The fact that Piaf understands French is no guarantee that she will act on that understanding. 

Tonight, bath time slipped a bit, so that it was already late when we started getting ready for bed. Piaf cleaned her teeth (and mine) and we got her pyjama bottoms on. 

She grabbed the top off me and started trying to put it on herself. Her face was a mask of joyous concentration. I could see that this could end up taking some time.

“Tu veux que papa t’aide?”

“Non.” 

“Piaf, c’est un maillot. Laisse-moi t’aider.” 

“Maillot.”

 “Oui, c’est ton maillot. Laisse-moi t’aider, ou nous n’aurons pas le temps de lire Charlie et Lola.” (I caved in and ordered it in French from Canada. Quel mug!) 

“Lola-book.” 

“Oui. Tu aimes Charlie et Lola, hein? Alors, laisse-moi t’aider.” 

“Non.”

 “D’accord, c’est comme tu veux, j’ai tout mon temps, moi.” 

Nevertheless, minutes went by and we were getting nowhere. Try as she might, she could not get this top on. Even I was starting to get impatient for milk and for Charlie et Lola

I made an executive decision. I held out my hand and swiftly – but not roughly – I took her legs out of the pyjama top, passed it smoothly over her head, sat her on my lap and started to read.

Like this? Try these.

Je suis fatigué, tu es fatigué, elle est fatiguée …

Je confonds, tu confonds, elle confond …

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It wasn’t meant to happen like this. I really thought I had it all planned. 

I thought that, when Piaf started having bad dreams, I would be able to say exactly what was needed to calm her down, perhaps even raise a smile, and get her back to bed feeling happy and safe and loved.

How was I to know that they would start before she was speaking properly? I thought I had another six months to hone my perfect papa routine. 

Half past five this morning. To make it worse, I had an unusual attack of conscience. Instead of going back to sleep (which I find shamefully easy) I encouraged maman to bring Piaf into our bed, just until she calmed down, just for long enough to prepare the milk she was literally crying out for. 

I think the conscience was sparked by the fact that, whatever Piaf said, this was clearly not just about milk. Something had scared her and she was unable to express it, meaning in turn that maman and I were unable to rationalise it for her. The milk was a symptom, not a cause.

Like I say, I really thought I had it all planned.

To make it worse, work has been very intense for both of us recently. Definitely in my own case I have been “burning the candle at both ends” (as my mother would say) and, indirectly, “chasing the pound note” (as my friends at the After School Club would say.) I really am not in a fit state to be waking up at 5.30 a.m. for my own nightmares, let alone someone else’s. 

And so, at 5.35 a.m., Piaf made her entrance. She was sleepy but not ready to sleep. Her vulnerability made her seem even smaller than usual. She smelt of Ovaltine. She sucked at the teat of her bottle like her father used to suck on cans of Stella Artois, that irrational hunger for a liquid that seems to belong more in a war film than in suburbia.

The twin magics of her parents’ closeness and a third of a pint of full-fat soon had her calm. A certain amount of crooning took place.

 I held her close, selfishly, before her maman got to her, and made the most of it, knowing that if she got too comfy she would decide it was playtime and wriggle away from both of us. 

“Calme-toi,” I cajoled. And she did.

“Fais-moi un câlin,” I whispered. And she did.

“Fais-moi un bisou,” I entreated. And she did. 

“Fais dodo,” I risked, ever aware that, however precious and lovely and rare this moment was, both maman and I were shattered and a chain reaction of alarms, like vindictive aural dominoes, would soon be doing their worst.

And, blow me, she did. For a few minutes there, nightmare forgotten, she let her guard down and allowed herself to drop off in the company of the two people who love her more than anything. 

At least, I think she did. I mean, I know I did. I assume she followed suit.

That’s the trouble with conscience. It never lasts. 

Like this? Try these. 

Je me détends, tu te détends, elle se détend … 

Je câline, tu câlines, elle câline … 

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 …

It is the time of year when people buy their offspring winter coats far better than any winter coat they themselves have ever owned – at least, since their own parents bought them a winter coat far better than anything they themselves had ever owned. 

