petite anglaise

September 11, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — petiteanglaiseparis @ 9:55 am

The first time it happens, I’m sitting with Tadpole and The Boy in my favourite Chinese snack bar, tucking into pork and herb ravioli while rain hammers down on the pavement outside.

‘Ouch,’ I say, rubbing a raised bump on my arm which I’ve just knocked against the table. ‘Goodness knows what I’ve done to myself this time, but it really hurts! Look, j’ai un bosse, là…’

Tadpole’s face cycles through several possible reactions – confusion, perplexity, amazement – before finally settling on amusement. ‘Un bosse, mummy?’ she says teasingly, shooting a sidelong glance at The Boy, who is smirking into his Shanghai noodles. ‘But don’t you know? Un bosse doesn’t exist! A lump is called une bosse, in French.’

‘Okay, I’ve got une bosse then,’ I say, defensively, my cheeks smarting. It’s not as though I’ve never made a gender blunder in front of Tadpole before. But it’s the first time she’s noticed, or at least the first time she’s decided to call me out on it, pressing home her native speaker’s advantage. ‘You know, I didn’t even start learning French until I was eleven-years-old,’ I explain. ‘So it’s normal for me to make mistakes sometimes. I wasn’t lucky enough to learn two languages when I was small, like you. And the thing I find most difficult is choosing un ou une or le or la because they don’t even exist in English.’

Tadpole falls silent, her face deadly serious as she processes this new information. She may be fortunate enough to know, instinctively, which combination of words sounds right or wrong, but I doubt she’s ever stopped to wonder why English nouns don’t behave in the same way. In fact, one of her most common blunders, just now, is to refer to a chair as a she or a pencil as a he.

‘I see what you mean, mummy,’ she says, finally, turning to face me and putting a hand on my arm – right on my bosse – causing me to gasp. ‘Don’t worry,’ she adds in a reassuring voice, ‘I’m going to teach you how to say right ALL the words.’ She lets go of my arm and opens both of hers wide to illustrate just how many words we have to get through. ‘How about we start with table,’ she says, clearly enjoying herself, now. ‘Do you think it’s un table or une table..?’

On a Saturday morning a couple of weeks later, Tadpole and I are sitting on the sofa in our respective nightwear: ‘ello Kitty pyjamas – she refuses to pronounce the ‘Hello’ in ‘Hello Kitty’ with an aspirant ‘h’ – and a black silk negligé. She’s just finished reading me a story in English, which she now sets aside in favour of a French story anthology. The deal we struck when she came to interrupt me – mid Gum Thief – was that she would read me one story in English, then one in French. She chooses the shortest one, which is about a naïvely drawn blue teddy bear called Pénélope, who is trying to remember the words to a well-known children’s song. I’m not familiar with it, as this particular story book is reserved for French babysitters and occasionally The Boy, if he gets home from work before storytime.

‘Pénélope chante à tue-tête…’ reads Tadpole.

Before she can launch into the song, I interrupt. ‘What does tue-tête mean?’ I ask her, with a puzzled frown. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that before…’

‘Really?’ says Tadpole, as though she can barely believe her ears. I nod, bashfully, half-wishing I’d held my peace. ‘Tue-tête means Pénélope is singing as LOUD as she can,’ she explains in a decidedly schoolmistressy voice, cranking up her internal volume dial to better illustrate her point and eliciting a groan from The Boy, who is sleeping in the bedroom, a few metres away.

‘Right, I see,’ I say, nodding. ‘In English we’d say she was singing at the top of her voice.’

The next time Tadpole uses a word I’m unfamiliar with, I keep stumm, slinking off to my desk at the first opportunity to leaf quietly through my Collins Robert dictionary.

It’s one thing admitting I’m not absolutely infallible. But the word ‘boss’, in this household, is a feminine noun. An adult feminine noun, to be precise. And while I’m quite happy to let Tadpole savour the sweet feeling of superiority from time to time, I don’t think I want the balance of power shifting too far in her direction.


  1. Ooh,she’s growing up!
    I did love reading that and am very pleased to know what ‘tue- tete’ means too.
    How old is Tadpole?

    Comment by lex — September 11, 2008 @ 10:10 am

  2. I get this all the time. My particular hateful gender words “phare” and “serre” for some reason, which thankfully don’t come up too often in normal conversation, since I have neither.

    I like Pénélope. Her dog friend is called Stromboli which is just the coolest name. I wish I had a friend called Stromboli.

    Also, Petite, just wait ’til they make Tadpole write “en attaché”. French joined up writing is the devil’s work. I am failing sooooo badly at homework this year.

    Comment by Jaywalker — September 11, 2008 @ 10:20 am

  3. Well, parenting is hard enough. I think it might push me over the edge if say, Skippy suddenly had a German, or say Spanish advantage over me – yikes.

    Comment by Ness — September 11, 2008 @ 10:36 am

  4. A new post, a new post*rolls herself on the floor with puppy like enthusiasm*. And a very funny one at that! How very delightful on a grey rainy London day (where is the Indian summer that usually makes up for the magnificently rubbish August the god of weather regularly bestows upon us!)whilst stapling together CFO reviews – a riveting task! Sod controversy by the way, neither adoring, nor spiteful (perhaps a tiny weeny bit jealous though?!;o) I must say Petite, some of your carefully honed little jewels of electronic epistolary delight me to the core, thank you!

    Comment by gorgeousophie — September 11, 2008 @ 11:01 am

  5. as a teacher of french as a second language ive got to tell you that i dont even know if table is M or F

    its the weirdest thing trying to explain that to 9-11 year olds who mostly speak english or another language

    my wording starts off like this… there are girl words and boy words…

    no wonder they look at me funny

    Comment by kara — September 11, 2008 @ 11:20 am

  6. I used to do that to my mother as well. She hated it-luckily I’ve finally grown out of teasing her :)
    I couldn’t help it when I was younger-she’s terrible at nouns and with the dreaded subjonctif présent! But it took me a good seventeen years to stop-hope Tadpole won’t be quite as aggravating.

