A post I’ve wanted to make for some time is how I came to be doing this at all.

I mean, I know I wrote this, right back at the beginning, which explains the why of it – but the how of it is down to the people who put me in a position even to think that someone like me could sustain a non-native bilingual existence with my first-born for a matter of weeks, let alone the 21 months we have so far clocked up between us, one day at a time (as we say in the After School Club.) 

I have been lucky and had a lot of talented teachers in all disciplines in my life, most of which was (at least, prior to the After School Club watershed) spent in full-time education. But a few of them have given me confidence that I was able to take outside the classroom, confidence which saw me through the lessons of the many rubbish teachers I have also had, and, in a way – though the faults are all my own – helped create the Francophone monster that is Papa et Piaf. 

Here they are. 

Martin was probably the first, though he came on the scene at about the same time as Nadia (see below). The first teacher to make me realise that French was a language that people actually used, rather than a verbal trigonometry. He smoked immensely and, again, his failing made him seem more human. He was a caustic, cynical man in some ways and regularly referred to hapless students as “cretins”, which was one of the many things I liked about him – he didn’t pretend to like everyone just because they were children. This meant that, if ever he did show signs of liking you, you could actually believe it might be true. 

And he was, in other ways, tremendously kind. I remember going to see him once after the lesson because I thought I didn’t understand the perfect tense (yes, I really was that much of a loser.) I ended up actually crying (a loser AND a wimp – hands off, ladies, I’m practically married!) When he saw how distressed I was, Martin spent half his break talking me through it (remember, this man was probably a forty-a-day smoker who self-medicated on Gauloises and must have lived for his breaks. )

Several years later, he also enlivened A-level by actually telling us things we might want to know, and hinting at the dirty bits in Camus. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have bothered doing French past GCSE.

Nadia arrived at our school when I was in what was then called the third year. She came to teach us Russian, taking over from a man who had learnt his Russian spying on Soviet air traffic. She was a real Russian; she was very short; she claimed to have a brown belt in karate; she was clearly mad. Nadia, again, made a language seem much more than lists of declensions (of which Russian has many). With her, we could imagine people actually living, loving, arguing, even doing karate in this then very rare language (perestroika didn’t really get underway until my GCSE year.) When I sat A level, Nadia coached me. When I applied to Oxford, Nadia gave me extra lessons, free of charge, which is basically what got me in. When I wanted to go to Russia, Nadia helped me sort it out, and gave me a few pointers on how to get extra hard currency through customs. When I thought that Chekhov was tosh, Nadia reassured me that I was not alone. And she also said one of the nicest things a teacher had ever said to me. We were flying to Moscow together. Somehow, we were talking about my family, particularly my mum. “Well, she’s done a good job,” said Nadia. It took me a second to realise what she meant and, when I did, I must have been pink with pride. A teacher thinking that I was not only a good student, but a good person? There was hope for me yet.

Mary was the one-woman welcoming committee when I arrived at Oxford. She had given me my place (when my first choice college had, foolishly, rejected me); she had patiently and politely answered some nonsense letter I had written to her before starting (about something nothing to do with her, like bedding or grants – I had so little idea about how Oxford worked that I just wrote to the only person whose address I had on paper, and it was hers, on my offer letter); and she welcomed me, along with my fellow first-year starters, into her North Oxford sitting room in October long, long ago. 

I was not, at that point, studying French. I was at college to do single honours Russian (the English faculty had decided it could struggle by without me.) I was amazed that I was at Oxford, and was liberated by having no idea what to expect. 

The intake that year seemed beyond good. A half-Russian man; a half-Polish woman; a frighteningly gifted man who had taught himself Hungarian for a laugh; and me. And this woman, Mary, was posher than anyone I knew – she had a ‘cello, for heaven’s sake! I almost gave up, there and then.

But Mary did not give up on me. Always quick with praise and measured with criticism; always acting as if my admission had been a considered choice and not a slip of the pen on some long, closely-printed list of names; always taking her students seriously, even when we spoke nonsense. After two terms, I had even started to believe her. 