In our case, this led me to use the online Verbaudet catalogue at a moment when I should technically have been doing the job I am paid to do. Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, I thought – I’ll have a look at the French site too. I often do this sort of thing (though never at work. No. Not ever. No sirree.) I find it a good way of picking up more specialist items of vocabulary.

 Still, there’s “specialist” in the sense of “relating to a particular or narrow field” and “specialist” in the sense of “I think you may have made this up” and clothing, especially children’s clothing (where “taupe” and “bois” are apparently legitimate colours) is an area in which examples of the latter proliferate.

I have picked five items from the said Verbaudet catalogue which I think demonstrate this very nicely.

Un nid d’ange (literally, “angel’s nest”) is, from what I can make out, a baby sleeping bag in which the arms have no freedom of movement.

Un body (loan word from English) is the same as the garment of the same name fashionable for adult women fifteen years ago, but much smaller. In other words, it’s a (usually) short-sleeved vest with a gusset.

Une combinaison-pilote (literally, “pilot’s all-in-one”) is a boring old snowsuit.

Une chancelière (literally, I presume, a “chancellor’s wife”) appears to be a “cosy-toe”, a sort of integral sleeping bag for use in a buggy.

Un dors-bien (literally, “sleep well”) – I confess this one has stumped me. I cannot tell it apart from “un pyjama” which is what the call most of the babygro-type products on the site. Answers on a postcard please. 

Of course, no one is a linguistic hero when there are products to sell and money and consumer gullibility are powerful talismans to your typical retailer. Nevertheless, this brief and so far shallow entry raises two questions for me.

Firstly – if you ask a French person why they think French is a better language than English (don’t worry – they all do) he or she will quite probably respond that French is a language of precision. English, the theory goes, deals with the challenge of a new concept by simply making up a new word to go with it. This, Francophiles argue, is sloppy and easy. The French solution is to use what is already available and modify the way it is put together with other elements to express a particular nuance or even new and fresh idea. 

How, I wonder, would such a view cope with loan words (and faux amis) like “un bloomer” (frilly knickers) or “des straps” (shoes with a velcro or buckle and strap fastening in place of laces), not to mention composite loan word monsters like “un babycook” (a blender for producing baby food) or even bits of French words glued together almost à l’australienne – as, for example, “un pantacourt” (children’s three-quarter length trousers – if I say “Tintin” you will surely know exactly what I mean)? Who do French linguistic chauvinists blame for this? The Americans? The turncoat Canadians? Perfidious Albion? Their own degenerate youth? 

Second – is it just possible that they find our words for such things as bizarre and silly as we may find theirs? Does it make less sense to call a collarless jersey with buttons “un tunisien” rather than “a Henley top”? True enough, the idea of a baby wearing a real “combinaison pilote” is ridiculous – but then, how often do British babies really need a “snowsuit”?

And does Petit Bateau’s doudou lapin imprimé à fleur avec son bloomer (from the “doudoushop”) make sense in any language?

It wouldn’t be a holiday without phoning your grandparents.

Piaf likes phones, especially mobiles. She likes pressing the buttons. She loves changing the settings. She adores transferring foodstuffs from her evening meal to the screen. And occasionally, very occasionally, she deigns to talk to the person at the other end.

 To be fair, it must be an odd experience. There’s me, instructing her in one language to talk to an invisible voice in another language outside any tangible context.

 And yet she knows what the phone is for. When there is no one on the line, she will often press the handset experimentally to one ear and venture the international telephone greeting, “‘allo?” She is happy to use the speaker of her baby monitor as an ersatz walkie talkie (or, as she will one day know to call it in French, “le talkie walkie”.) Perhaps most surprising of all, she even understands that her Fisher Price pull-along phone is in fact meant to be a phone, even though it looks nothing like any working phone she has ever seen; babies are powerful and persuasive evidence for the existence of Platonic ideals.

Back to the phone conversation. After talking to my mother (“mamie”, as opposed to maman‘s mother, who is “grand’maman” – if you’re English and confused, be glad you’re not my daughter) I ask if she would like to speak to Piaf. I may as well ask George Best if he fancies a pint. I make sure I have said all I need to say, and pass the phone to my child.