    Comment by Froufrou — September 11, 2008 @ 11:20 am

  7. Nip it in the bud I’d say. I once accompanied a half Dutch, half French girl (who I didn’t know) on a place to Nice. She was too young to fly alone, so I had to formally accompany her. She kept on talking about how dreadful her father’s French was, and the French of her family. She must have been about 12 years old I think. On that same note, my ‘guest-brother’ in the guest family I stayed with while learning French in Annecy kept making fun of me every time I watched TV, quizzing me on what they were saying and checking whether I actually understood anything at all! He found it hilarious that I couldn’t fully understand French yet.

    Oh, and I think it’s la table, because my guest-mother used to shout ‘à la table tout le monde!’ when dinner was ready.

    Comment by Marjolein — September 11, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

  8. place should be plane (my thesis is starting to mess with my head; it will only utter words connected to my thesis statement ;) )

    Comment by Marjolein — September 11, 2008 @ 12:07 pm

  9. I, on the other hand, enjoy being grammatically corrected by my French children. The end result: my French – already excellent – will become SUPERLATIVE, and my cunning plan to rule the Universe will be complete.

    Love & kisses,
    Miss Priss

    Comment by Antipo Déesse — September 11, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

  10. I grew up in France and delighted in teasing my English Dad by making him say millefeuille, grenouille and chapeau pointu! x

    Comment by Jo Finney — September 11, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

  11. Aw, gone are the days when Tadpole just switches from one to the other without understanding that they’re two different languages! She’s very to have grown up totally bi-lingual!

    Comment by L.C.T. — September 11, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

  12. *very lucky…

    Comment by L.C.T. — September 11, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

  13. Just wait til Tadpole’s a teenager, they can be really cruel… I work as a volunteer animatrice for a camp d’aumonerie in the Alps every summer, and the kids actually use the language thing from time to time if they want to challenge my authority. It’s not just the occasional gender mistake, if I haven’t made any they correct my pronunciation instead. Leetle ‘orreurs!

    Comment by Catherijn — September 11, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  14. A little rule I learnt in the UK about determining the gender of a french noun (which, despite being french, I never realised!), the general rule is if a word finishes with a vowel, its gender is feminine…although, as ever with these rules, there are 3 tons of exceptions (The phare of No 2 above being a prime example!)

    Comment by I.F — September 11, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

  15. A quick response in support of Tadpole. It must be hard always to be at a disadvantage with your mother, Mr Frog and the Boy, who think they know so much more than you, and even more annoying usually do!

    Are you really surprised that she is so delighted to discover she has things she knows and you don’t, not to mention the joy of playing, even being, teacher from time to time?

    It’s all part of growing up. Bring impatient of being a permanent child is a natural part of that, even at Tadpole’s age. She wants a chance to be like you.

    Allez Tadpole!

    Comment by John Norris — September 11, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

  16. Spanish seems to something of a similar problem, as I recall, though I don’t remember if it is to the same extent as French. (I used to be conversational in Spanish.) I suppose that English has the advantage of being an androgynous language, though as most non-native speakers have told me, it is still difficult to learn. I often wonder what is harder; a native English speaker learning French, or vice-versa?

    Comment by Dave of the Lake — September 11, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

  17. I love this post! It’s beautifully written and observed. It also reminds me of when I was an au pair in the ‘beaux quartiers’ and the kids took great delight in correcting my gender errors and occasional pronunciation blunders. This caused a slight imbalance of power as well.

    Now I’m happily settled in Paris with my French boyfriend, i foresee episodes like this happening in the future, when we have our own little tadpoles…

    Comment by Helen — September 11, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

  18. I’m glad to see that you are blogging again! Even if you said that you were finding it difficult to blog these days, I find this post as excellent as always.
    I am a native French speaker and I can tell that the gender debate is far from being closed. Le or la pétale? Le or la chips? Nobody agrees on these two words.
    I also make gender mistakes in English. “son portefeuille” becomes “her wallet” even if I see wallet as masculine; so I say “his wallet”. Then nobody understands what and who I’m talking about.

    Comment by Bibil — September 11, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

  19. And I thought I had enough trouble with American English and British English!

    Comment by Mom/Mum — September 11, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

  20. Loved this post! I actually saw myself quite a bit in Tadpole. Eeeeek!

    We’ve never had French tadpoles in my family, just…you know…frogs of English variety. Native speakers do take it for granted and it must be especially frustrating to have that from one’s child.

    Comment by MademoiselleNon — September 11, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

  21. You know nothing I’m afraid – the balance of power shifts at conception and is permanent …….. the phrase ‘smoke and mirrors’ comes to mind.

    Comment by Daddy Papersurfer — September 11, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

  22. Un, une, la, le,… i find it very difficult too. The Dutch version of your book is now available in Belgium. I’m very anxious to read it. I’m taking it with me on our holiday to France tomorrow.

    Comment by Nana — September 11, 2008 @ 4:44 pm

  23. During my first year in France, not speaking a word of French when I arrived, I found myself having to converse with a three-year-old. For those who aren’t aware, attempting to speak the native language with a child is one of the worst horrors of the world. That was reinforced when my very best efforts were immediately seized upon with a very vocal TU TU TU! My anglophone brain was still saying TOO TOO TOO. At least my inner self made a more correct attempt ever after. And I refused to say one word to any child for years thereafter!

    @16 I was always taught that English was a very difficult language, we were fortunate it was our mother tongue. Until I arrived in France. Probably 90% of the French tell me otherwise, they think French must be harder, there are so many exceptions. LOL!

