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.

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I’m back. Thanks for staying around. Past the 2,000 hit mark (in total, not daily – not resigning from work just yet) and, as you will doubtless know, we got a 0-0 draw out of Guingamp, so the omens are good. 

It’s been an eventful week, which is normally the point of holidays, and seems to be positively unavoidable on holidays involving small children, so no complaints there. I dare say I’ll be talking about it for a while, as the alternative would be to sit up till 3am typing every single “highlight” into one entry.

What can I tell you right now to repay your faith in me? Well, Monkey World was good, but lacked the sparkle I had imbued it with in my mind’s eye; Piaf, in what could easily be a Biblical metaphor but isn’t, got to stroke both sheep and goats; I received a cordial welcome in one of the several Bournemouth meetings of the After School Club; I learnt that Honda Civics do not have a fuel light; and I was starting to despair about the whole French experiment, before a couple of small incidents gave me a sudden injection of hope.

I realise that I often talk about these doubts and it may seem that I am playing for sympathy, trying to build up a narrative where really there is none. I think that’s largely a timing thing if I’m honest (though I have never been one of nature’s shiny-eyed optimists). Not only is it the summer, but it is the summer of the second year. I do not think it will ever be this tough again. 

As the only constant Francophone in Piaf’s life, I have the responsibility of providing a correct, but also a varied, linguistic model for her. But – and this is what I observe to be fact, not a theory, a model or a metaphor – language in use goes stale and deteriorates if there is no exterior input from time to time. I think this is true of one’s native language too – I think the most obvious conceit of novels about the man stranded on the desert island is that his language stays fresh and inventive, instead of withering to a “point and click” functionality – but, particularly in a foreign language, without at least one other speaker, I am finding the system is starting to seize up. My mind starts to play tricks on me. That noun that’s on my lips – is it masculine or feminine? That verb – what’s its past participle? That adjective – before or after the noun, and with what nuance of meaning? Not to mention style, register and the fine details of pronunciation. 

Hence the significance of summer. For nearly two months, I have been away from Saturday morning playgroup, my main source of French conversation with fluent speakers. Then, for a whole week at the end of that summer, I have been away from almost all French influence at all (save a couple of children’s DVDs and a few novels I didn’t find the time to read.) I have, to be honest, struggled.

The significance of this summer over any other is that last summer I was still in complete control communicatively and in future summers, if things work out, Piaf herself will increasingly provide me with feedback – I will be able to “hear” what’s right and wrong in another person’s voice and, just as important, get the motivation to speak and make sense in the first place. At the moment, Piaf is a very demanding listener and a minimal speaker – I can sense that she wants a dozen new words a day but, because she is not giving them back to me, I cannot modify them or build on them.

 Enough with the misery already. On to the positive shoots. The first one was tiny – she described her head as “tête”. Of course, she already understood that “la tête” means “head” – but, on this occasion, she seemed to be using it instead of the English, as a concession to me. The implication is that she is becoming ready and willing to play the game this has all been building up to – the game (and it always is a game to some degree, even for native speakers, in the sense that it is a choice rather than a necessity) called OPOL, or “one parent, one language”. Whether she will play well, consistently or even competently is something we will find out in good time, but she gives these occasional, brief clues that she is willing to give it a shot, and that will do to be going on with. 

The other ray of sunshine was her sudden and spontaneous production of the phrase, “oh, là, là!” It is for you to judge, on the basis of your imagination, how cute a toddler saying “oh, là, là!” is, but for me, the answer is “very.” Beyond that, it also shows that she is capable of acquiring and recycling “chunks” of language, which is a core competence in the successful language learner. Again, it promises nothing, but bodes well – maybe, just maybe, I am doing something right.

 Incidentally, you may be wondering why I focussed on the “chunking” aspect rather than the (potentially more exciting) understanding of idiom. The answer is that I shied away from describing this as “idiomatic language” because she has yet to grasp metaphor. You see, once she’d said “oh, là, là!” of her own free will, I tried to elicit it again, to make sure it was not just a coincidence. She came out with it over and over, no problem. But when, instead of “oh, là, là!” I tried to get her to produce the near-synonym, “oh, la vache!” she took it literally and responded “meuh!” 