Colin took me on when I decided that, though I still wanted to study Russian, the particular joys reserved for single honours students – extra linguistics, the Lay of Prince Igor and the Memoirs of Prince Avakkum, these latter two to be read in Old Church Slavonic – were not for me. He found a place for me in his already crowded French group.

As I made the group an odd number, he also agreed to see me individually for tutorials. As I began to develop interests, and as they began to align themselves with his, he would occasionally let me set my own essay title. He even gave me a 10-year-old bottle of home-made white wine, which turned out to be the best sherry I had ever tasted. This, I decided, was what Oxford was about. 

So much so that, after a couple of terms, in the last tutorial before the vacation (it was a hollow joke to call them “holidays”) I diffidently mentioned that I had been thinking of a future in academia. 


If, at that stage, he had turned around and started an awful, mocking impersonation of a deranged simpleton, it would not have surprised me. Of course I had been fooling myself. I was, perhaps not hopeless, but very much an also-ran, and clearly a pretentious one at that.

Instead, he said, quite quietly, “Yes, well. I was thinking of giving you a scholarship, but you don’t work hard enough.”

In a flash, several truths became apparent to me. I was not an idiot; I was not delusional; and, most important of all, the age-old myth fell apart. At school, I had been effortlessly successful. Then I had come to Oxford and had been effortlessly mediocre. I had assumed that my dear old mum was right, that the bar ha been raised and I could no longer clear it. Instead, it turned out, no-one here was effortlessly anything. The people who succeeded did so because they were very bright, but because they also worked exceptionally hard. I started taking their lead. The following term, I worked harder than ever before or since (as well as acting, rowing, and writing at a “jolly good sport” sort of level) and got my mini-scholarship (or “exhibition” as they call it). I went on to narrowly miss a First and come out of that with enough confidence intact to go on to do research at Edinburgh. Without Colin’s quiet honesty, I’d have ended up pretending to want to be a school-teacher and wondering why I hated my life (I did that anyway, years later – but at least I had a go at what I wanted to be.) 

Ian was the last one. Believed by his Edinburgh undergraduates to have it in for English loafers, he nevertheless took on an Oxford graduate, to all appearances a dilettante (it took me about a term to tell him I was working twenty hours a week and that that was why I was a bit behind on the reading) who came armed only with an undergraduate dissertation on Daniel Pennac, an author almost no one had then heard of, apparently word-processed by a five-year-old, and of which Oxford’s examiners could not decide whether it was a work of genius or the ravings of an imbecile. 

Ian gave me the benefit of the doubt and, when he realised I was broke, did all he could to enable me to make some sort of a go of my doctorate. He sent me to France twice; he found me teaching hours (my poor undergraduates, I am so sorry you were lumbered with me); he got me published; and he let me stay round his house once so I could return from Nice to do a conference paper. He also took me lunchtime drinking at the Southsider. Ian made me believe that, not only could I become an academic, but that I could live as an academic, perhaps for my whole life. The question of what the hell I was going to do with this bizarre commodity called life was finally, and to my immense relief, solved

Of course, I went on to piss all that up the proverbial wall, but that was no fault of his. And I did come out of it speaking really rather good French …

So, if any of the five of you end up reading this, thank you. I couldn’t have done it without you.


I got a lot of my early support and guidance in this experiment from the parenting website Mumsnet and am still a regular on there. 

I was contributing to a thread on bilingualism there last night and remembered an incident from much earlier in the year, before I gave my whole life over to the service of this blog. Like last night’s blog, it revolves around a misunderstanding, so it’s mildly entertaining, and I thought it might be worth sharing on here too.

The thread I was responding to was basically asking if other parents spoke the majority language as a concession to their children’s friends and/or strangers in the park?

Absolutely not, I replied. (And it’s true, I don’t. What sort of message would that give to your child and to others? That your shared language is shameful, inconvenient, secret, “less than”? I’m speaking French, not shaking hands with a mason.) 

But I understand that mother’s question. After all, you don’t want to alienate other children either or, even worse, mark your own child out as odd or awkward.

To suggest a possible solution, and to illustrate how seriously I take this whole question, I related how, when we were still living in Peckham, we took a bus into Brixton one day. Piaf was okay on buses (just as well) unless and until she got bored.