“Piaf? C’est mamie à l’appareil. Tu veux lui parler?”

She says neither yes nor no but simply takes the handset from me in what will turn out to be a grip of iron and with unerring instinct sets about trying to connect to the internet. She puts it to her ear, ascertains someone is there, listens attentively for a few moments, and then cunningly alters the arrangement of icons in the main menu. When it is quite certain that my mother has given up and hung up (or been cut off – it is never entirely clear) she looks at the screen, ventures her trademark “‘allo?” and hands it back to me. 

Oh well. At least we tried.

Or, as the not very funny typical dad joke has it, “je repète plus fort.”

I have been a little out of love with my job this week. Not only am I going through a period of angst about not being very good at it and did I make the right decision when deciding to retrain and has every single decision since then been the right one and how will I know for sure and so forth; but it has had me up till all hours, trying to make a given set of numbers produce results that they are showing no real inclination to produce. In short, I am tired and despondent. Poor me. 

This has, I know, made me grumpier than needs be with Piaf, at a stage in her life when her instinctive behaviour is designed to make adults grumpy. There are only so many times you can smile philosophically while sponging yoghurt off beige carpet.

On the plus side – and doubtless small children are designed that way – she is incapable of bearing a grudge. Drop a miserable, cross, sulky child at nursery in the morning; pick up a cheerful person in the evening. (I hasten to add that in both cases it’s the same child in a different mood – don’t go reporting me to social services.) 

However, I find myself doing a lot of repeating at the moment. The first sort is driven by the grump-provoking behaviour (and the late nights) and consists of repeating the same instructions, criticisms and miniature paroxysms of rage over and over again. The first time I heard Dutronc’s superb Fais pas ci, fais pas ça (seen here with cutely demonstrative amateur video) I had no idea that it would one day have real and practical use in my life. It’s not just that I’m grumpy (though I definitely am) – I’m proud of my little girl and don’t want to realise one day that I’ve failed us both by raising a cretin. “Je le dis pour ton bien” indeed.

 The other sort of repetition is more tactical and will, I hope, earn Piaf’s gratitude rather sooner. As I have said elsewhere, her languages are very mixed still (as is normal) and English still has very much the upper hand (also normal.) In monolingual environments, it is found – and I can’t be bothered to track down the research, but you know it makes sense – that the parents of children who are “good speakers” routinely “feed back” to them. The child says, “cake”; the parent does not just say “yes” or “no” but repeats and embellishes – “oh, you’d like a cake, would you? What sort of cake do you want?”

It seems to me that this must be good practice when applied bilingually too and can only help to prepare Piaf for the next stage (a few months off yet) when I will start trying to elicit French from her instead of English. When she says, “duck” (one of her favourite words and concepts currently) I do not just nod and I certainly do not say “yes” (or, if it’s a chicken, “no”) in English. I say, with all the excitement I can muster, “oui, c’est un canard, n’est-ce pas? Un joli canard jaune! Que fait-il? Il nage, hmm?”

Or, if I’m grumpy because numbers, sleeplessness and looking after an 18-month-old girl have got the better of me, I embellish by shouting, “mais ramasse ce canard, putain, pourquoi tu l’as jeté par terre? Tu veux que papa se casse la gueule?”

 To cheer us all up, I thought I’d also give you a link to the other Fais pas ci, fais pas ça – the France 2 sitcom which I worry I may also come to live for real one day …

Help me out if you will.

The more Piaf repeats words that she hears, the more aware I become that I will need to stop swearing. 

Now, bear in mind that I swear a lot. It’s not because I have a limited vocabulary, or because I struggle to express myself, or because I lack decorum or confidence. It’s because I like it.

Secondly, remember that swearing in French, while not something I find difficult or limiting, is not my first instinct in those very moments of heightened pain, shock, surprise or anger when I most like swearing.

