J’énumère, tu énumères, elle énumère …

September 29, 2009

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 …

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