Bonne année à tous. Back to work tomorrow and really not up for it – the holidays have been wonderful and have given me an inkling of how life might be in a Communist utopia, where family comes first and no one works more than seven hours a week, probably at writing plays or something vital like that. (I suspect that the reality would be more like Dad’s Army, but with George Galloway as Captain Mainwaring and Bob Crow as the vicar, but I can dream.) 

Which is a roundabout way of telling you that it has been lovely to spend protracted periods of time with my daughter who, I suddenly realise, is nearly two and therefore practically a real person.

Indeed, it might just be that I haven’t had a chance to notice all the things she can do while I’ve been at work and our contact has been very much first thing in the morning and last thing at night, but she really seems to have made huge strides over the last fortnight. 

For example, Santa brought, amongst other things, a toy kitchen and a doll’s house and, for the first time, I have witnessed her playing in an explicitly creative way, acting out little routines, positioning dolls and chairs and beds in a variety of combinations, and so on; and also involving other people (i.e. me and her mother) in the play. Like many children of her age, she was previously happy to play alongside others, but it is only recently that she has played with them, and it was nice to be a part of that. 

She has started to demonstrate, too, a memory for specific things. The day she saw the singing, dancing snowman in a Croydon shopping centre (even Croydon isn’t all bad) and the day she saw the animated tyrannosaurus rex at the Natural History Museum (the best bit of an otherwise frustrating visit for her, though the boy of about her age who was behind us screamed hysterically with fear) she was able to recount what she had seen the same and then subsequent nights. Again, maybe she was already doing this – but, for the first time, I could be sure she was (whereas if she says, “see grandma,” how can I be certain which of her grandma’s many visits she is recollecting, or even if she is referring to past fact or future desire?) 

She has also suddenly developed a keen sense of judgement, as evidenced by her spontaneous declarations of, “I love you,” “t’aime,” “daddy marrant” and “daddy funny”. 

And then, to top it all, she goes and delivers something blogworthy for me. In our regular haunt of the local Caffe Nero (“allons-y café!”), with no real warning, she came out with a linguistic double whammy.

I had my large latte; she had a small paper espresso cup with tap water in it (not intended, incidentally, to help her make believe that she is drinking coffee, à la baby-bloody-cino; just to help her drink from a proper cup without pissing it all down her front.) This is a fairly typical set-up and has been repeated, with slowly evolving variations (bottle to beaker to paper cup) since first we started coming to this area for French playgroup on Saturday mornings, even before we lived here, over a year ago. 

“Papa boit café,” she observed, à propos of nothing – and then, before I had even had the chance to offer a “bravo!” she continued, “Alice boit de l’eau.” Her first attempt at a proper sentence in French, and her first grammatically correct sentence in French, back to back! Not just naming objects she could see in front of her, but a statement of fact built around an active verb and … oh, I’m coming over all assistant lecturer here, but you get the picture.

Now, I realise that this could have been mere coincidence – quite possibly, she has just stuck together memorised chunks of language and accidentally got lucky. It may even be that, in her head, she meant to express the concept, “daddy, buy me a scooter,” and is still wondering why it hasn’t turned up yet.

Frankly, I don’t care. The new year has begun with my non-French daughter, who has learnt French principally from non-French me in an OPOL setting, bothering to produce a French sentence in a proto-conversation (just an observation, remember, not a demand or complaint) and getting it spot on. Call me odd, but I think that’s cause for celebration.

It almost makes going back to non-utopian work seem somehow all right.

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 …

Before we get started, an update – I still have not collected any leaves for my lions. I will keep you informed through the week of how close this particular endeavour comes to failure and humiliation. (Ironically, I am currently studying for the PRINCE2 project management qualification to improve my job prospects – I hope it never comes out that I struggled to sort out a children’s collage activity.)

But onto grander projects altogether. 

Piaf seems to be going through something of an intellectual spurt. Of most immediate relevance is that she is beginning to acquire a word in each language for some things (though this is very much a minority and, of the concepts she has only one word for, the vast majority of those words are English ones.) Still, this is the beginning of what Saunders described as Stage 2 in linguistic development – and, having the double whammy of being first-time parents and parents of a bilingual, however many researchers tell you something will happen, you don’t quite believe it until you see it.

She is actually requesting vocabulary now, rather than waiting for it to be given. Sometimes it is expressed merely by a questioning glance, a pause; other times she will bluntly state, “dat,” and wait for the name to be supplied. Of course, whoever is being asked the question replies in his or her “own” language. Now that she is showing awareness that everything has (at least) two labels, the assumption must surely be that she will ask for the missing one when she’s ready. 

