept of number (“nombre”)? After all, counting to four is not the same as knowing that counting to two twice is just as good.

I don’t normally get this philosophical in this blog. Perhaps it’s the Pepsi talking. I certainly don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. But I am aware that, in the days before Piaf, I would probably not even have considered asking them. I am also aware that, if only I can stay patient, I will find out in good time.

Like this? Try these.

Je fais le bilan, tu fais le bilan, elle fait le bilan …

Je confesse, tu confesses, elle confesse …

Je suis, tu suis, elle suit …


“Au classement, le SM Caen reprend la tête du championnat […] et demeure la seule équipe invaincue.”

Take that, you pseudo-Germans!

Like this? Try these.

Je suis fan, tu es fan, elle est fan …

Je m’en foot, tu t’en foot, elle s’en foot …

Je me résigne, tu te résignes, elle se résigne …

Piaf’s tastes in DVDs have broadened since the days when it was Trotro or Trotro (itself an advance on the days when it was Bumba or blank shrieking incomprehension.)

One of her current favourites is the distinctly old-school Bonne nuit les petits. At the end of an episode, she exclaims anxiously, “encore!” as if she has never seen a DVD and doesn’t realise that, actually, the chances of there being more of the same are pretty high.

Her mother, however, is no fan at all. She finds it creepy to the point of wrongness.

Here is an episode on which someone very kind (who? certainly not me, rassurez-vous) has put English subtitles. Wholesome and carefree, or dark and evil?

You decide.

I have done it again. Having learnt nothing from the tiger mask incident, I have agreed to lead an activity at French playgroup without having any idea at all what I am going to do. All I do know is that it will ideally be connected to autumn but cannot involve sticking leaves onto tree pictures as we have already had a couple of variants on that theme.

Playgroup so far (two weeks, though it started the week before that when la famille Papa-Piaf was en vacances) has been generally positive. The children (especially Piaf) are all quite timid, at least at the beginning of the session – they have just had a whole summer away from each other and perhaps find an hour and a half of communal Frenchness quite emotionally exhausting. 

Then, of course, six weeks is a long time developmentally at this age; everyone is suddenly able to “do” a lot more than they could at their last meeting, and there have clearly been subtle shifts in the power structure as a result. And of course, at the beginning of these things the attendance will always be a bit in flux as the stragglers come back, new families try it out, and families who had tried it and weren’t sure it was for them get revitalised and try it again. Honestly, we could get a soap opera out of this if we could only decide what language to do it in. 

Which still leaves me with the question of what to prepare. My main two sources of ideas are this site in French and this site in English. They are both run by wonderful people who believe in you. They believe that you are a wonderfully skilled and nurturing parent. Crucially, they believe that you have the time and energy to make a pumpkin seed necklace with a small child “helping” you or that you can arouse genuine interest and excitement in the same small child with the prospect of making a book about grapes .

But I, as you will by now perhaps realise, am unworthy of this faith, because I am a coward. Academically, I am one of nature’s truth-seekers, but, when it comes to handicrafts, then, if it is hard, prone to failure, or even just lengthy (more than 30 minutes), I don’t want to know. Don’t take my word for it – ask my woodwork teacher. 

I think I may end up doing the leafy lion . Okay, I know I said at the beginning of this piece that I would avoid leaves – but “feuille” is one of Piaf’s best French words (i.e. she uses the French and does not appear to know the English yet – Papa: un, Maman: zéro). And, yes, I know I got my fingers burnt with the tiger mask – but, again, Piaf (and, I guess, pretty much every small child) likes big cats and especially likes roaring, so that’s another box ticked. And I’ve learnt my lesson. After all, I’m not likely to leave it till the last minute and then stay up till 3 a.m. drawing outlines of a lion’s face and washing dog’s piss off leaves, am I? 

Am I? 

Like this? Try these.

Je rugis, tu rugis, elle rugit … 

Je m’intègre, tu t’ intègres, elle s’ intègre … 

Je me lève, tu te lèves, elle se lève …

Whether you want to laugh with Jamel or laugh at Cloclo (again) it’s all good.

Like this? Try these.

Je présente, tu présentes, elle présente … 

Je me moque de lui, tu te moques de lui, elle se moque de lui …

Je fredonne, tu fredonnes, elle fredonne …

A hundred years ago or more, I (almost literally) threw my mortar board into the air with glee as, coming out of a long theory exam for the Master’s degree which would lead to a doctorate which would lead to a life in academia, I realised that I would never in my life have to sit another formal written examination.

Ten years on, I began my accountancy studies.