So to go from swearing in English, to swearing in French, to using those “pretend” swearwords especially invented for use in front of and by children – the Gallic analogues of “fudge”, “sugar” and (for the Baptists among you) “Jeepers Creepers” – is quite a tall order. 

Especially given that I don’t actually know what those analogues are.

 Well, having said that, I once had a private student (18 years old, I sugar you not) who would exclaim “mince!” instead of “merde!” when he made a mistake. There’s polite, and there’s embarrassing. Still, I know that one.

I also know that “flute!” is often used in these contexts, but I’m never sure what it’s replacing. 

So, if you can help, I’d love to hear a few more. In the mean time, I’ve made up a few of my own to be going on with.

I thought, for example, that “Pétain!” was practically a swearword in itself so I might as well use that one while I’m waiting. “Canard” also seems fit for purpose, especially as Piaf is really into ducks at the moment. (I remember fondly, too, a conversation with a French friend about whether people from Caen were Caennards …) “Mince” I have, so no worries there – and, of course, the verb “ficher” covers a multitude of sins (though can you say, “va te faire ficher”? I think not.) 

That basically leaves me with “cul” and its derivates (“enculer”, “trouduc”, “enculé(e)(s)”, “va te le mettre au cul”) to replace (I was going to say “plug” but didn’t want to excite you with a double entendre.) If you’ve got any ideas, please log them in the comments.

You poor duck.

If ever you glance at the comments attached to this blog you will notice that I have recently been corrected by a real live Frenchman on the word for an ice lolly.

Further, this Frenchman is someone whose opinion I respect and have often sought on linguistic matters. Clearly, I am wrong. 

Nevertheless, there are reasons why I am wrong.

My choice of vocabulary with Piaf is surrounded by tensions probably not felt by native speakers, and almost certainly not felt by native speakers in the homeland.

The first tension, as I have intimated previously, is that a lot of words I simply don’t know – and, in this category, the words I need to bring up a child are over-represented. If you had asked me, a little over 18 months ago, to use French to discuss narrative structures in the crime novel, it would have been my pleasure. If you had asked me to talk about the constituent parts of a baby’s bottle, I would have fallen at the first hurdle.

All of these gaps have been plugged, tant bien que mal, by my trusty Collins Robert dictionary. Alas, as is so often the case when the adjective “trusty” crops up, the adjective “old” belongs right alongside it. This, after all, is the dictionary that got me through ‘A’ level literally half a lifetime ago. To say that the world has moved on is an understatement.

This is where I found the word “esquimau” for an ice lolly – but my friend informs me that the word on the street in 1989 is no longer the word on the street in 2009. (It probably wasn’t in 1992, when I took the ‘A’ level, either, but fortunately ice lollies were deemed too frivolous for advanced level candidates in those days.) 

A related problem – rarer, but real – is when the native French speakers I know in Britain don’t know the word either, because the concept did not exist when they left France or just because they didn’t care about baby-related things at the time. No one has yet been able to be definitive, for example, about the French for the children’s toy based on an Aboriginal instrument and called a “rain maker”; or how, exactly, one should translate “rice cakes”. (Anyone? Anyone?) 

But the most treacherous issue – the one I nearly fell for – is that of loan words.

When The Plan began, I wasn’t blind. I realised that both the problems outlined above would affect me. Not to worry, I thought – if in doubt, it’s often perfectly acceptable to use the English with a French accent. Look at “le jogging”; look at “le shopping”; “le fair-play”, for goodness’s sake! You can’t go wrong.

I was encouraged in this belief by a lot of Canadian popular culture, especially some of the rock music (which often plays on the dual linguistic heritage of the country) and the daytime sitcom Rumeurs .

Then I came across writers who said that this was A Very Bad Idea. If bilingual children get used to this (they say) then, whenever they don’t know a word in their weaker language, they will invent their own “loan word” from their stronger one.

This threw me back at the mercy of the dictionary and led to some exceptionally poor choices. Piaf, like most babies, initially spent a lot of her time in what are often called sleep suits. The word I chose, with the help of the Collins Robert, to translate this? “Barboteuse” – the picture needs no further comment, I believe. Manu (trusty, but not quite old) suggested “pyjama” and I have now decided that, should we have a brother or sister for Piaf, he or she shall wear “une grenouillière“.