It is for you to judge, on the basis of your imagination, how cute a toddler mooing in response to “oh, la vache!” is, but for me, the answer is “even more than earlier.”

All of a sudden, it seems, Piaf has discovered a sense of humour.

One minute, breaking wind was a simple, automatic bodily function; now, it is a source of mirth.

Peek-a-boo is now a two-sided game, rather than a response-only activity. By extension, so is deception – saying “gone” (with upturned palms and outstretched arms) when a quick check reveals the milk is nowhere near finished or the doll is hidden under a blanket.

Swinging her through the air like a plane, or pretending to drop her, now elicits, not just a contented smile, but outright laughter. Tickling, especially by stealth, has her in fits. 

It is clear that the vast majority of her humour is still very physical. She bears out, in a very immediate and literal way, Bergson’s idea that what makes us laugh is “le mécanique plaqué sur le vivant” (or, for those who can be bothered to read the book to the end, the inverse). Occasionally, the funny sound of a word, the more so if repeated, will extract a chuckle (“hippopotame” is a firm favourite)-  but, in general, it is things she can see, or even better things she can experience, that get a laugh.

Nor does she “get” the jokes in her DVDs – she loves watching them, but apparently sees no humour in the situations. This is probably because they are intended for slightly older children, an inherent problem of buying these things “blind” via internet and getting them to last, so that she “grows” into them like an oversized sweater.

In this respect, what has surprised me is that, unlike most behaviours (most obviously and pertinently, language development) which start out receptive and only slowly become productive, Piaf’s sense of humour is much more active than passive. She does, as stated above, find rough-and tumble, tickling etc vastly amusing – but these are things she cannot do for herself. Where she can do something funny, it is a self-evident truth that she is the best at it and thereby the funniest girl in the world.

Which, though obviously transient, must be a great feeling while it lasts.

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 …

Frankly poor day at work, made worse by having to wear a suit instead of jeans, a belt instead of braces, and a shirt that smelled like it had sat in the machine too long (because it had.)

All made all right by getting home just in time to see Piaf. Her mum was mid-story; I grabbed another, in French obviously, from the living room and hurried to take on the baton. My Piaf cuddled into me. She had had a bath, but her hair still felt sweaty from playing. She was in her nightwear; a stripy vest and spotty trousers. She looked adorable.

I would love to say that she fell asleep in my arms as I read the last page. Instead, we went through the whole junior OCD routine – red wooden dinosaur on a spring; red wooden dinosaur on a spring; spin the flower; recite the names, top to bottom and left to right, of the wholesome food items surrounding Bumba on the poster; recite the names of the sugary food items on the other poster as she points to them randomly and peremptorily (“ce sont des beignets; c’est un esquimau; cela aussi, c’est un esquimau; c’est une glace; de la pastèque; encore un esquimau …”); kiss her darling head, put her in her cot, whisper “bonne nuit,” “je t’aime” and “à plus, ma puce”; close the door, go downstairs, wait for the cry over the monitor, come back up and repeat until, all at once, the crying stops and she’s asleep.

Perfect.

One of the things I have been missing recently is Saturday playgroup, now closed until la rentrée. We have attended since Piaf was eight months old. I don’t know what benefit she derives from it (some, I hope) but for me it has been a life-saver.

To be clear, this is NOT language classes. No one present teaches anything. It is a weekend playgroup for children up to three. It just happens to be conducted exclusively in French.

It is very good of them to have people like us and I’d hyperlink them if only they had a website. When I still thought I might get flexitime from work, I contacted an outfit that meets in Blackheath on Thursdays. The strong undercurrent of the conversation (conducted entirely in French which, as far as I am aware, was faultless) was that, if they deigned to accept an English family, they would be doing me a massive favour. The fact that I communicated exclusively in French with my daughter (which a lot of native French parents in mixed marriages don’t do) apparently cut no ice. I do see their point in some ways – I bet they get lots of calls from English parents who don’t speak French themselves but want their children to learn the language on the cheap – but it was a powerful reminder that chauvinism was named after a Frenchman. Anyway, I decided to muddle through without them.

