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.

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.”

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.

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.

Thinking about what I posted yesterday about Piaf’s competence in French, I realised it didn’t tell the complete story. 

Don’t get me wrong – it’s all true. But I wouldn’t want to give other parents, be they bilingual or monolingual, an inferiority complex.

So I should start by saying that some of the words mean more in Piaf’s mouth than they would in the mouth of an adult speaker. For example, a word I didn’t mention, “Co-Co” (her attempt at “Trotro” – see here) means, fairly obviously, “Trotro”; but also any other DVD she might want to watch or even the disc itself. “Loor” means “lourd” as in “heavy”, but is also elicited by most acts of carrying (because I mimed it initially by pretending to be weighed down by her dirty nappies and exclaiming, “elle est lourde, cette couche!”)

Some words on the list are clearly understood (“attends” normally does make her wait patiently, albeit only for five seconds) but, when she uses them, she is more echoing me than using them independently. 

Still others are used with real meaning and intention, but the meaning is not necessarily the ordinary meaning. “Bateau” has been in her vocabulary for some times, but it has only recently meant “boat” in the sense of a sea-going vessel. Prior to that, it referred to the children’s singing game, Bateau, ciseau (a bit like See-saw, Margery Daw) which she demanded every time we got the picnic rug out. 

So there you have it.

I also wanted to update the topic with a bit of news – we have just, in the last day or so, noticed what I think is the first instance of her having two words for the same concept. When she wants a story a second (or third, or fourth …) time she will say, sometimes “gen” (“again”), sometimes “acor” (“encore”). She doesn’t always use the “right” word for the “right” parent, but I understand that’s normal and will improve with time. It’s definitely a big step forward. 

I also forgot her favourite, most consistently and most accurately used French word, “noonoo”, meaning “nounours” and referring to her fluffy, pink, bedtime teddy bear.

Bless.

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 

A Saunders day today.

Saunders – George Saunders, in full – is the man who convinced me I could do this. He is not someone I have ever met; he is (was?) an Australian university lecturer in German with a Joy of Sex beard whose oldest child is probably the same age as me.

What makes Saunders interesting is that he did what I am attempting to do. A native speaker of Australian English, he nevertheless raised three children to be bilingual in English and German – and, what’s more, he did it in Australia (i.e. a bloody long way from Germany) in the 1970s and 1980s; before DVDs, before satellite TV, before internet, before cheap flights. In doing so, he somehow found time to record his experiences in great detail and get two books out of it, one of which I was reading today. Not only does he give sound practical advice on how to make bilingualism happen and know before you do all the things that will make you tempted to give up but shouldn’t; I draw hope from thinking that if George could do it in those circumstances, then I should be able to in mine. My resolve thus strengthened, I press on.

Which should tell you that I am going through a low period at the moment. Most (though not all) of Piaf’s active vocab is in English; French Saturday morning playgroup has broken up till the rentrée; work is tiring and Piaf is waking later, putting pressure on the length of time I get to see her; and she is temporarily (I hope) off books, preferring to push her dolls around in a bright pink pushchair and build things out of Duplo instead. My own French feels rusty and hesitant, full of faults; hers seems, not just to be losing out to English, but giving up without a fight.

George makes me feel positive again. Isn’t it true that her passive knowledge appears to be equal in both languages, with some words that she knows in only French? Isn’t her favourite DVD – even with her mother – the francophone Trotro (“l’âne Trotro, l’âne Trotro, trop, trop rigolo!”)? Isn’t this all exactly how George said it would be?

I calm down, get a bit of distance, accentuate the positives, eliminate the negatives, and look forward to tomorrow being better. The man is a saint.

A saint with a Joy of Sex beard.