Later on, Piaf started wearing hooded tops from Gap. I decided that the best word for this would be “un capuchon”. Now, “un capuchon” does mean a hooded top – if you are Cadfael. Here’s one I googled earlier (it also means a rather more integral hood, but we shan’t dwell on that now.) Once again, Manu rode to the rescue, this time with “un sweat à capuche”.

My rule now is simple but, so far, effective. If I have any doubt about a word, I ask; in the mean time, I talk around it as best I can; and I only use an English loan word when that is the first and only realistic choice (yes to “le football”, no to “le shopping”.)

And I promise never to dress my children in barboteuses or capuchons.

For Papa and Piaf, Saturday morning is play time.

 For Piaf, of course, every morning is play time. That’s her job, that’s what she does. But for us as parents, weekday mornings are usually keep-her-safe-and-occupied-while-we-get-ready-for-work time. In spite of the impression I may have given yesterday , weekends in our house are low-key affairs. On Saturday and Sunday we take it in turns to lie in and the one who is not in bed has to make sure Piaf is sufficiently entertained that she will not unduly miss the parent who is.

 Saturday is my day.

 Keeping her entertained is all very well and not too hard after 18 months’ practice, but it is compounded by a moral obligation not to take the easy way out. After all, I sense she would happily watch back-to-back episodes of Trotro or Bumba, pausing only to say “gain” or “acor” when the DVD goes back to the start menu; but, sentimental fool that I am, I worry she will subconsciously feel this is unfair and reproach me for not interacting with her more (in fact, it is all I can do to get her attention for long enough to ask her to move more than six inches from the screen.)

 I also think that this is a golden opportunity for us to get several solid hours of Frenchness together (especially as we will often be going to French playgroup.)

 Here, then, is what I believe is called a negotiated agenda for this morning (all items to be confirmed according to mere whimsy and to whether I can turn the DVD off without promoting a tantrum.)

 6.30am – Wake up. Piaf is actually getting quite good at sleeping to a reasonable time during the week. It seems to go out of the window at weekends, especially on my mornings. Some days I like her less than others …

 6.31am – Milk. Nothing happens until the first milk feed of the day is provided.

 NOTHING.

 6.45am – Dressing. Key phrases – “Ouf! Elle est lourde, cette couche!” “Baisse tes jambes.” “S’il te plaît, baisse tes jambes.” “Baisse tes jambes, merde!” “Un bras, deux bras, abra-, cadabra!” And, after what seems an age, because it is, “Que tu es jolie!”

 7.00am – Pouring all the Duplo blocks over the floor.

 7.30am – When the Duplo is definitively finished with and Papa has put it all back in the box but not yet put the lid on, pouring all the Duplo blocks over the floor.

 7.40am – Pouring all the wooden blocks over the floor.

 8.00am – Reading and dancing. Piaf genuinely likes reading and playing with books in both languages. Once very fickle, often changing books or even wandering off part-way through a story, she is currently at the other extreme and will demand the same story again the second it is finished. Latest coup de cœurQuand la forêt s’endort (she likes doing her owl impersonation which is very cute indeed.) In the background a DVD, asked for and then forgotten, may well be playing though, for the reasons above, I try not to do this at the weekend. If not, some execrable pop as previously confessed to will be playing – I am trying to teach her to twist but she is just not willing to put the work in.

 8.20am (and earlier, and later) – Pushing doll around in £5 toy buggy from Argos and saying “baby”. Fairly self-explanatory. Spin-offs include covering said doll with makeshift blankets.

 9.00am – Breakfast. Piaf likes cereals but she is very stubborn at the moment about feeding herself and does not really have the competence to do so with cereals. We will probably go to the café, therefore, where she can sit in a highchair, eat croissants and pannetone and ogle other babies. Might do some more reading, too, if the mood takes us.

