“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.


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.

De moi, papa; de maman; et surtout de Piaf; passez un joyeux Noël.

Regular readers can probably guess what this is about just from the title. Yes, I hold my hands up – I have bought a Peppa Pig DVD in French. Peppa is still called Peppa Pig, incidentally (not Colette Cochon, for example) which you might think would cause problems for young ears, as it means there are three characters called Peppa Pig, Papa Pig and Papi Pig. But not a bit of it.

However, in other respects, it has not been entirely trouble-free. We arrived home to find it waiting for us one evening and, in response to Piaf’s strident cries of “Peppa Pick! Peppa Pick!” I triumphantly put it in the DVD player, skipped through the trailers and sat back.

Piaf watched half the first episode, then … “Peppa Pick! Peppa Pick!” Already, for her, Peppa spoke English. It therefore followed that this Francophone sow could not be her. 

I tried to reason with her. Pointing one by one to the characters on the screen, we established that, yes, that was Peppa; that was George; and there were Mummy and Daddy Pigs. Yet she was still not entirely convinced and we ended up compromising and watching Casimir for the rest of the evening.

The next day, however, she had fully accepted that Peppa, like her, was bilingual, and watched her in French with no complaints.

Here’s hoping she likes the Dim Dam Doum DVD she’s getting in her stocking and that the pig-love is just a blip.

Talking of stockings – or, perhaps, souliers – Piaf met le Père Noël for the first time recently in Balham – and he spoke French! She was a bit disconcerted to see him in the flesh rather than just in a picture and was probably a bit young but, with a February birthday, next Christmas seems so long to wait – she’ll be nearly three by then, practically an adult! French Chistmas songs were also the order of the day, including five full verses of Douce nuit – I don’t know that many verses in English …

I found myself feeling slightly snooty to hear other parents speaking to each other in English. Typical, I thought – let les rosbifs in and they take over …

Today’s treat is a suitably festive number from Johnny who, I was glad to hear recently, is well on the mend. Joyeuses fêtes, Monsieur Smet!

In the Spy vs Spy world of bilingualism in our house, maman has just upped the stakes by buying a Peppa Pig Christmas DVD.

Until now, DVDs (apart from Baby Einstein, which were nothing to do with me and which I wanted to hide whenever we had visitors) have been in French and, while hopefully fun for Piaf, they have been purchased primarily to provide alternative verbal “models” of French in the house. Some have been more popular with Piaf, some less so; some have been more tolerable to maman, some less so (Bonne nuit les enfants still mildly terrifies her, though Piaf doesn’t mind it at all); some I have seen so many times I could quote them for you. But the “golden thread”, as we say in the public sector when we want a break from thinking, has been about seeing French as a widespread phenomenon and a gateway to pleasant experiences. 

Peppa Pig, of course, is in English.

I hope it goes without saying (especially if maman is reading this instead of working) that I want my child to be bilingual in French and English, rather than monolingual in French; and that, even more than that, I want her to be happy. Nor, having watched it, can I criticise Peppa. It is witty, intelligent and attractive and Piaf clearly loves it.

Hence my dilemma – because she loves it so much that she asks to watch it even when maman is not there, i.e. at previously Francophone moments. And, hard though it is to confess, I lie. 

I have no problem at all with lying to my child per se. If she takes a notion to play with a favourite doll (or car, or felt-tipped pens, or paper bag) just before bedtime, I will, without hesitation, tell her “no.” If she asks why, I will, equally without hesitation, tell her that, as it is bedtime, the doll (or car, or felt-tipped pens, or paper bag) is tired. If I want her to watch DVD x rather than DVD y (typically because I have seen DVD y many times in the recent past and it is doing my head in) then DVD y will turn out to be “missing” and DVD x presented as a fait accompli.

But I can argue that I make these choices for the “good” of those concerned, be it my daughter’s physical health or my own mental health. What “good” am I defending when Peppa Pig is “lost” until Trotro is in the machine? Peppa is no worse than Trotro, and is definitely better than some of her other DVDs; and, if she is to be bilingual, then how can I honestly object to exposure to her other native language, especially when her mother has often grinned and borne it through interminable episodes of Bumba or Léo et Popi?

And yet lie I do and I still manage to sleep at night. I lie because, though English is important, she already gets vastly more exposure to English language, culture and mores. Though she knows many French words, she will often start by using the English word and need to be prompted with “que dit papa?” before producing the French equivalent. Of the 96 weeks she has been with us to date, give or take, perhaps two in total have been spent in wholly Francophone surroundings. She has all the time in the world to watch Peppa Pig; Petit Ours Brun can’t wait.

