Louisiana’s French speakers fight for a future tense

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Jim Soileau stopped his finger midway through a Sears Roebuck catalog showcasing the boys’ velocipedes. A cow horn handle and a coil-spring saddle accompanied the tricycle’s wrought iron frame. Farm wagons and wheelbarrows also graced the pages, published in 1902, the sight of which left his pupils wide and the sides of his eyes crinkled on a Wednesday morning.

“Mais garde des don,” he said in his baritone, adjusting his glasses. “Take a look!”

The book was a gift from a fan of “La Tasse de Cafe” (“The Cup of Coffee”), his show on Ville Platte radio station KVPI, which has served breakfast-time flavor for almost 50 years. Soileau and his call-in listeners often share relics and recount memories of small-town life on Louisiana’s Cajun prairie, where the French language feeds pride.

“Qui c’est qui parle?” Soileau asked over the air, wondering who had dialed the station phone line.

The listeners vary in age and French fluency. Many of the callers, largely older, recall hearing the language at home and have spoken it for much of their lives. Some have gotten rustier with tenses and verbiage over the years, perhaps only remembering the slang and profanity. Others are newcomers, seeing Soileau’s jumps between French and English as a window to learn.

“We laugh and call it Frenglish, because the words simply change from one to the other without us ever being conscious about it,” the host said.

In similar fashion, Soileau paces his program with live commercials, reciting in French the phone numbers of nearby businesses like Sooner’s Auto Salvage and Leroy’s Cajun Meats.

“For those who want to learn French, who are just trying to learn or just starting, they can get in on the conversation,” said Mark Layne, the station’s general manager. “They’ll pick up a few words here and there. I think it’s the best of both worlds.”

The show embodies a push to uphold a patois centuries old. In the late 17th century, European settlers first introduced French to Louisiana, the territory they named after King Louis XIV. More speakers arrived years after Le Grand Dérangement of 1755, when British forces deported French Catholics from Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, formerly known as Acadia. The exiles referred to themselves as Acadians, or Cajuns.

The cultural deluge following the Acadians’ arrival remains near-impossible to miss in southern Louisiana. Surnames of French origin still occupy the pages of telephone books. Street signs periodically appear in both English and French, with the streets and municipalities themselves often named after French terms or descendants. The French fleur-de-lis, depicting three petals bound at their bases, stands as a common emblem on flags, clothing and architecture across the state. The University of Louisiana-Lafayette calls its sports teams “The Ragin’ Cajuns,” with an anthropomorphic Cayenne pepper as a mascot. The motto of Louisiana State University is “Geaux Tigers,” a nod to French spelling. Motorists can buy bumper stickers that read “Cajun Power,” “100% Cajun” and “Cajun Sensation.”

“You always learn something new on ‘La Tasse de Cafe,'” Soileau said before belting out a laugh.

But while evidence of Francophone influence has long glossed much of Louisiana without interruption, the French language itself has met hurdles in the state. Soileau often hears from listeners who, over the years, had faced stigma for their language. In the early 1920s, the state prohibited children from speaking French in public schools. Teachers often punished students who violated the rule, making them kneel or hitting them with objects from around the classroom.

“Speaking French was just something you did not do at school,” Soileau said. “It became an unwritten rule after a while.”

Fearing additional scorn, many parents stopped teaching their children the language.

“When my parents wanted to hide something from the kids, they would say it in French,” said Layne.

What followed was a swift depopulation of Francophones in Louisiana. By the 1940s, large groups of Cajun and Creole soldiers representing the United States in World War II returned from overseas sounding less like those from home. The subsequent growth of south Louisiana’s oil industry further homogenized the cadre, as workers from Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and other states arrived with their own manners of speech.

Not since the arrival of the Acadians has the percentage of French speakers in Louisiana been so low. Census figures from 2013 count roughly 100,000 state residents speaking the language in their homes, down from 250,000 in 1990 and 570,000. The Cajun dialect has met a particular decline, with as few as 15,000 state residents speaking it today.

The remnants of that humiliation are what we now know,” said Peggy Feehan, director of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, or CODOFIL. “We have a lost generation of speakers.”

CODOFIL, a division of the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development, operates the nation’s only state-run French immersion program. State legislators approved its creation in 1968, at the urge of former U.S. Representative James Domengeaux, nicknamed “Le Grand Jimmy” in his native Lafayette. To date, the office coordinates French education in 11 parishes, sponsors scholarships, produces French-language multimedia and partners with organizations to promote the language in schools. More than 25,000 students in Louisiana have enrolled in French immersion through the agency.

“We want boots on the ground,” Feehan said. “We’re not done.”