    En règle générale, if not always, borrowed words take on the masculine; e.g., le jean. And we can get a bit of revenge when they say things like calling the house a she. Or say they are angry when they want to eat or start all vowel words with an H.

    Comment by azurienne — September 11, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

  24. I’ve been so enchanted by your book and Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French. That coupled with the fact that my best friend is planning a move to France sometime in the next 2-5 years has me pondering whether to begin learning French. I can currently speak only a few key phrases, and forget trying to spell them! I’m hoping that my degree in Spanish and familiarity with Portuguese would make it somewhat simpler to pick up a third Romance language, but I’m not so sure. There’s something of a disconnect for me between the written French word and its pronunciation. I just don’t get it.

    Comment by librarianlisa — September 11, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

  25. You know, I’ve taken French immersion from Kindergarten all the way up to university level. I have spent time in France and Quebec. I use french on a daily basis in my current job. I STILL have problems remembering the correct gender. Maybe because I’ve always had issues with the whole french gender thing. Why is a LUMP feminine? Most of the lumps I’ve met have been guys..

    Comment by nomotherearth — September 11, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

  26. I’m so relieved to discover that my 8 year old is not unusual! I try not to take his comments about my French too personally (we live in Belgium). On a good day he commends me for trying but usually he just rips me to shreds. When he was about 5 his favourite game was “you try and say a word in French and I’ll tell you how to say it properly” – aahhh – little darling.

    Comment by Serendipity — September 11, 2008 @ 6:45 pm

  27. The boy asleep.. before Tadpole’s story-time? Are you slipping sedatives into his cocoa?

    Comment by gonzales — September 11, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

  28. Oh, I am SOOOO feeling your pain and chagrin… my French husband’s 7 year old son has gone from barely speaking with me in the beginning (because he was a bit shy given that I didn’t speak fluent French) to constantly correcting my French. And he gets me on the gender issue, every time, not to mention correcting my pronunciation.

    Of course since my Petit Prof’s corrections sometimes come with a hug or a kiss afterward, I guess I can’t really complain… except when the two teenagers also start ganging up on me about my sometimes faulty pronunciation. Which reminds me: must blog about recent embarrassment over “grenouille”…

    Comment by The Bold Soul — September 11, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

  29. The same thing happens to me because I babysit French kids. I get made fun of for not differentiating between “au-dessus” and “au-dessous.” Come on, now! However, yesterday I caught one of the boys saying “il faut que je save” and called him out on it. I was sooo proud of myself.

    Comment by Casey — September 11, 2008 @ 9:04 pm

  30. Oh yeah- I also notice French people, when speaking english will use “his” and “her” as they would in French, i.e. even if it’s a man’s table it’s “her table,” or “his purse” is one of my favorites.

    Comment by Casey — September 11, 2008 @ 9:07 pm

  31. I love this post!
    I think I feel for my dad (who it not a native english speaker). I would always get frustrated with him for embarrassing me with his poor knowledge of english expressions or even the occasional gender slip up! I too tried to give him lessons on his grammar and pronunciation–but I have given up the accent :)

    Comment by Eleni — September 11, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

  32. I think this is a positive thing. Learning and teaching, but personally I feel it would drive me nuts. Mothers are used to correcting their kids use of language and not the other way around.

    Comment by One Mom's Opinion — September 11, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

  33. Mon plus jeune fils a longtemps fait des fautes de genre à certains mots très courants comme clef parce que sa nounou qui parlait français comme une langue natale était néanmoins un plus anglophone que francophone et les lui avait transmises.

    Comment by marie-hélène — September 11, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

  34. Doesn’t it just make you wish there was none of this gender business with so many languages – its just made for tripping up native English speakers. Thank goodness for Collins Robert !

    Comment by Rhiannon — September 11, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

  35. On dirait que Tadpole a la bosse de l’enseignement!

    Comment by Choubine — September 12, 2008 @ 12:16 am

  36. David Sedaris reveals his own inventive method of remembering the gender of nouns in his book Me Talk Pretty One Day. He tells himself a story in which an astray (le cendrier) breaks up with his girfriend, the belt (la ceinture) in order to take up with another femme, the spoon (la cuiller).

    In American, we would say Penelope was singing at the top of her lungs (you British have always had the edge on being less graphic and hence, less offensive).

    I love the visual image you create as you describe Tadpole scrolling through facial expressions in response to your error. It’s sooo professional, ma petite.

    Comment by sheba — September 12, 2008 @ 1:11 am

  37. You will definitely have your hands full with that girl!

    Comment by ~Tim — September 12, 2008 @ 1:55 am

  38. I’m hearing you, I just love it when my 15 year old corrects me!

    It doesn’t happen often, I’m a little bit dominating, but I have to agree with #13, just wait until she becomes a teenager. They’re not always very nice people, you know, power struggle, manipulation, disrespect etc.

    They’re just lucky we really love them.

    Comment by QldDeb — September 12, 2008 @ 6:41 am

  39. Obviously you are not suffering from a bloggersblock. You are funny as ever and your story plugged a big smile on my face!
    I was raised bilingual until i was 9 years old (my father was ‘francophone’)but I was very stubborn and I didn’t wanted to speak french. Now I’m really sorry for that. As i only use french ocasionnaly my French is becoming ‘lamentabel’ as we say it in dutch. Tadpole is such a lucky girl that she can learn both languages! And it seems that she is enjoying it too! groetjes uit België, dame blanche

    Comment by dame blanche — September 12, 2008 @ 10:14 am

  40. PS: always feel free to ‘correct’ my comments ; reading your blog (and write comments) could be an excellent way to improve my english (i always use the same excuse for buying expensive english magazines like Vogue UK, Easy living… etcetera) ;)

    Comment by dame blanche — September 12, 2008 @ 10:25 am

  41. … very unfair indeed. I have been in London for 6 years and still unable to speak with a proper british accent .. and this will never happen. But my Brits colleagues love it, they love correcting the way I can pronounce things sometimes with an exagerated inspector Cluzot voice. I must admit my only reply to them is speaking french with a strong english accent and telling them they have been to Paris and they had dinner in ‘la restaurant and drunk un bon bouteille de vin avec la fromage’
    Tadpole is such a lucky girl !!

