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.

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I try to do too much. 

Every day this weekend, I have spent a minimum of an hour and a half driving, and a fair proportion of that time I was in heavy traffic, lost, or both, which obviously heightened this experience. As a result, I am going back to work tomorrow with no sense of having had a rest.

 Some of it’s been fun, though – the night away was good; going to introduce my mother to her own computer last night was nice and meant I got to drop in on the After School Club I used to attend when I first realised what I was; and then, this morning, I got a text from Piaf’s maman to say that she was sick and could I come home early? 

Cue a seventy-mile drive alternating high speeds with getting stuck behind caravans, lorries and, at one point, a Highways Agency vehicle which everyone was mistaking for a police car and thus refusing to overtake it. Barely out of the car, I was in sole charge of Piaf as maman traipsed sickly off to bed.

 Once I was over the self-pity and indignation at my partner’s lack of visible joy and gratitude (about five minutes – I’m getting better) I realised what a good deal I was getting out of it – only yesterday, wasn’t I moaning about having missed Piaf at the weekend proper and about how the Outlaws had tricked her into learning English? Here was my chance to make up for it.

 An hour of Duplo, Trotro and toy cars segued into another hour in Caffe Nero, eating pannetone (her) and croissants dunked in coffee à la française (me), reading picture books aloud (me) and bashing a multicoloured abacus (her), all through the medium of our shared language – then a quick trip to Sainsbury’s for full-fat milk and individual miniature boxes of raisins, and home for a nap (her, sadly, rather than me, but hey ho.) 

For several years now, I have been saying in meetings of After School Club that my worst day now is unrecognisably better than my best day then. Piaf, and the bond we have as the result of speaking another language to her, has only made that truer still.

A late posting today – the knock-on effect of being up till all hours last night trying to coax my mother into the 20th century (the 21st will have to wait its turn) by teaching her, over the phone, how to use the internet. This exercise was every bit as successful and fruitful as you can imagine, though it did culminate in getting her to reach this page around one in the morning and see her son and her only grandchild on the computer, i.e. practically on TV.

This meant I was even more than half asleep when maman (i.e. Piaf’s mother, not mine, natch) told me the momentous news this morning, almost without realising it. 

Piaf has started answering “wh-” questions. 

Now that I’ve written that down, I understand it doesn’t really look like momentous news. But it does have much more than purely linguistic interest.

Previously, she seemed only to understand (and certainly to be able to respond to) questions that could be answered “yes” or “no” (she uses the English words whichever language the question is couched in.) Questions like “qu’est-ce que tu as fait aujourd’hui?” were wasted. Even questions which give a clear choice – “tu veux que je te lise ce livre-ci ou ce livre-là?” elicited a “yeah” which, while not an incorrect answer as such, was as confusing as it was practically useless. 

Some time this week, without me really noticing it, she dealt with that particular problem by acquiring the word “dat”. But now, her mother tells me, Piaf can go one better and the question, “who did you see today?” elicits names.

This opens up whole worlds of potential conversation that were hitherto closed to us. Even if she limits herself to one-word answers for some time to come, it is much easier to generate follow-up questions to, for example, a child’s name (“tu as joué avec lui? A quoi avez-vous joué ensemble? Où avez-vous fait ça? Vous vous êtes bien amusés?”) than to “no(n)!” Every day, my daughter becomes more of a social animal (“animo”).

 The other sign that this is taking place is that, alongside her growing vocabulary of nouns, she has acquired “please” and “thank you”.

Or, rather, “blee” and “murtee”. 

Bilingual, and sweet beyond words.

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.

We both read to Piaf a lot, and have done pretty much from day one. In fact, I’d bought her first books before she was even born (in English, ironically, so I never got to read them with her – it was during the period when I was doubting my decision.)

We both see reading as very important; we both love reading ourselves (what do non-readers do to stop going mad on solitary bus journeys?); and, in my case, I am particularly keen for Piaf to read, as I hope the author will then become another French “voice” for her in an Anglophone world.

I even started teaching her to read in French (using Glenn Doman’s How To Teach Your Baby To Read ) which was great as far as it went, but didn’t hold her attention quite as much as Glenn said it would, and also I started worrying it would work too well and she would stand out as a freak at school, so that’s on hold right now.

In the mean time, I thought you might be interested in an approximate and far from exhaustive Top Ten of Piaf’s favourite (French) reads. “Top Ten” is a bit misleading – these are definitely her favourites, but they’re not really in order as their fortunes fluctuate from week to week, and over time the longer, more difficult book tends to gain the whip hand over the shorter, simpler book. But here goes.

All of the links are to Amazon because that’s what most people are familiar with, but also worth a try are Fnac , Grant & Cutler and Au Fil Des Mots in South Kensington (the more famous Librairie Française is just opposite, but I find the staff there know plenty about children’s books but zip about children, plus the old gimmer in charge seemed to hint strongly that I was shoplifting on my last visit, so they can guess again if they think I’m giving them a plug.)

Here’s the list. Bonne lecture à tous.

  1. Vive Le Roi Pépin!
  2. La Chenille Qui Fait des Trous
  3. Oh! C’est A Qui?
  4. Comme Un Grand!
  5. Je Voudrais Que Tu M’Aimes
  6. Ma Maison Animée
  7. Bloub! Bloub! Bloub!
  8. Nao Est En Colère
  9. Chamalo Découvre Les Chiffres
  10. Le Petit Eléphant Et Les Contraires

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.