A similar sense of life guffawing in my face comes to me when I find myself, scissors in hand, cutting small bits of paper out of larger bits of paper to make things that may or may not amuse or divert my child. I really thought that, on starting an Art “A” level, the craft side of things would fade like a bad dream, something I would one day laugh about. It was not to be. 

I have, I know, told you about my adventures with tiger masks. But worse, in some ways, is when you find yourself paying money to subscribe to a magazine which forces you into these scissor-based antics. 

Yes, my friends – we subscribe to Popi. This is what bilingualism can do to a family. 

I should say up front that I have nothing but praise for the magazine itself. Unlike stiff British nonsense such as Numberjacks (or, of course, Waybuloo magazine, this month including lots of stickers to allow your child to buy simple-minded friends learn about sharing) Popi does not explicitly “teach” anything and contains material which is attractive to children rather than just to parents. Which is not to say that it does not address the concerns of parents – in truly French style, there is a whole panel of professionals and experts on board (because God forbid that amateurs such as parents should run the show) – but their contribution is on a pull-out directly targeted at adults and which can then be covered up and forgotten about, as there is a nursery wall poster on the reverse, usually an illustrated nursery rhyme. 

The magazine is aimed at the 1-3-year-old market, which is quite a span if you think about it, so the sections get “older” as you go from front to back, with a big fold-out picture at the end which can be approached on a range of levels. It has a theme each month and we’ve been quite lucky with these – I mean, it’s obviously no coincidence that the photo story in the July edition featured a beach holiday, but it was a coincidence that August featured a slide, something Piaf was obsessed with at the time. 

Anyway, I’m trying to describe it, not sell you it. Piaf interacts with the magazine in a range of ways. I read her the photo story about the eponymous Popi, which she generally likes. The next bit is the most overtly educational, and is a set of six themed picture cards relating to a scene featuring Petit Ours Brun. Piaf likes to be told what words these pictures represent; occasionally she then likes to play a matching game with these cards and words; 100% of the time she then likes to play a throwing all over the floor game with these cards.

There is then the page involving scissors, folding and the like. She is so keen on this part (especially when it features Lili la Souris) that, given the chance, she will rip it beyond repair in an attempt to experience it to the max. After the first issue we received in June, Lili looked more like a war veteran mummified in Sellotape than a mouse. 

The rest of the magazine is a little bit too old for her – but I try her with it each month. When the next section (a comic strip about a little boy called Marcel) starts interesting her, I will, of course, be able to revisit the back copies with her, so I don’t see the money as wasted just because we’re only reading the first half at the moment. 

I initially subscribed because I thought it would plug a few of the many gaps in my knowledge, both in terms of language and of culture. But it also provides a “shared experience” – there are many children of Piaf’s age accessing this magazine in France at the same time as she reads it in England and when, later, she meets those children, they will have at least that one thing in common. “Look for the similarities, not the differences,” is an ASC mantra. I am hoping that, one day, Piaf’s French peers do just that – and, when they do, I will have helped provide a few similarities for them to look for. 

Like this? Try these. 

Je salue, tu salues, elle salue …  

J’analyse, tu analyses, elle analyse …

Je glisse, tu glisses, elle glisse …

I don’t understand people who don’t like music. It doesn’t much matter what type of music. On the Venn diagram of musical taste, my circle overlaps but slightly with that of Piaf’s maman, and that’s fine. But we’d never have got together if there had been only an empty space where that circle should be. 

It is a given, therefore, that Piaf will grow up surrounded by music of all sorts. Of course, if I have my way, a lot of it will be in French; but a lot will be in English, too and some of it will have no words at all. 

A key difference between Piaf and me is that I learnt two languages while she is learning to live through two languages. She will gradually (I hope) become a person who can not only access two distinct musical canons but can think, speak about and feel either canon in either language. 

That’s ultimately down to us as parents, obviously – we need to foster that interest; we need to provide her with the vocabulary and structures that make self-expression possible; we need to expose her to the music we like and let her see we like it; we need to lead her into those discussions and let them develop into arguments where necessary; we need to foster passion in her. 

All well and good. But what does Piaf think? 

So. Early signs that my daughter is not averse to music.

There’s the sudden interest in the £10 blue electronic keyboard I optimistically got her in Argos last Xmas (blue ones cheaper than otherwise identical pink ones – go figure). Not only does she press the various buttons, she then appears to “groove” to the Xmas-themed demos. 

There’s the way she will pick up songs she hears and then demands to have them sung to her again and again (the long drive down to Dorset was much enlivened by singing the Alphabet Song in both languages when she prompted us by intoning “Ay Deee Deee Deee!”)

 There’s the way that encouraging her to clap along to early Motown distracts her from a tantrum in the car. On Sunday, it was Smokey Robinson’s Mickey’s Monkey. (It’s disloyal, I know, but I cannot think of a single French disc from the Sixties, by anyone, that comes close to the Miracles.) 

