Once upon a time I blogged about TV5 and how it played a part in our bilingual weekends (saturday morning is a very “French” time in our household, because it is maman’s lie-in.) We don’t watch it half as much now, because the children’s programmes are currently a bit rubbish – not only less suitable for children of Piaf’s age, but also a bit try-hard, very Americanised or Japanesised (what a fantastic new word – use it today, I dare you.)

Back in the day, this is what we used to wake up to. Pacha et les Chats – the best thing to come out of French Canada since Rumeurs . Good times.


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.

Just a quick reminder to set your recorders for 20h30 (local time) on Friday when we wrestle with FC Arles Avignon in a veritable clash of the Titans! (Presumably Arles has combined with Avignon in a bid to rustle up a combined total of 11 able-bodied men under 65.)

If ever you glance at the comments attached to this blog you will notice that I have recently been corrected by a real live Frenchman on the word for an ice lolly.

Further, this Frenchman is someone whose opinion I respect and have often sought on linguistic matters. Clearly, I am wrong. 

Nevertheless, there are reasons why I am wrong.

My choice of vocabulary with Piaf is surrounded by tensions probably not felt by native speakers, and almost certainly not felt by native speakers in the homeland.

The first tension, as I have intimated previously, is that a lot of words I simply don’t know – and, in this category, the words I need to bring up a child are over-represented. If you had asked me, a little over 18 months ago, to use French to discuss narrative structures in the crime novel, it would have been my pleasure. If you had asked me to talk about the constituent parts of a baby’s bottle, I would have fallen at the first hurdle.

All of these gaps have been plugged, tant bien que mal, by my trusty Collins Robert dictionary. Alas, as is so often the case when the adjective “trusty” crops up, the adjective “old” belongs right alongside it. This, after all, is the dictionary that got me through ‘A’ level literally half a lifetime ago. To say that the world has moved on is an understatement.

This is where I found the word “esquimau” for an ice lolly – but my friend informs me that the word on the street in 1989 is no longer the word on the street in 2009. (It probably wasn’t in 1992, when I took the ‘A’ level, either, but fortunately ice lollies were deemed too frivolous for advanced level candidates in those days.) 

A related problem – rarer, but real – is when the native French speakers I know in Britain don’t know the word either, because the concept did not exist when they left France or just because they didn’t care about baby-related things at the time. No one has yet been able to be definitive, for example, about the French for the children’s toy based on an Aboriginal instrument and called a “rain maker”; or how, exactly, one should translate “rice cakes”. (Anyone? Anyone?) 

But the most treacherous issue – the one I nearly fell for – is that of loan words.

When The Plan began, I wasn’t blind. I realised that both the problems outlined above would affect me. Not to worry, I thought – if in doubt, it’s often perfectly acceptable to use the English with a French accent. Look at “le jogging”; look at “le shopping”; “le fair-play”, for goodness’s sake! You can’t go wrong.

I was encouraged in this belief by a lot of Canadian popular culture, especially some of the rock music (which often plays on the dual linguistic heritage of the country) and the daytime sitcom Rumeurs .

Then I came across writers who said that this was A Very Bad Idea. If bilingual children get used to this (they say) then, whenever they don’t know a word in their weaker language, they will invent their own “loan word” from their stronger one.

This threw me back at the mercy of the dictionary and led to some exceptionally poor choices. Piaf, like most babies, initially spent a lot of her time in what are often called sleep suits. The word I chose, with the help of the Collins Robert, to translate this? “Barboteuse” – the picture needs no further comment, I believe. Manu (trusty, but not quite old) suggested “pyjama” and I have now decided that, should we have a brother or sister for Piaf, he or she shall wear “une grenouillière“.

Later on, Piaf started wearing hooded tops from Gap. I decided that the best word for this would be “un capuchon”. Now, “un capuchon” does mean a hooded top – if you are Cadfael. Here’s one I googled earlier (it also means a rather more integral hood, but we shan’t dwell on that now.) Once again, Manu rode to the rescue, this time with “un sweat à capuche”.

My rule now is simple but, so far, effective. If I have any doubt about a word, I ask; in the mean time, I talk around it as best I can; and I only use an English loan word when that is the first and only realistic choice (yes to “le football”, no to “le shopping”.)

And I promise never to dress my children in barboteuses or capuchons.

1-0 against Dijon on Tuesday and then 1-1 against those Goliaths of French football, Chateauroux – away, mark you – last night!

We are SM Caen – hear us roar!

For Papa and Piaf, Saturday morning is play time.