All is fair in love and bilingualism.

It is time to start Christmas shopping.

Piaf’s main present, from both of us jointly, is to be a wooden play kitchen. (And before you cry, “gender stereotyping,” two of her favourite toys currently are a football and a set of magnetic cars – she just likes playing at cooking too. So yah boo sucks.)

Her mother and I will then obviously get her a few smaller bits so that, once we have used enormous flat shovels to dig her out from the avalanche of gifts her grandparents will doubtless send, we can spend some time playing with her individually on the big day, rather than just watch her fry the same plywood egg over and over again.

With potential postal strikes and international delivery times in mind, I have just ordered a couple of my “bits” – a new Charlie and Lola book (courtesy of Librairie Pantoute in Québec) and, on the basis of a half-forgotten spread in Popi magazine, a Dim Dam Doum DVD. 

Now, don’t get me wrong – there isn’t a fictional stuffed Francophone monkey in the world I would trust more than Popi. But, when it comes to buying a DVD about three caterpillars made out of felt, I want reassuring. 

With this in mind, I looked it up on Youtube.fr and saw this.  

And then this.

Suffice it to say that my doubts have been quashed and the order placed. Ça promet bien, le Noël.

A friend recently sent me this link about babies crying “in” a language. “Does Piaf scream in a French accent for you and an English accent for her mother?” she asked. The honest answer is that, when she was crying in the sense that this article means, I didn’t notice (probably because I hadn’t read the article) and now, as her crying is of the sort of Ground Zero tantrum variety I have described previously , I cannot make out either language and have forgotten how to interpret non-linguistic communication.

Another germane piece of media was the Horizon documentary the other night, Why Do We Talk? Superficially, of course, it had nothing to do with bilingualism – it was much more about the wonder of what you might call “anylingualism” – but it provided real insights into how language “happens”; why children take language learning in their stride when, if you think about it, it’s a seemingly impossible task when you’re starting from scratch; and how we, as humans, have an instinct such that, in the absence of language, we essentially make one out of the most promising material to hand. All in all, the programme performed that very neat trick of bringing together a load of discrete odds and ends you already knew in such a way that you forget you ever knew them and it all seems fresh, simply because you’d never synthesised it all and drawn the appropriate conclusions.

I’m all in favour of the TV doing my work for me. It gives me more time to shoehorn my daughter into a coat – “MY manteau” – against her will.

“Stop pushing me!” Like a miniature Rambo, my daughter has developed language to let potential aggressors know that she is not to be messed with. The only problem is that no one has even touched her.

She has several of these little gems, tailor-made to convince a stranger that the right and Christian thing to do is to call the police, Social Services and Pudsey Bear this very minute – another favourite is, “no, daddy!” Add this to the tantrums and you have what can sometimes feel like manipulation. 

But it is still an overwhelmingly positive experience being her dad. I am proud of her. i used to think that that was something you said when a child (or other mental inferior you wished to patronise) had done something good. But it’s not. Not in this case, anyway. It means, “I’m proud of her” in the way you might be “proud” of a new suit, or the stabiliser-free bike you’ve just been given for Christmas. It’s not conditional on something you’ve done or achieved – it’s something that’s yours, that just IS, and it’s so beautiful and awe-inspiring and all-round brilliant that all you want to do is show it off with a big stupid smile on your face. 

As it happens, though, I’m proud of the stuff she does, too. She is speaking proper French now – by which I mean, she is choosing (to talk to me and not to talk to her mother) recognisable French words and matching them consistently to appropriate objects or concepts. Which I think is pretty impressive, actually. She is even starting to string them together occasionally.

There are issues around pronunciation – initial French “r”s get dropped, so that a pink dress becomes a “obe ose” – but I’m fairly confident that there are a few French kids out there with the same issue, given that the French “r” is like Kenneth Williams to the English “r”‘s Sid James.

Likewise, she mixes up “bleu” and “vert” – but then she’s also mixing “blue” and “green” so that’s not so much a linguistic problem as a conceptual problem. Or maybe an eye problem – though she’s yet to express any interest in becoming a sniper or cartographer so it’s early days to be worrying about that …

So, Piaf, if one day you read this, “je suis fier de toi et l’ai toujours été.

“Now, please, can you say the word and get Esther Rantzen off my back?”

Well, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? Sorry about that.

