“Why are you always saying ‘cous cous’?”

This question came from the child who once asked me, “why don’t you talk properly?” so I was instantly on my guard. But, when I gave it a minute’s thought, I realised what he was getting at. He heard me every morning asking Piaf questions. “Qu’est-ce que tu as?” ” Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?” “Qu’est-ce que tu veux?” And, not being a French speaker, but being very bright and middle class, he heard, not ” qu’est-ce que,” but the word he knows that it most resembles – cous cous.

Children, I am learning, are sense makers. From hearing a half or even a quarter of a message, they will infer that a message is there to be found, and they will find it; and, like a drunk singing along to a juke box, they will make up the bits they don’t know. They do this even before they can assess the importance of the message – Piaf is still occasionally exclaiming “‘appy NEW year!” She does not know that this message’s “value” changes according to the date – she just knows that it is something that adults say, so it is worth saying. She and her friends already understand that everything important in this world gets done through language and they want a piece of that action NOW.

They are also great pattern makers. It seems to be one of the ways they learn so much so quickly, by grabbing onto one thing and extrapolating. Incidentally, if anyone’s got a slightly older monolingual child and is frustrated by hearing “I goed there,” “I doed it at school,” don’t be – it’s a sign your child has successfully mastered the “pattern” of the past simple; so strong is this urge to make patterns that they will find patterns even when there isn’t one or when the pattern doesn’t work any more.

Piaf is also exhibiting this in a variety of ways, which has led me to a slight tactical modification. One of her “prêt-á-hurler” expressions is, “papa parle français, maman parle anglais”. Of course, this is excellent, and sometimes gives the illusion that she really knows how sentences work, rather than just having a few she has learnt (her English is much stronger in this respect, as you might predict given her relative exposure to the two languages.)

But, if maman speaks English and papa speaks French, what does Alice speak? Lest she starts defining herself as purely an English speaker, based on the balance of probability from the evidence, I have ceased to ask her, “maman dit ‘trousers,’ que dit papa?” Instead, I know try to remind her that she is as much a French speaker as I am. “Tu sais le dire en français?” “Je ne comprends pas très bien – tu peux m’expliquer ça en français?”

English still has the whip hand, of course – such a strategy might help her move from “I like mole” to “I like taupe” – but it is a beginning, however humble; it is turning her considerable vocabulary from passive to active, a word at a time; and, most of all, it is giving her a fighting chance of becoming, one day, someone for whom “cous cous” can be a question as well as lunch.

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