    Comment by Carole — September 12, 2008 @ 11:01 am

  42. Lovely post. Sounds like Tadpole and The Boy have bonded very well, even if it means ganging up on you sometimes! :)

    Comment by happyforyou — September 12, 2008 @ 11:39 am

  43. Don’t you think “croque” should totally be feminine? Waiters always correct me on that, but I persist, as I am convinced that, with enough effort, we can change these silly, non-conformist genders.

    Comment by Emma — September 12, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

  44. You got off lightly! My son started correcting me at 3. Strangely enough, once he has corrected me I usually remember – 3 year olds make the best teachers!

    He usually finishes off the lesson by saying “Don’t try and speak Italian with me”.

    Comment by Cath — September 12, 2008 @ 3:30 pm

  45. OT: – This was on CNN today, thought you might enjoy it:

    Comment by Dave of the Lake — September 12, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

  46. “In fact, one of her most common blunders, just now, is to refer to a chair as a she or a pencil as a he. ”
    Damn! Same problem for me…And I’m a french-native speaker like Taldpole ;)

    Comment by Guillaume — September 12, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

  47. It’s a bit rough that she gets to wear the black silk negligee while you get lumped with an old pair of Hello Kitty PJs. But I suppose that’s the working mother’s lot – always eating the burned chop.

    Comment by Damian — September 12, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

  48. Where I live everyone talks a lot of franglais, some days I don’t even know anymore whether a word is french or english or a combo of both….ie..Franglais

    You learning, or inventing more franglais also yet ???

    Comment by Alan Gay and Straight — September 12, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

  49. Wow. None of the 5-year-olds I know even know how to read yet. Not even close.

    Comment by Estelle — September 12, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

  50. How old is Tadpole again, 4, 5, and reading to you, wow that is pretty impressive. You have a clever girl there, nuture her well.

    Comment by Nick — September 12, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

  51. One of my favourite posts ever! Besides the obvious cuteness factor, and the always-interesting-to-me issues of living in another language, your scrupulous self-awareness is compelling here as it turns its lens on the changing nature of the mother-daughter relationship — that delicate balance shifting continually as Tadpole moves towards eventual autonomy. I raised three daughters (and a son), and I recognize this wonder at the emerging competence, even occasional brilliance, of one’s child balanced with awareness that you might no longer occupy quite the same position in their sky — the planets tilt. . .
    Oh dear, I have gone on. But for me, you did manage to capture all of that in one delightful anecdote.

    Comment by materfamilias — September 12, 2008 @ 8:48 pm

  52. My German wife has been speaking English for well over thirty years, has been on business trips to the States, reads English books etc. Our children are 13 and 15, got their English on from me and then from school, but when we watch an English or American film, they immediately explain all the tricky bits which mummy doesn’t get. It’s the way of things, as is the problem of grammatical gender. I can say in relative humility that I am fluent in French and German, but the one trap I occasionally fall into even after over forty years is using the wrong article (even though I usually “know” that it’s wrong as I hear myself say it!) C’est la vie, but just listen to all the native speakers who often speak an appalling version of their own language and then you won’t feel so bad.

    Comment by Bill George — September 12, 2008 @ 9:10 pm

  53. What a tease you are — just when we thought you wouldn’t be blogging again for AGES…. ooh… another Tadpole tale at last! SO enjoyed that – and identify with it completely. It must be bad enough in French, but just try keeping up with der/die/das/die multiplied by 4 different case endings. No wonder my bilingual daughter thinks her mother is illiterate. One good thing is that being proficient at something I simply cannot grasp gives her a real sense of achievement / confidence. Another is that learning a “foreign” language at school becomes a breeze (it really does seem to make a difference). Just make sure that, if the school offers a choice of foreign languages, Tadpole doesn’t end up in the English-language class (I had to jump through hoops to get mine to be taught French instead of German – even though they already knew she was a native speaker).
    #13 is so right. When I was an au-pair countless years ago, the teenage kids in the famille nombreuse I herded took great pleasure in teaching me shockingly inappropriate phrases to greet dinner guests, and delighted in failing to correct any mistakes they found particularly amusing (“flocons d’avion” for breakfast, anyone?). As for the bosse/boss conundrum …. in an indecisive moment during a visit to relatives in Norway, I discovered that “Ok, whatever, you’re the boss” didn’t help matters at all: in that part of the world, “boss” means “rubbish”….

    Comment by kitikat — September 13, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

  54. Hey nice to have a new post. I think you’ll find that little kids like to feel they are smarter than their parents some times. I remember letting my tots *think* they were sometimes!! It’s so delightful to see how they react to being smartypants for a change! Tadpole sounds quite a bit older somehow now? Scribble

    Comment by scribble — September 13, 2008 @ 11:26 pm

  55. I’m a French Immersion teacher in Canada, and we teach the kids the gender along with the noun. That can backfire too: many of our 6- and 7-year-old talk about “le l’eau” or “le l’école”. Sigh…

    Comment by pinklea — September 14, 2008 @ 2:56 am

  56. Ok, thanks for confirming one of my darkest fears. I think I’ll go have my tubes cut and cauterized before harboring any more longing over having a child with my own non-English speaking frog. Bon courage with your new little French teacher.

    Comment by Sara from Melun — September 14, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

  57. Tadpole turned five in June. She’s been reading for a year ;-)

    Comment by petite — September 14, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

  58. Le tetard may enjoy this piece from Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rame.

    Un petit d’un petit
    S’étonne aux Halles
    Un petit d’un petit
    Ah! degrés te fallent
    Indolent qui ne sort cesse
    Indolent qui ne se mène
    Qu’importe un petit d’un petit
    Tout Gai de Reguennes.