But beyond language – if anything is ever really “beyond” language – she is showing signs of increased intelligence too. She is more dextrous, more independent, more confident – she is starting to run as well as walk, she refuses to be helped with feeding (however much in her interests such help would be), she puts her own shoe on (the right one – the left still has her baffled.)

She is, all of a sudden, interested in the alphabet, in numbers, in colours. All of this has had its root at nursery, where she routinely mixes with older children. In the case of the alphabet, it transpires they have an electronic toy that sings the alphabet song (the one to the tune of Twinkle, twinkle, little star/Ah! vous dirai-je, maman?) and she relentlessly pounds the “play” button. (Those nursery staff really do earn their money. Imagine listening to that all day!) With numbers, she has heard the older children counting and has started copying them. Colours have probably come up in conversation and around play – a favourite expression at the moment is “blue-car!” 

It really is wonderful to see this happening. I can quite understand why apparently every parent goes through a phase, however brief, of thinking his or her child is a genius. After all, this sudden Renaissance-like bloom in learning is happening at a time while Piaf is still acquiring massive amounts of knowledge, day in, day out, of how life actually works, and also still developing physically. It must be a bit like starting a brand new job with no hand-over from the previous incumbent; learning that job, therefore, by trial and error, including the goal, strategies and conventions of that job; performing at 100% from the off, so that everything you do is at least adequate; still fitting in an hour at the gym every night when you leave; and doing it all in a country where, initially at least, you don’t speak the language. No wonder Piaf can sleep for 12 hours at a stretch!

In this context, speaking two languages instead of one, which a lot of people (including me sometimes) think is such a major achievement, such a big deal, probably doesn’t even make the top ten on her list of priorities. I think a lot of people forget that she isn’t learning a “foreign” language – she’s learning two foreign languages, and attempting to make them both native ones. 

But it also makes me wonder. You see, especially when we lived in Peckham, I was responsible for a lot of the picking up and dropping off at nursery, simply because I have a cuddly, flexible, “work-life balance” public sector employer, and maman doesn’t. So I would spend a lot of time pushing Piaf around in her buggy. It was soon impressed on me by Those That Know These Things that rule number one if you want your baby to be clever rather than slow (in babies, it seems, it is one or the other – no babies are “average) is talk, talk, talk. And I got the same advice from Those That Know These Things if you want your baby to be bilingual. 

What do you talk about with a non-verbal, comparatively immobile (if only because of the straps) baby in a pushchair? Well, what I talked about was either spotting things of a given colour (qu’est-ce que tu vois de … vert? [Silence] Oui – un arbre!”) and counting games (“comptons les piétons que nous doublons ou croisons.”) 

In other words, for months I’ve been giving her every possible encouragement and opportunity to respond to concepts of number and colour and she has shown no genuine interest, then at once she wants to know it all. 

So – did that earlier exploration provide anything beyond the inevitable (and pleasurable) bonding, or was it just noise and socialisation? And, if it did, why is her reaction so sudden rather than gradual?

Also, even now, it is hard to distinguish what she “knows” from what she echoes. It is clear, for example, that she knows there are several colours in the world. But, unless explicitly told otherwise, Piaf maintains that all cars are “blue-car!” Similarly, she can say the names of some numbers – but they are not in sequence. And then, how closely is the concept of numbering (“chiffres”) linked to the concept of number (“nombre”)? After all, counting to four is not the same as knowing that counting to two twice is just as good.

I don’t normally get this philosophical in this blog. Perhaps it’s the Pepsi talking. I certainly don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. But I am aware that, in the days before Piaf, I would probably not even have considered asking them. I am also aware that, if only I can stay patient, I will find out in good time.

Like this? Try these.

Je fais le bilan, tu fais le bilan, elle fait le bilan …

Je confesse, tu confesses, elle confesse …

Je suis, tu suis, elle suit …

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.

Piaf’s maman saw the site for the first time today. She was impressed, but …

“It’s quite long in places,” she said.

 “You need the odd shorter post,” she said.

 I think she meant biting comment on breaking news or thinking aloud.

But I shall take her at her word.

Here, then, is Claude François being bizarre, even by his own standards, and the coolest Frenchman ever, Jacques Dutronc – two more singalongs from the days in the kitchen in Peckham. 

They knew how to have fun in those days …