On this occasion, my way of distracting her and keeping her calm was to read her a book. For this reason, even now, I never, ever take her anywhere without taking a book along too. 

As I was reading, I noticed the little girl in the pram wedged next to hers (busy bus) had started taking an interest too. What should I do? I had heard the girl’s father say a few words in English, so it was unlikely that she would follow the French; but if I read it in English, I would be letting me and Piaf down, and maybe confusing and upsetting into the bargain – which, obviously, was the antithesis of the goal of reading to her in the first place. 

What I ended up doing – there, on the 37 from Peckham to Brixton – was reading the page in French, then translating it into English for the other little girl. And I did this for the whole book. Both girls seemed to enjoy it, and neither one got upset or bored or started crying.

Then the other girl and her dad got off one stop before us, and I realised that they were Portuguese.

Like this? Try these. 

J’habille, tu habilles, elle habille … 

Je change, tu changes, elle change …

Je babille, tu babilles, elle babille … 

Je confesse, tu confesses, elle confesse …

The number of times I have doubted my decision! And yet a few occasions stand out when I could have packed it all in and didn’t.

 The first one almost doesn’t count because it was in reverse. Having considered raising Piaf bilingually, having cleared it with her mother, and having reassured myself that, though my French was not perfect, it was good enough to have a crack, I bottled it when she was born. The scales fell from my eyes. I was about to set myself up as a fraud! What would my family say? What would my English friends say – would they think I was pretentious? Come to that, what would my French friends say – would I be marked out as a malefactor, grooming a cuckoo to be released on an unsuspecting France some years hence? For the first week, I spoke little to Piaf, but when I did it was in English – I can remember holding her, tiny, in my arms, and trying to convince her I was Ben E. King as I crooned “When My Little Girl Is Smiling”.

 At the end of the week, nothing had changed. Except me. I remembered the sound reasons I had had for wanting to do this and decided I didn’t care what anyone else thought. This was about me and Piaf and if anyone didn’t like it, that was their concern. We’d live.

 When Piaf was four months, we took her to Waterbabies, trawling half-way across London for it and spending the weekend with the outlaws. Waterbabies has fixed command words which your baby is supposed to associate with what is happening at the time. I promptly translated these into French. Her mother voiced her concerns. Day-to-day was fine, but surely this was different? I did not explicitly argue, but I knew instinctively that this was a test of the set-up. Back down here, and everything else “serious” would automatically be in English. French would have no validity for Piaf. It would become a hobby. Instead of arguing, then, I remarked that, if they had Waterbabies in France too (it’s a big franchise) then surely the commands would be in French? If what was important was that the words were fixed, I would make sure to use the same words every time. Maman probably still wasn’t 100% convinced, but she let it go, and another hurdle was behind us.

 At 11 months, Piaf was teething – again. She was a little hot and grumpy, but basically fine. She had her bath as normal, giggled as we played with her, and went to bed.

 An hour or so later she woke. I went to give her the rest of her milk and noticed with horror that her normally alert eyes were unfocussed. I picked her up. She was limp and seemed to be twitching. Her temperature was beyond anything we had come across.

 The next half-hour or so is a bit of a blur, to be honest. I remember shouting to her mum; calling the ambulance; thinking it was a toss-up as to whether this was meningitis or epilepsy; thinking that, of course, it had been too good to be true, that our little girl was going to be taken away because I didn’t deserve her; kicking myself for being resolutely agnostic because, even as I prayed for her to be spared (in the street, looking out for the ambulance), I knew I did not believe that anything was listening.

It turned out to be a febrile convulsion. Neither of us had ever heard of it. It is not normally life-threatening, but does a bloody good impression of being so when you don’t know what it is. When I knew that, when we got to the hospital, the blur clears. Our girl was not going to die. Thought could begin again.

 But what I do remember about that half-hour, running around impotently with her in my arms, feeling her bowels open, the ride in the ambulance, is that I never once stopped talking to her in French. Maybe that’s odd – surely the shock should have made me revert to my native tongue? But, in as far as I thought anything, I decided there and then that the last thing I was going to do to my daughter at a time like this, when none of us knew what was going on, was to confuse and distress her by changing the language I used to make her feel loved. For me and Piaf, les jeux étaient déjà faits.