There’s the way that, even in my “distinctive” voice, a song sung low gets her cuddling in close at bedtime.

Is any of this unique or even unusual? Probably not. How would I know? I’m just glad it appears to be there. A child who didn’t enjoy music and dancing, even if it’s only in private? I’d sooner father a monolingual.  

Like this? Try these.

Je danse, tu danses, elle danse … 

Je grimace, tu grimaces, elle grimace …

Je me demande, tu te demandes, elle se demande …

Aux chiottes, les Corses!

There’s a chance I will make myself some enemies when I say that I hate with a passion beyond reason the children’s TV programme Waybuloo .

Waybuloo apparently has a stated aim to develop children’s “emotional intelligence”. Now (imagine, if you have no sound card in your PC, the noise of a soap box being dragged into the middle of the floor) quite apart from the question of whether such a nebulous and poorly-defined thing as “emotional intelligence” can be developed by a TV programme – and quite apart from the question of whether, if it can, it is the role of the BBC to do so – I cannot believe that computer-generated cuddly toys doing yoga (I shit you not) and speaking about feelings in what some coke-addled media graduate imagines to be “baby talk” is the way to go about it. 

But then, what do I know? Have I the right to risk my young Piaf’s development of “emotional intelligence” (which, in the context of Waybuloo, appears to be Latin for “sharing” and “not crying if you come last”) by denying her access to this rich televisual resource, just because of my own distrust of its charlatan laziness lack of the stuff? I thought I had better assess her.

Not only has she been specifically praised recently at nursery for sharing (though I suspect that she is vastly better at sharing when there are two of something – I sense sometimes that she would fight to the death for a talking doll); not only is she quick to laugh and slow to cry; but these last few days she has gone into kissing overdrive. Once upon a time she did not see the point of kissing; then it became a sort of game of kiss chase, whereby I would ask her for a kiss and then pursue her, giggling (her, not me) until she very solemnly pecked me moistly on the lips; and then this where, unprovoked, she will alternate between maman and me, kissing each of us snottily several times over.

And then, tonight, I asked her (as I almost never do) “tu m’aimes?” and got my first “yeah”! Does she understand what it means? Who knows? But we are always telling her we love her – as we cuddle her, tickle her, dress her, sing to her, put her to bed, say goodbye to her at nursery, even wipe her arse – so she must know it’s a basically positive thing, right?

 She is far from perfect. She really does not enjoy time spent in cars and is very able to communicate her feelings on the subject; she is still delightfully free from the straitjacket of social convention when it comes to keeping food on the plate or even on the table; if something bores or annoys her she is more than happy to express her emotions by hurling the offending article across the room. Clearly, we have some way to go before we have a perfectly rounded individual on our hands. 

But we’ll do it without the help of a CBeebies-instigated sun salutation, thank you very much.

“Lo-la! Lo-la! Lo-la!”

Piaf’s maman has – kindly but, as it turns out, foolishly – bought Piaf a Charlie and Lola book. As a TV programme, Charlie and Lola appeared to be one favourite among many, not even a primus inter pares. As a book, it has turned into an obsession of the sort you normally see on Five in “documentaries” about Americans who can’t stop washing their hands in Cif as they mutter “bad boy” under their breath. First thing in the morning, she wants to hear it twice (actually, she wants to hear it a third time and maybe more, but maman puts her foot down.) Bedtime is the same. The whole bilingual thing is turning out to be a great advantage to me. “Mais, Piaf, c’est en anglais! Tu sais bien que j’y comprends rien, moi! Si on lisait Le petit bonhomme de pain d’épice?”

 It is also quite a long book. All of a sudden, Piaf has found previously untapped reservoirs of patience (which, even now, are not consistently on display in other areas of her life) and does not seem to feel the need to skip pages or jump to the end. Temporarily – I hope – she has a clear preference for reading in English to reading in French.

I have to be very careful what I say, too. Until now, her milk was usually “lolo” but now I am afraid to use the word in case she thinks I am offering to read her the OCD book. 

Overlaps like this are not new, of course, and make understanding a task requiring intellect and goodwill from both parties. Her name for her mother sounds like “mammy” – perhaps a conflation of “mummy” and “maman”, perhaps just “mummy” in her funny little-girl voice. So when, as the last two days, mamie is visiting and she says “mammy”, who is she asking for? Is she going to start confusing her word for me – “daddy” – with her preferred word for “horse”, “dada”? 

For now, I am playing it safe. I consistently refer to myself as “papa”, never “daddy”; maman is maman, mamie is mamie, and never the twain shall meet; and, for the time being at least, milk is definitely going to be “du lait”.