 10.30am – Charity shops and library. The public library is excellent near us, and has plenty of space for children to run around without bothering anyone except their parents. There are bean bags to lie on, toys to play with, books to pull of the shelf while saying “book!” over and over … Piaf loves it. However, within ten minutes of arriving she will probably unleash a large and foul-smelling poo and we will have to cut short our visit so we can go home and change her. (Of course, 15 minutes earlier and I could have changed her in the café, but why plan ahead?)

 When we get home, maman is up, as well rested as a working parent can be and overjoyed to see her beautiful (if far from fragrant) little girl. Once changed (see 6.45am – Dressing above, adding the phrase, “ça schlingue!” as appropriate) she will want to go to slide and the day en famille begins in earnest.

 Reading back over that, I can see that, to the untrained eye, I might appear not to be entirely serious in places.

Honestly. You’d think I enjoyed it …

One of my worries for Piaf is that, having gone through The Plan without knowing any different, she will subsequently be “rejected” by native speakers as some kind of interloper. 

Maybe I shouldn’t worry – maybe she will be far more philosophical about it than I am, or more accepting, or maybe it’s just too far off to worry about – but I do, just a little.

In this context, it is interesting to see how French people – and especially French children – currently react to us. 

As well as meeting French speakers through attending a Francophone Saturday playgroup not far from home, Piaf also meets two half-French children at the nursery she goes to five days a week while we are at work. This is not entirely a coincidence – one of these families put us on to the fact that the nursery had a place because I knew them from Saturdays – but it is in no way a “bilingual” nursery. It just happens to have more than its share of French-speakers.

In other words, these three children, all under three, meet each other with their parents in a French-speaking environment most weekends and meet each other several days a week in an English-speaking environment.

Typically, a native speaker of a language, especially a child, will “decide” or “perceive” what language another person “belongs” to – usually very early on in the relationship – and will from then on consistently favour that language in interacting with that individual, however many other languages they have in common. In many ways, indeed, this is the driving force behind the OPOL (one parent, one language) principle which our family follows.

Neither of the children have ever heard me address them in English – I speak French to French speakers, English to monolingual English speakers, which is pretty much the same as their parents, as far as I can see. Also, for what it’s worth, both have French-speaking mothers. In other words, they potentially perceive daddies as English-speaking entities. What we have here is the makings of a controlled experiment.

The boy is the older of the two. He always looks startled when I address him in French and vaguely suspicious when I address Piaf in French in his presence. That said, he’s not that chatty and English seems to be his language of choice with everyone except his maman. I have never noticed him addressing me or Piaf in French.

The girl is closer in age to Piaf, though still older, and seems very taken with her. She is boisterous, outgoing and cheerful. Her dominant language at the moment is very definitely French. She is happy to address me in French, though that used to be less the case, and does not seem to find it odd that I use the language myself.

Both of these children routinely use English (or attempt to do so, in the context of their age) with people they perceive to be English speakers.

Having said that this has the makings of a controlled experiment, I realise I have raised lots of questions and answered none. Does either of the children consider me as a French speaker? By rights they should – I speak nothing else to them – but do they? And, if not, is it just because they can tell I am not native, or is it because they have been told I am English? Is it a language thing, in other words, or an identity thing?

In the same way, how do they feel about Piaf (who they know understands French, but who speaks very little in either language) – and are there feelings governed by their perceptions about her or about me? 

Most important, will their views change in the light of her increasing linguistic competence – which could still go either way – or has the die been cast?

We are also missing the control itself from this experiment. How do they interact with each other? I confess I do not know and will probably have to ask their parents if the opportunity arises. 

But the impetus for this blog entry is that last night, after nursery, we stopped off at the playground. The girl and her mother, recently back from a long holiday in France, were there and I went over. When the girl saw us approaching, she lit up. “Maman, regarde, c’est Alice! Bonjour, Alice!”

She addressed my daughter in French! And then she did it again. And again. 

Pure instinct after a fortnight speaking nothing but? Or acceptance of Piaf as a linguistic sputnitsa and a prospect of becoming my ally in providing her with Francophone surround sound in the months and years ahead? 

I still do not know. But I have my hopes.