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.

It is time to start Christmas shopping.

Piaf’s main present, from both of us jointly, is to be a wooden play kitchen. (And before you cry, “gender stereotyping,” two of her favourite toys currently are a football and a set of magnetic cars – she just likes playing at cooking too. So yah boo sucks.)

Her mother and I will then obviously get her a few smaller bits so that, once we have used enormous flat shovels to dig her out from the avalanche of gifts her grandparents will doubtless send, we can spend some time playing with her individually on the big day, rather than just watch her fry the same plywood egg over and over again.

With potential postal strikes and international delivery times in mind, I have just ordered a couple of my “bits” – a new Charlie and Lola book (courtesy of Librairie Pantoute in Québec) and, on the basis of a half-forgotten spread in Popi magazine, a Dim Dam Doum DVD. 

Now, don’t get me wrong – there isn’t a fictional stuffed Francophone monkey in the world I would trust more than Popi. But, when it comes to buying a DVD about three caterpillars made out of felt, I want reassuring. 

With this in mind, I looked it up on Youtube.fr and saw this.  

And then this.

Suffice it to say that my doubts have been quashed and the order placed. Ça promet bien, le Noël.

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 …

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.”

Having a toasted sandwich lunch yesterday at this place …

I noticed this English children’s magazine on sale (you can find out more here , apparently) …

which put me in mind of this French children’s magazine

which we buy and Piaf likes.

That’s it, really.

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