She hopes to expand the office into all 22 Acadiana parishes in the coming years, pending approval from local school boards. But years of state budget cuts have threatened the reach of CODOFIL. Both its board roster and its staff have shrunk in recent years. The office itself currently consists of four employees, with a fifth position still open.

“It would almost be an instant fix, to have more money in the budget,” Feehan said. “I don’t think we can see Louisiana without its French heritage.”

But critics question whether the office is doing enough to preserve the Louisiana dialect. Roughly two-thirds of immersion educators contracted with CODOFIL are not from the state, rather from France or Belgium, where the speech differs from that locally. (In the early days of the agency, one Cajun penned a letter to a local newspaper: “We don’t want the government to make Frenchmen out of us.”) Linguistic experts consider Louisiana French an older form of the language, deriving from the 18th century Acadian exile.

“There no computers, so there was no word for computer,” said Layne. “There are no words for cars, because there were no cars. So, the word we’re using here in south Louisiana is ‘char,’ which is actually a chariot.”

Other lexical differences include words for shoe (“un soulier” in Louisiana French; une chaussure” in normative French), raccoon (“un chaoui” in Louisiana French; “un raton laveur” in normative French), catfish (“une barbue” in Louisiana French, “un poisson chat” in normative French), and bullfrog (“ouaouaron” in Louisiana French; “grenouille” in normative French). Fluent speakers of Louisiana French often alternate between French and American English, particularly when referring to prepositions, conjunctions and interjections.

The state’s dialect is also subject to further, regional variants. Francophones from Ville Platte may refer to a rooster as “un gaime,” while those 150 miles away in Houma may call the bird “un corusse.” Some speakers along Bayou Lafourche pronounce the French letters “G” and “J” as the English letter “H.” Louisiana French also mixes language from Africa and the Caribbean, pillars of long-ago slave trades, as well as from Spain and Native American tribes.

The nuances of Louisiana French, combined with limited writings of the dialect, have complicated efforts to teach it in classrooms. Feehan said while she wants the state’s immersion courses to feature more local teachers, many Louisiana educators who speak the language still feel stigmatized.

“I remember asking one woman, ‘Why don’t you want to teach French immersion?'” she recalled. “She said, ‘My French is pas assez bon; my French isn’t good enough to pass onto the kids.'”

“There is still that shame for that generation of people,” Feehan added. “I think that’s really, really sad.”

CODOFIL offers lessons in Louisiana French to immersion educators, so they can teach students the dialects that may of their relatives have spoken.

“We encourage [teachers] to use it as much as they can, so the kids talking with their grandparents can understand,” she said. “The whole experience is meant to be positive.”

Layne also wishes more home-grown French speakers would apply to teach the language, but he thinks CODOFIL’s initiative will inspire more of the fluent to pass on their dialect.

“It’s not the ideal way, but it’s the next best thing,” he said. “I applaud these immersion courses for coming to our rescue.”

***

The push to rescue Louisiana French continues not just in the classrooms and radio booths, but also at the table, where those long shamed for their language lead a French revolution.

Roughly two dozen members of Le Cercle Francophone spend their Tuesday nights at the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux. They exchange pastries and cups of coffee, weaving between French and English, while singing, playing games and recalling memories of derision.

“Speak anything but English, and the teacher would smack you with a ruler,” said Camille France, a Golden Meadow resident who has attended the meetings for about six years. “There are so many stories about those years of punishment.”

The feelings of stigma subside with the gatherings, say a group of those in attendance. Raceland resident Frances Martin occasionally bakes apple pie for the group. She compares the gatherings to therapy, decades after enduring ridicule at school.

“They made us feel dumb, like we didn’t matter,” said Martin, who learned English from her older siblings. “Now I think the adversity we had with the English and the French made me who I am. It makes me enjoy my French.”

Martin, who travels to France once a year, says the group inspires her to see the world, using the language she learned in south Louisiana.

“When they hear me speak French, they’ll approach the group I’m traveling with and start talking,” she said. “It’s like a magnet.”

CODOFIL officials tout French immersion courses as a way not only to learn about south Louisiana’s heritage, but also to develop skills of growing international demand.

“We understand for some people, the French heritage is a strong reason to do French immersion, but it’s not only that anymore,” Feehan said. “It’s economics, money, tourism, world travel. By the time our immersion students graduate eighth grade, they’re bilingual, and they understand the different accents and dialects.”

For Martin, the peculiarities of Louisiana French have not stopped conversations with Francophones across the world. She hopes students not only learn the French dialect, but also the hardships its speakers have endured throughout Louisiana’s past, to avoid similar discrimination in the future.

“It’s those memories that make us want to either improve ourselves, or keep something alive that’s worth it,” she said. “This is worth it.”

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