    Comment by Ghinch — September 14, 2008 @ 9:29 pm

  59. #49 Estelle: It’s 35 or so years since I was around children that young, but back then, most of my friends’ kids read at four or at latest five. And many years before that, I learned to read at three and so did my cousin.

    Comment by Passante — September 14, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

  60. As an unreconstructed Francophile, I have decided to come out of the lurking closet (try saying that in French!). An utterly and characteristically delightful post.

    Gender, of course is something every English-speaking French language learner struggles with, as many of the posts attest. From my ancient memories of high school French, I seem to remember a rule of thumb that nouns ending in “e” are *usually* feminine. That of course gives you unexpected ones like “la moustache” – OK, women can kind-of have nice downy little moustaches – but their association is mostly masculine. And I know that a rule of thumb has many exceptions. I shall probably be shot down in flames for this innocent suggestion, but I hope my fellow posters will be indulgent!

    Comment by Guy — September 15, 2008 @ 12:14 am

  61. Petite you’re back on top form! I love hearing about the intricacies of the language. On the bright side it’s like having your very own walking talking collins robert… even if she is a little madam.

    Comment by miscellaneousletters — September 15, 2008 @ 12:36 am

  62. I have a dear friend whose children are bilingual (Spanish and English). I have found that the 5 year old is a wonderful teacher. She speaks slowly, and exaggerates her speech when I am having difficulty with a word. It makes it a lot easier to copy what she says. I am learning Spanish very quickly from her.

    She was amazed that I could roll my r’s, and said I must not be American. But I was surprised that at 5 years old she was very tuned in to accents.

    Comment by Elle — September 15, 2008 @ 2:49 am

  63. @estelle, passante: the thing is that in France, schools don’t teach reading until CP, age 6. So unless the child picks it up at home, that’s the norm in France. I could read when my sister was born, which makes me a couple of months short of my third birthday …

    Comment by petite — September 15, 2008 @ 8:15 am

  64. The thing about learning to read is that it has to be a natural, child-led process and the child cannot be forced to read before they’re ready.

    My son learnt (by himself) before he was 3 and was a very fluent reader within no time at all, but my daughter is 5 now and just starting to take an interest in working out what written words “say”.

    German (and Scandinavian, I believe) schools also delay reading and writing until the age of 6, but what happens is that the child very quickly attains fluency, whereas many children that start – or “are started” – reading at an earlier age struggle for years and feel insecure and under pressure, struggling to meet the milestones and obtaining little or no pleasure from what should be a very gratifying experience (not the case of Tadpole, obviously, but this is true of many children).

    As far as I know, later on in primary & secondary education, German (and Scandinavian) kids perform just as well or even better than English kids, who are usually encouraged to read & write earlier, often before they have attained sufficient maturity.

    The bottom line is that it’s really important to let kids develop at their own pace and respect their individuality.

    Comment by happyforyou — September 15, 2008 @ 8:48 am

  65. My four year-old is bilingual as well, speaking both Hebrew and English. He switches effortlessly between American and Israeli accents, and thinks it’s hilarious that I can’t roll my “r” in Hebrew. When he wants to impersonate my mother, he’ll say “shalom” with a totally American accent, and our party trick is to make him say the same word using different accents. He’s been teaching me new words in Hebrew (despite the fact that I’ve been here for more than 17 years and am quite fluent) for ages now!

    Comment by Liza R — September 15, 2008 @ 9:06 am

  66. @64 I totally agree. I’ve always taken my cue from Tadpole. She was fascinated with letters and sounds when she was much younger and begged me to play word games (e.g. I’d say a word and she’d tell me what letter it began or ended with); loved being read to and started picking out words herself, then went through a phase where she knew how to read but refused to actually do it, so I respected that and left it alone. In the meantime, she apparently worked out how to apply her English phonetic reading methods to French behind my back.

    Her latest obsession is with writing. I get little letters from her written in a combination of caps and lowercase. But I’m going to leave the teaching in that respect to her teachers as I know the French have very different writing techniques to the English …

    Comment by petite — September 15, 2008 @ 9:42 am

  67. I’ve just realised how horrible I am. Not only did I continually correct my (Czechoslovakian)mum’s English when I was a teenager, I now (as an adult) find myself correcting my step-dad’s Slovak pronounciation.
    So, Tadpole probably will only get worse with this, but you take comfort that when she’s in her late 30s, she’ll probably feel REALLY bad about it.

    Comment by Ponytail — September 15, 2008 @ 12:38 pm

  68. Love it! Long may she be totally bilingual. I came back to the UK so my Tadpole’s English would improve, but now we’ve been back 10 years and really, a reverse trip is in order. I can see us crossing the Channel endlessly for the rest of our days trying to get it right! DD started to say “oh, pas une histoire en anglais” at bedtime, then “mais pourquoi on parle anglais? on est a Paris” etc. I tried, I did, but the peer pressure was obviously greater….

    Comment by Jen — September 15, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

  69. Reading and school starting age — ah, I now I understand. I grew up in England and started school at four, so even children who hadn’t begged to learn to read well before that (as I am told I did), could mostly read by five. Here in the U.S., where I now live, first grade doesn’t start until six, but so many children go to kindergarten that it isn’t unusual for a lot to read to some degree or another by four or five.

    You can’t successfully push children. They will read when they are ready. But perhaps more children are ready earlier than some educational systems believe.

    Comment by Passante — September 15, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

  70. It’s the accent down south here that gets me in trouble.
    Apparently it isn’t ‘demain’ like I’ve been taught in school, but ‘demaing’, with an emphasis on the ‘g’. Nothing like a 6-year old correcting your pronunciation!