The prosaic truth is that I’ve been busy – but also that (and this will shock everyone except you) the more interesting stuff Piaf does, the more time I spend dealing with the fall-out from said interesting stuff, and the less time I have to write about it. 

The main interesting things she’s been doing recently are looking cute and screaming. 

The cuteness angle she covers by being naturally pretty (yes, I’m biased, but other people say it too, even people who I suspect don’t really like me that much), wearing the wide array of impossibly posh clothes we never seem to stop buying her, adjusting woolly hats at rakish angles, jumping, and saying things like, “come on, daddy!” when you least expect it. A doddle, in other words.

 The screaming has been much more of a learned behaviour and one senses that she has put some real work into it, but it is nonetheless a very polished performance. 

She is stubborn, you see. Neither maman nor I can work out where she gets it from. (“She does like her own way,” said her nursery school teacher this morning. “So do I,” I said.) 

This morning was all about the shoes.

 Since our return from Lille, Piaf has become something of a dab hand at footwear. Her new “Charlotte aux Fraises” slippers – no trouble. Her new pink wellies with the flowers and the Japanese girls – such a breeze she cannot even be bothered to use the handles provided. Her old gold Clarks with the light-up soles – almost an insult to her intelligence. 

However, the latter, as well as starting to pinch the tiniest bit, disgraced themselves in Lille by flooding when plunged into a puddle (hence the trip to the welly shop) and have now been replaced with a much more robust shoe, purple in colour, and with a tongue. 

As Piaf has no experience of shoes with tongues, and because I hate to see her fail when I could help her to succeed, I decided that I would help her to put them on.


She said “no”; I said “si.” She pulled; I hung on. She pulled harder; I gripped. She let go and started to cry; I stood my ground. 

End of Round 1. 

As she rolled on the floor like an Italian striker, I said what I usually say in these situations; “tu me diras quand tu seras prête, hein?” When she seemed calm, I asked her if she was, indeed, ready. She was; but, as soon as it became clear that I had not given up on my evil plan to prevent her from spending an hour struggling with a purple shoe, Round 2 began. 

The final round saw her so furious, tired and sad that she was the same colour as the shoes, beyond words, screaming like Noddy Holder with his hand in a vice, while I struggled not to lose it and start crying (in my defence, she had woken up much earlier than usual and we were a little bit worried that she might be ill, so by this stage I couldn’t be 100% sure that it really was a tantrum and not, say, black, searing and mysterious agony.) Incidentally, by this stage, both shoes were actually on; she was not only beyond words, but beyond facts.

A dummy broke the deadlock. With the dummy came calm, and with calm she allowed herself to be picked up and cuddled, and with the cuddle came the reminder that face-offs come and go, but we fundamentally adore each other. 

Still both subdued, we made our way to nursery. As I signed her in, I heard her in the other room. She was laughing out loud. So much for emotional damage.

I would do it again like a sot, of course, because I cannot stand the thought of the alternative – a child who cannot stand not to get her own way, but also a child who never really has fun or learns anything because everything is just so hard and discouraging when you face it completely alone.

The other thing that struck me was that our life – I mean, specifically mine and hers – is bounded, to an unusual degree, by language. So much of what we do is guided, modified, sometimes even wholly driven by questions, not of practicality, but of the development of spoken communication.

And yet there are still so many parts of her life where, for want of a better expression, language simply does not work, where what she wants, thinks, feels is literally inexplicable through words. Not just because we speak French – she still mixes languages with both of us, English is still dominant overall, and yet she did not even attempt to explain what she wanted in either language. She just screamed.

To push the idea maybe too far, my early feelings about using French with her – could it really do the job, could I fully express myself, would I cope in extremis? – are very much like her current feelings about language in general. She remains sceptical that it is up to scratch. 

Until I can convince her that I am right and she is wrong – about anything at all, let alone about this – the Slade impersonations will continue, I fear. 

Come on – feel the noise!

By the time you read this I will probably be underwater. Hopefully eating a croissant.

The tax that will take us to the train that will take us away under the sea and off to Lille is due in five and a half hours. If I didn’t have to book some last-minute travel insurance (lost E111- silly papa) I would not even be online.

I am, frankly, terrified. Having been travelling abroad alone for nearly 20 years, sometimes with a pathetic lack of planning, suddenly I am scared that I will not cope, that it will all go wrong somehow.

I am being stupid, I know – and it’s Lille, not Minsk. (Please, never go to Minsk ifyou can help it, even if you don’t have a child with you.) And I do speak the language (not that that improved Minsk.) What’s the worst that can happen?

I’ll let you know next time.