Louisiana French: L'heritage at risk
A major effort is under way in Louisiana, a state named for French King Louis XIV, to restore the French language.
MAMOU, La. — It's 9:30 a.m. and the drinking and dancing are raging at Fred's Lounge, amid a mix of Cajun French music, waltzes and two-steps, with cans of Miller Lite the breakfast of choice.
The Saturday-morning party from the windowless, 66-year-old bar is broadcast live throughout the South Louisiana prairie on 1050 AM out of Ville Platte, and the music has been credited with helping to sustain the Cajun French culture since just after World War II.
Fred's manager, Sue Vasseur, known as Tante Sue de Mamou, worries about the survival of the Louisiana French culture. The current generation, she said, isn't picking up the French language, which is part of the soul of the Acadian people who settled in Louisiana in the mid-1700s, when they were expelled from the present-day Canadian province of Nova Scotia after refusing to swear their allegiance to the British crown.
"I'm hoping it's going to continue. They are teaching French in our schools here now in Mamou and Evangeline Parish. So I think possibly some of it will rub off on our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren," said Vasseur, 81, wearing a pistol holster of cinnamon schnapps on her hip as dancers whirled to a 10-button accordion and a singer belting out a love song in French.
There's a major effort in Louisiana, a state named for French King Louis XIV, to restore the French language. It's part of a resurgence in cultural pride, and there are signs the decline in French speakers has slowed.
Among the last hopes is the nation's largest French-immersion program, in which every subject except English is being taught in French to kindergartners through eighth-graders. Just under 4,000 students in nine parishes are in the program, typically with teachers imported from France, Belgium, Quebec and French-speaking African nations.
Bureaucrats and schoolteachers long sought to stamp out Louisiana French in the name of Americanization. They almost succeeded. Cajuns and others who spoke the language were told it was shameful and a sign of ignorance. Students were punished for speaking it after the state board of education decided in 1915 to suppress French, a move strengthened six years later when the Louisiana Constitution forbade the use of any language other than English in the public-school system.
It was estimated that there were a million French speakers in Louisiana in 1968. Today the number is pegged at 150,000 to 200,000. Those who speak French as their first language tend to be older than 70, and their children often never picked it up.
Louisiana French advocates are fighting an uphill battle. There are economics at play, and Louisiana is a poor state that doesn't have a lot of jobs in which speaking French is an asset.
There also are politics. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal used his veto power last month to slash 40 percent of the budget of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. That state agency is charged with, among other things, helping to recruit immersion teachers from French-speaking countries. The agency is left with a budget of $150,000 and two employees, a situation that director Joseph Dunn suggested in a recent interview might allow it just to "do the absolute bare minimum."
Town losing its French
Language revolution comes slowly in a place such as Butte La Rose, a town of 800 accessible by a narrow pontoon bridge, where locals for generations have harvested crawfish and catfish from the Atchafalaya River and the surrounding swamp.
At Doucet's Grocery, the only store in town, Jack Doucet, 83, sat behind the counter shooting the breeze with his customers. Gwen Duplechin stopped in for a chat, and reflected on the survival of Cajun French. "Our older people are dying off, our people that talk French are dying off," Duplechin said.
She said her granddaughter took French immersion in school and learned "the good French" (as opposed to the Cajun French dialect) from teachers imported from Quebec and France. "But she doesn't speak it; you have to keep it up or it doesn't work," Duplechin said.
She's right about the need to give students reasons to speak French outside the classroom, said Dunn.
He said a good start would be tourism jobs. People from French-speaking countries come to Louisiana because it's marketed as a French cultural experience, he said, but they find no services in French when they arrive.
The school-immersion programs focus on standard French, though many teachers try to incorporate Cajun or other Louisiana dialects. French speaking in Louisiana goes far beyond the Cajuns. That includes Louisiana Creole speakers, a language with ties to the Caribbean. The Houma Indians are thought to be the largest French-speaking group in Louisiana, with about 40 percent of tribal members still speaking French, Dunn said. For them it's colonial French overlaid with a trade language once spoken among coastal Indians.
The Houma, who trace the beginning of their French to contact with the first explorers in the late 1600s, are working with the French Consulate to start a tribal French-language immersion program.
Lafayette a hot spot
Efforts to sustain Louisiana French are particularly strong in the oil and university town of Lafayette, a regional hub where old-timers and young professionals alike speak French in cafes.
Lafayette is a city of festivals and music. Popular young French-speaking bands such as the Lost Bayou Ramblers and the Pine Leaf Boys perform around town and around the world. Members of the band Feufollet, who sing only in French, learned the language in Lafayette Parish schools.
The popularity of the Lafayette program is growing and there are waiting lists to get in, said Nicole LeBlanc, who leads a parents' group, Les Amis de L'Immersion, that provides support for the program.
LeBlanc, who has three French-speaking children, said older people have stopped her children in the grocery store, eyes lighting up on hearing them speaking in French.