    Comment by Rachelle — September 15, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

  71. My cousin’s daughter who is english/german bilingual has been known to correct her english teacher at her Berlin school !!

    Comment by felicity b — September 15, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

  72. Wish I had your problems re child being bi lingual. Am trying with own children (whilst living in Oz as pommie french teacher) – to inflict some french language into life in general! Have met with some resistance but battle on and just hoping that they will have a french ‘ear’ when they get to secondary school. I had Mum fluent in french but she regrettably never spoke it at home.
    Just got into the book and your general story (we a bit behind sometimes in Oz) – fascinating, just loving it!!!

    Comment by Aussiepom — September 16, 2008 @ 1:43 am

  73. @66 The best phase of all is when they are making their first incursions in writing: those wonderfully artistic letters, the creative spelling..
    Cherish her little letters and stories, you’ll love to look back at them in years to come.
    Do the French teach cursive from the outset?

    Comment by happyforyou — September 16, 2008 @ 8:31 am

  74. Has no-one else wondered why you were eating ravioli in a Chinese snack bar?

    Comment by lettsy — September 16, 2008 @ 10:10 am

  75. he he

    I don’t even know how to translate what the French call raviolis chinoises into English. Dumplings? Dim Sum? I fear I’m more familiar with the vocab of Chinese food in French than English…

    Comment by petite — September 16, 2008 @ 5:06 pm

  76. I just started reading your book. You write so beautifully! I am savoring every page…

    Comment by Nataliya — September 16, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

  77. I’d say that it’s those little mistakes that make a second language learner’s way of speaking endearing! I am always reluctant to fix a number of the mistakes I make in Japanese because they evoke such a chuckle from native speakers. :)

    Comment by Heather — September 16, 2008 @ 8:15 pm

  78. It must be fascinating to have a bilingual child. I can’t wait! I just hope they won’t be reluctant speaking French to me as we’ll be living in the UK. Don’t worry about your accents, I’m French and have been in London for 11 years and still can’t pronounce ‘th’ without feeling silly. Our accent is what makes us exotic. I’ll never lose mine. I accept it and am quite happy with it.

    Kara, as a French teacher, I’m appalled you don’t know whether ‘table’ is feminine or masculine. Surely, you can check in the dictionary. I’m learning Greek, so I know what you’re going through (they even have neutral and declensions). I know, one doesn’t always feel like opening the dico, mais bon, il y a un minimum. Bon courage;-)

    Comment by Sophielondon — September 16, 2008 @ 9:41 pm

  79. Were they shui mai?

    Comment by Sheila K. — September 17, 2008 @ 1:39 am

  80. Love this post! Though I don’t have kids, my boyfriend and I constantly debate about language (Mandarin, Japanese, Singaporean English, and Aussie English) and it’s great fun.

    Comment by Yu Ming Lui — September 17, 2008 @ 5:58 am

  81. My wife is Danish and has always spoken Danish to our two children. The Danish influence was nurtured further by a succession of Danish au-pairs. My son was slow to speak, and we were advised by a speech therapist to stop the dual input. My wife steadfastly ignored this advice and eventually he spoke Danish to his Mum and the au-pair, and English to me.
    This was fine until he started school. Up until then he had obviously believed that men and women spoke different languages…….cue raucous laughter. Within a couple of days of starting school he refused to speak Danish because he didn’t want to be different from his new friends.
    My daughter who is a couple of years younger has never spoken it, but understands every word.
    It is only now that they are teenagers that they have realised that being bi-lingual is actually quite cool, and being a bit different from your friends is not a bad thing after all.
    They now have younger cousins in Denmark and will both quite happily converse with them in Danish when we have holidays together.
    They still pick their mother up on her English though!

    Comment by lettsy — September 17, 2008 @ 10:15 am

  82. @78-why are YOU so appalled? the children cant tell the difference anyway ;)

    if they made a mistake like that i wouldnt even correct it as its a huge downer!! (imagine being corrected every time you say something wrong — theyd never try) teaching a modern language these days actually frowns upon it… i also dont teach grammar and verbs explicitly [insert gasps here]… its very boring and it goes over their heads… they dont get it

    as you can read from the post someone who learns a second language will always make these mistakes… like me

    and i already speak greek so kali tixi with that!!

    Comment by kara — September 17, 2008 @ 11:22 am

  83. Hi, I found your blog on this new directory of WordPress Blogs at I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, i duno. Anyways, I just clicked it and here I am. Your blog looks good. Have a nice day. James.

    Comment by James — September 18, 2008 @ 10:23 am

  84. Not read all the posts sorry – has anyone pointed out that it is schtum not stumm?

    Comment by Tony — September 18, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

  85. Don’t you just love it when kids grow up? :-D
    Whhhiiii my first comment :-p

    Greets from Belgium! :-D

    Comment by Strange Little Girl — September 18, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

  86. @ 78 and 82 – well I’m appalled … ‘chuis (comme dirait mon fils) d’accord, un dico, quand même, c’est le minimum !

    sans leçon aucune

    from an anglo-French/Franco-English family since 1850

    Comment by cjw — September 18, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  87. I think stumm is just a spelling variant. Not wrong, as such. I probably chose this spelling because I studied German.