I am Papa because I am her Papa (though she calls me Daddy.) Not “Papa” in a Von Trapp way; “Papa” in a Joe Dassin way. I am 35 and, when I am not with her, am by nature a miserable bastard.

She is Piaf because her middle name is Edith and because, when she was born, she put me in mind (as I suppose most newborns would) of a sparrow, fragile and alert and curious all at the same time; the famous Piaf got her stage name on a similar basis, “piaf” being Parisian slang for “sparrow”. Piaf is nearly 18 months old and is naturally incredibly cheerful, especially when there are shoes to be played with.

 Oh. And we are bilingual. Since about a week after her birth (more about that week later) I have spoken to her exclusively in French; her mother has spoken to her exclusively in English.

 So far, so South Ken. Here in London, after all, there is no shortage of Francophone families. The French-speaking community (which is also, by and large, the French community – I assume the Swiss, Walloons and Québécois to be independently-minded fellows for the most part) clusters around the Embassy and the Lycée in South Kensington; straggles thickly through Clapham (where the French answer to Notting Hill was set); and finally peters out in the eastern fastnesses of Norwood. Meanwhile, in deepest South-East London, another, entirely separate Francophone community abuts the first, this one of dark-skinned Africans who speak French for colonial reasons. To be a French-speaking parent in London is not a rare thing.

 Our situation is a little different, however, in that I am not French. Nor am I half-French; nor Swiss, Walloon or Québécois, nor even Ivorian or Congolese. I did not grow up in France ; nor was I schooled there; nor am I even an alumnus of said lycée. And the same is true of every single member of my family. Until secondary school I did not speak one word of the language which is now my exclusive means of communication with my only child.

 How this all came to pass – our “back story,” if you like – is probably something I should dole out as we go along, rather than try to explain it all in one go. Suffice it to say for now that we are not the first, nor even the only ones at present, but we are rare enough to make me want to explain myself, even to strangers.

 I suppose I should start with WHY. I’m tempted to blurt out “I don’t know” but that’s hardly likely to keep you reading and it isn’t quite true. I know why I think I made this decision, and how I explain it to myself and others – but sometimes it seems such an odd, fraught and, frankly, difficult thing to do that my own reasons don’t convince me. Still, for what it’s worth, here they are.

 In my old life, as I now describe my early 20s (for reasons that will become clear if you stick around) I was supposed to become a university lecturer in French. To that end, I started a thesis; taught a bit at British and French universities, though never on anything like a permanent contract; lived in France for two years; and read a lot of French novels about crime. In that time, I acquired a good knowledge of French, France and the French. I worked, played and slept with French people; I shopped in French shops, lived in French houses, ate and drank (mainly drank) in French cafés. I started to feel like I was French on some days, and on other days to wish I was. It wasn’t that being English was bad. I just felt being French would be better.

 This obviously marked the culmination of many years of studying French language and literature. At my peak, although fear of ridicule prevented me from saying it too loud, I felt I was the best non-native speaker of French I knew (apart from impossible wizards like my supervisor.)

 And yet there were still times when I found myself groping for the gender of a word; or calculating rather than knowing whether to address a friend of a friend as “tu” or “vous”. I was good, certainly – but I was performing dog good.

 If only things had been different, I thought. If only I spoke French like I spoke English. If only I could really blend unnoticed into this wonderful world, so different from England, and so especially different from my England.

 When Piaf was born, it seemed that this might be a pretty cool gift to give her. I was intently aware of how much work even performing dog good had taken me. Imagine acquiring all that without even knowing you were acquiring it!

 And imagine, most of all, being special. Imagine being, not just a French-English bilingual, but a French-English bilingual with no French in you, a linguistic realisation of the expression, “look, no hands!”

 Yes, there was other stuff too – the promise of improved intelligence and creativity, the social usefulness, the broadening of opportunities, the potential to study in an enviably secular education system – but these came later, to support and justify a decision that was already as good as made.

 I must have been insane.