 For Piaf, of course, every morning is play time. That’s her job, that’s what she does. But for us as parents, weekday mornings are usually keep-her-safe-and-occupied-while-we-get-ready-for-work time. In spite of the impression I may have given yesterday , weekends in our house are low-key affairs. On Saturday and Sunday we take it in turns to lie in and the one who is not in bed has to make sure Piaf is sufficiently entertained that she will not unduly miss the parent who is.

 Saturday is my day.

 Keeping her entertained is all very well and not too hard after 18 months’ practice, but it is compounded by a moral obligation not to take the easy way out. After all, I sense she would happily watch back-to-back episodes of Trotro or Bumba, pausing only to say “gain” or “acor” when the DVD goes back to the start menu; but, sentimental fool that I am, I worry she will subconsciously feel this is unfair and reproach me for not interacting with her more (in fact, it is all I can do to get her attention for long enough to ask her to move more than six inches from the screen.)

 I also think that this is a golden opportunity for us to get several solid hours of Frenchness together (especially as we will often be going to French playgroup.)

 Here, then, is what I believe is called a negotiated agenda for this morning (all items to be confirmed according to mere whimsy and to whether I can turn the DVD off without promoting a tantrum.)

 6.30am – Wake up. Piaf is actually getting quite good at sleeping to a reasonable time during the week. It seems to go out of the window at weekends, especially on my mornings. Some days I like her less than others …

 6.31am – Milk. Nothing happens until the first milk feed of the day is provided.


 6.45am – Dressing. Key phrases – “Ouf! Elle est lourde, cette couche!” “Baisse tes jambes.” “S’il te plaît, baisse tes jambes.” “Baisse tes jambes, merde!” “Un bras, deux bras, abra-, cadabra!” And, after what seems an age, because it is, “Que tu es jolie!”

 7.00am – Pouring all the Duplo blocks over the floor.

 7.30am – When the Duplo is definitively finished with and Papa has put it all back in the box but not yet put the lid on, pouring all the Duplo blocks over the floor.

 7.40am – Pouring all the wooden blocks over the floor.

 8.00am – Reading and dancing. Piaf genuinely likes reading and playing with books in both languages. Once very fickle, often changing books or even wandering off part-way through a story, she is currently at the other extreme and will demand the same story again the second it is finished. Latest coup de cœurQuand la forêt s’endort (she likes doing her owl impersonation which is very cute indeed.) In the background a DVD, asked for and then forgotten, may well be playing though, for the reasons above, I try not to do this at the weekend. If not, some execrable pop as previously confessed to will be playing – I am trying to teach her to twist but she is just not willing to put the work in.

 8.20am (and earlier, and later) – Pushing doll around in £5 toy buggy from Argos and saying “baby”. Fairly self-explanatory. Spin-offs include covering said doll with makeshift blankets.

 9.00am – Breakfast. Piaf likes cereals but she is very stubborn at the moment about feeding herself and does not really have the competence to do so with cereals. We will probably go to the café, therefore, where she can sit in a highchair, eat croissants and pannetone and ogle other babies. Might do some more reading, too, if the mood takes us.

 10.30am – Charity shops and library. The public library is excellent near us, and has plenty of space for children to run around without bothering anyone except their parents. There are bean bags to lie on, toys to play with, books to pull of the shelf while saying “book!” over and over … Piaf loves it. However, within ten minutes of arriving she will probably unleash a large and foul-smelling poo and we will have to cut short our visit so we can go home and change her. (Of course, 15 minutes earlier and I could have changed her in the café, but why plan ahead?)

 When we get home, maman is up, as well rested as a working parent can be and overjoyed to see her beautiful (if far from fragrant) little girl. Once changed (see 6.45am – Dressing above, adding the phrase, “ça schlingue!” as appropriate) she will want to go to slide and the day en famille begins in earnest.

 Reading back over that, I can see that, to the untrained eye, I might appear not to be entirely serious in places.

Honestly. You’d think I enjoyed it …

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.


You may remember I mentioned TV5 once before, describing it as, at times, “worthy to the point of boring.” We had it on this morning. After the Canadian Francophone news (does exactly what it says on the tin) there was an extra dose of cartoons – presumably there’s currently a school holiday somewhere in the world. I left Piaf watching them and went to get dressed.

I came back downstairs to find they were showing – at half past eight in the morning – a gardening programme. But not just any gardening programme.

No makeovers, no Francophone Charlie Dimmock, no flowers, no shrubs, not even any vegetable patches.

This was apparently a half-hour programme about how to make compost. I kid you not. The combined might of the Francophone cultures of the world, who, in Europe alone, gave us thousands of stars in all disciplines, from Brel to Hergé, from Gainsbourg to Sartre (thank you Egypt, too, for Cloclo), now equates entertainment and enlightenment with the rotting times for bark and twigs.

On the other hand, the drama series they show in the evenings about the nun who solves crimes with the help of the internet is something else …

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.