    Comment by petite — September 18, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

  88. My kids use a very ‘superior’ tone of voice and facial expression when correcting my gender lapses (though i hate to think of the google hits petite will get from that phrase), but are impressed when I help them with grammar, still taught the old-fashioned way here, and over-awed when I know words that they don’t. They’ve both just taken up a second language – to them 3rd/4th – and are cottoning on to the idea that some poor souls have to work long & hard to attain the level of proficiency that they’ve imbibed from their surroundings.
    My regret from my school days is that I was never taught English grammar, bar that a noun is a thing word and a verb a doing word. My proficiency,such as it is, in my own language therefore comes from having learned the structure from foreign languages. Indeed have been told that my written French is better than my native scribblings. (Maybe also why being succinct is a difficulty).
    Kara, you are doing your pupils no favours, and believe it or not that’s not a personal attack, you’re just doing as you’ve been trained to do. The highway code is extremely boring, but without it I wouldn’t be leaving home without a pet paramedic, and believe it or not, grammar doesn’t have to be taught in a deathly dull way, but it does need to be taught. Get hold of Eric Orsenna’s “Le grammaire est une chanson douce” and “Les chevaliers du subjunctif”. They’re not textbooks, but might give you novel ideas.
    Besides which, knowledge of past historic and imperfect subjunctive come in very useful when dealing with pompous énarques who assume you’re thick because your accent resembles inverted Allo Allo; a quick interjection of ‘il aurait fallu que j’eusse’ tends to leave them either bouche bée or reaching for the bescherelle.

    Comment by j — September 18, 2008 @ 6:43 pm

  89. PS. Before Kara jumps down my throat, I agree with the emphasis on, and corresponding improvement in oral work in the UK, nevertheless at some stage the sentences spoken have to be grammatically correct, and the earlier they hear it and use it the more easily they’ll retain the correct format.

    Comment by j — September 18, 2008 @ 6:50 pm

  90. Kara (82), you are underestimating children thinking they can’t tell the difference (between ‘un’ and ‘une’). They will eventually. Of course, some will never get it. It’s the same for adults I’m afraid.

    I get students, mostly adults, whose French is awful after years of study, because they had (so called) teachers who didn’t correct them (enough).

    I spend a lot of my time reparing the damage. I wish, for my and their sake, that they had a stricter teacher before. I do spend a lot of time correcting people’s mistakes (and I agree with you, with small children, the approach is slightly different) and the result is there, for the ones who care.

    The fact that so many teachers in the UK* for example have had lower standards for many years, like saying about grammar and verbs, that kids don’t get it, has led to an appaling level of French in learners, and then some of these people become language teachers…

    I’ve been teaching a young woman during August, who is starting her PGCE training next week. Well…I’m glad my children won’t learn French from her. A lot of modern language teachers in the UK do not deserve to teach in our schools. But then nobody wants to do the job, that’s why the CILT is always recruting natives from overseas, at great expense for this government. And I’ve been in many schools (I used to do supply too). But saying that, France also has bad language teachers. I was lucky to have good English ones, who are responsible for me loving this language so much. I wasn’t so lucky with German, Italian and Spanish (but I love the last 2 anyway).

    *I used to teach in comprehensives, now I’m in the City mostly teaching professionals but still teach children

    Comment by Sophielondon — September 18, 2008 @ 6:52 pm

  91. Oups, ‘appalling’ with double ‘l’, pardon pardon… I don’t mind being corrected myself by the way.

    Kara, I forgot to say, thanks for the Greek words. I love that language too.

    Et sans rancune! (How would you say that in English, Italian, Greek?)

    Comment by Sophielondon — September 18, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

  92. I haven’t gotten that yet, my kids are still too young. Just a quick question as my eldest just started CP and is learning to read French. Did you teach Tadpole to read English at the same time she was learning French? Or did she learn to read English later?

    Comment by Rachel — September 18, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

  93. sans rancune – no hard feelings ?

    Comment by cjw — September 19, 2008 @ 9:15 am

  94. i never post more than once let alone 3 times but…

    @ 86 88 90 (sorry petite)

    this is in fact the “new school” way of teaching… i was taught the old school way myself and my grammar is very strong… so strong that my oral communication suffered… they changed the way FSL was taught and i never thought id buy into it but its brilliant and the kids love it

    i can correct a kid every single day when saying the date and they will still say lundi “lay” 15 septembre so whats the point?

    at my school there are 2 FSL teachers (me and the one who is very grammar focused) and i hate to say it but the kids think the other class is boring and the teacher is suffering for it too… i have kids running to get to my class and are sad when they dont have French (never thought id see that day)

    the goal of the program is to give kids basic communication skills and to show an appreciation of French culture all around the world… the goal isnt to create French speakers

    so whether table is M or F in the end doesnt make a difference!!

    Comment by kara — September 19, 2008 @ 11:17 am

  95. Do you generally speak to Tadpole in English or in French? I’m assuming you spoke in French (obviously) otherwise she wouldn’t have picked up on the French mistake. When you’re with the boy do you then speak to her in French? I used to get corrected by my pupils in CE2 (8 year olds for those who don’t know what that means) when they wanted to get an advantage over me. I simply told them that it didn’t matter what I said in French as in class we spoke English and that was the only thing that mattered.
    Also, whilst we’re on the subject of mistakes, I’ve noticed in previous posts when you are writing about Tadpole anecdotes (love those by the way and bravo for this one!) she uses ‘did/do’ alot when its not to confirm something. Difficult to explain, but saying for example ‘I did have a nice day’ rather than simply saying ‘I had a nice day’. Do you always correct her aswell? French may be the more complicated language but there are pitfalls in speaking English and its not as easy as they think!

    Comment by Rose — September 19, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

  96. I only speak to Tadpole in English when we are alone, but when my husband is around, I tend to speak to him in a mixture of English and French. Which means that Tadpole hears me speaking French more often than she used to, and no doubt this is why she’s started noticing my mistakes…

    Comment by petite — September 19, 2008 @ 3:16 pm

  97. I’ve always thought that the main point was communication but with regard to teachers, I’ve also always thought they, at least, should know the gender of a French table.

    My mother has been here for 60 years and still makes mistakes but she communicates perfectly and there’s no problem. My father and his family have been here forever although he was educated in England, was in the British army in India etc. As he gets older (84) he’s becoming more English and in spite of his totally bilingual upbringing (quite rare for his generation) speaks both without a trace of an accent but he still makes mistakes in both, very rarerly but it happens. Again, pas de problème avec la comm. mais ce n’est pas le problème.

