“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.

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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.