Les Bambins, the group we go to now, is much friendlier and more accepting, as well as being on Saturday mornings, meaning flexitime doesn’t matter. (Some of the mums also attend Cadet Rousselle on Monday morning but, again, the toad, work stops me from joining them.) On Saturdays, we sing songs – which helps me acquire the culture too – have story time, and attempt crafts.

It should come as no surprise that, until very recently, Piaf has shown almost zero interest in the latter (though she likes banging musical instruments), has proved easily distracted during the stories (though she loves being read to at home) and loves the songs, but sees them mainly as “me and her” time – it’s as if the other children don’t exist. It goes with her age and is changing now.

But even prior to now these sessions have been invaluable. Not only is Piaf absorbing the implication that French is not just a game her dad plays with her, but a valid means of communication for children and adults alike; I get my language refreshed and invigorated in conversation with, and from observing, other native and near-native speakers. And because Saturday is also my morning not to lie in (…) I get a sustained period of speaking to my girl (and watching the ever-present Bumba and Trotro over breakfast) with no interference from her other language.

This was originally going to be a post about a boy-king, a sea monster and a tiger mask, but that will have to wait till next time. Intrigued? I just knew it.

We do a lot of watching, which probably makes me a bad parent. Soit.

It started as a way of filling a void. I was initially shy around Piaf. I didn’t really feel equipped for this parenting lark and, though it sounded silly to me even then, I didn’t know what to say to her. She had very few reference points; she saw little of the outside world and was often asleep; and she could not even tell me what interested her.

 And, all this time, I was very conscious that, if I didn’t speak French to her, no one else would. Her mother had been very good about this big leap into the linguistic unknown, but the message was clear – you’re on your own here. French is a luxury and, if you can’t provide it, we’ll manage just fine without it.

 The TV was a partial answer. We received TV5 as part of our Sky package. Here was a constant source of surround stimulation, in native French, and, if much of the content was worthy to the point of boring, there was some good stuff and a children’s hour on Saturday mornings, and at least it was not likely to upset an infant. It also provided something to talk about – I could begin one of our funny little bonsai conversations with “Regarde!” then describe what was on the screen and finish with the sort of question I hoped would one day evoke a response such as “c’est marrant, hein?” All right, so there was a risk of Piaf developing a Canadian, Belgian, Swiss or even Marseillais accent, but so what? We weren’t proud.

But it can be hard persuading even a naive and good-natured child that she wants to watch a camp garden makeover show or the football round-up (especially when you support SM Caen). Manu, as ever, came good with the advice.

 Get some DVDs, he said. Get Trotro. Someone on Amazon.fr suggested Léo et Popi. A friend in the same boat from Mumsnet.com had heard good things about Bumba.

A word about this latter. Beware of Bumba. He is crack cocaine to the under-twos. He is a little clown from Belgium and the reason I am not posting a link is because on YouTube you can only find him with the Flemish soundtrack turned on. He fascinated Piaf, which was the goal, of course – but what price my sanity? After a week or so of back-to-back Bumba I started to find perfectly reasonable the idea that a snail’s shell would lift up as if on hinges to reveal a police car. “Une salade … rouge?” asked the voice-over. “Nôôôn!” I cried.

 Léo et Popi are just now coming into their own, soporific and reassuring tales about a toddler and his toy monkey and their non-adventures. Piaf is a big fan, but previously she could take them or leave them – I don’t think there was enough action on the screen in the days when the words were just noise to her.

 Through it all, Trotro has been a guaranteed hit. Although he is an anthropomorphic donkey, he is about four in human years and gets about a bit. He is affectionate, but not docile; good-natured, but far from faultless. Significantly, all the speech is dialogue – no saccharine narration to add a moral to the story. Piaf laps it up. I bought a second disc recently – not because she was bored of the first one, but because I was. In the world of children’s TV, a change is not as good as a rest, but sometimes it’s the nearest permitted alternative.

http://www.video-enfant.fr/Trotro.htm