    Je maintiens, en qualité de prof …

    Anyone tried learning basque ?!

    Comment by cjw — September 20, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

  98. Judging from your tone, I’m sure The Boy knows the gender of boss in your household also.

    Comment by Sheila K. — September 20, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

  99. He certainly knows when I’m joking.

    Comment by petite — September 20, 2008 @ 11:25 pm

  100. Great post. Speaking of post I received (a while back) the copy of your book that you sent – I believe you called them signed galleys. Thank you very much!! Enjoy Paris – you are so fortunate to be there. And enjoy hearing French – it is such a delicious language. …And keep up the great blogging.

    Comment by IRememberParisFondly — September 21, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

  101. Crazy as it seems, I left Paris because I didn’t want ‘foreign’ children. No, that’s not right, I didn’t want to be a ‘foreign’ Mummy. I didn’t want my kids coming home with their friends saying, ‘Il faut excuser ma mère, elle est anglaise, tu sais …’
    It was a stupid, stupid reason for leaving – and as it happens, I never had children when I returned to England. Given my choices to make again, I’d probably have stayed in Paris, and been delighted with my own ‘knot’ (collective noun for frogs, apparantly, a knot …)
    Keep the anecdotes coming – even if they do make me wistful for a life I stupidly turned my back on …

    Comment by Linda — September 21, 2008 @ 10:31 pm

  102. yikes @ 97!!

    hate to burst your bubble, but guess what? teachers are people too… and just like moms and dads, they dont actually know everything!!

    most teachers just make it up as they go along :P

    Comment by kara — September 22, 2008 @ 11:07 am

  103. Ah, language issues. Always something for the child to correct. I’m from Canada and only grew up speaking English – I felt the need to correct my family all the time because I felt that their English was “uneducated”! Ouch. I don’t do that anymore!

    I live very close to Quebec, so there is alot of French here. A co-worker asked me very seriously one day “Do you say in English – one toot or two teets, or is it two teets and one toot?” With a straight face, I responded – one toot and 2 teets, of course. He had just been to the dentist, and was asking about his teeth – do you say one tooth and two teeth? hahaha.

    Don’t even get me started on my pronunciation (let alone gender) of coeur, écureuil, accueil, Longueil, lagouille, grenouille, etc. (yikes)

    Comment by Laura — September 22, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

  104. I’m sorry to forewarn you Petite that by the time Tadpole is in her teens and twenties (as mine are) anything you say or do will be met with “eyes to the ceiling” so be prepared for the distain!

    Comment by Jes — September 22, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

  105. Let’s see: a French teacher who doesn’t know the gender of an everyday noun and doesn’t think it important, who says that most teachers “just make it up as they go along” — now I understand the reason why many of the young people I encountered when I taught at university level were so ill-prepared that I ended up having to teach some of the basics they should have covered by the time they were 14.

    Comment by Passante — September 23, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

  106. Cute. I’m wondering whether you and Tadpole might have developed some kind of own language that is mainly English peppered with French, or made-up words that are your own only. For example, the English I speak on the island is a mixture of English with Islandese bits and made-up funny words. Elsewhere, my French is riddled with anglicisms that are mostly impenetrable to anyone outside QC or the UK. Sometimes, German words also appear, out of nowhere… it’s a miracle I manage to communicate with anyone at all! :-)

    Comment by Ariel — September 24, 2008 @ 6:07 am

  107. As i’m a bit ill and have to stay at home for some days i decided to read some of your old blogs, (starting from the early beginning).
    I was in Paris last weekend and i went to starbucks so when i read your blog about Starbucks (coffee empire) it made me laugh.
    BTW: when I asked for ‘un lait russe’ they didn’t seem to understand me. So i had to tell them i wanted ‘un café latte’.

    Comment by dame blanche — September 24, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

  108. Just wait until she starts to correct her English teacher at school. One of my English friends was called to the school because her son had been doing this. When she took out her son’s homework jotter and pointed out the mistakes herself, the teacher replied: “Excuse me, but I studied English in Paris and spent one year at an English University. I know how to speak and teach English. I will not be told how to do my job!” My friend was gobsmacked.

    Comment by Tarte Tartan — September 24, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

  109. @ 105: if you cant see the tongue in cheek in my comments thats too bad for you

    @ 108: parents dont have the right to tell a teacher how to do their job… im sure that parents wouldnt want to hear what teachers think of their parenting skills!!


    Comment by kara — September 24, 2008 @ 11:13 pm

  110. #109
    The reality of it is that even though you are paid by the school district, (or whoever ,in your particular country) your ultimate employer is the parents of your students. I don’t know if you are a teacher, but if you are, it would serve you and your students well to drop the text-style of writing and set a good example!

    Comment by Sheila K. — September 25, 2008 @ 6:28 pm

  111. @109 @ 108 … I think parents have the right to expect the teachers to get things right, though, and to graciously accept a correction from a native speaker …

    Comment by Linda — September 25, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

  112. by the way, did anyone pick up on the fact that Petite might be pregnant? In one of the answers to the marathon question time she mentions “next year when I have Tadpole nr 2”, or something similar.
    *with bated breath*


    Comment by Tandy — September 26, 2008 @ 11:27 am

  113. @ Tarte Tartan, a friend’s kid ended up in detention for doing just that, despite the diplomacy of saying “I don’t know how it’s pronounced in America, but in England le four is called an uhven, not an owe ven”. Be advised that in France, teacher is omniscient, omnipotent, and parents are ALL twits! (Apologies, I never learned phonetics)
    @ Kara, try doing some ESL, then just maybe you’ll get where certain commentators are coming from.

    Comment by j — September 29, 2008 @ 11:37 pm

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