French Culture In South Louisiana Is Being Revitalized
I’m not a native of South Louisiana. Maybe that’s why the culture has always held a mystique for me. More than thirty years of my life have been spent here. I married a Cajun woman. I still live here. She doesn’t.
Neither of our children (now in their 20’s) has displayed much interest in learning the French language, or much else about their cultural heritage. Their maternal grandparents are both from St. Martin Parish, and grew up speaking French.
There has been a steady decline in the interest of young people toward their cultural heritage all accross south Louisiana for several decades. Forty years ago, about 1 million people in Louisiana spoke French fluently. CODOFIL estimates that number has fallen to about 150,000.
There are signs the tide is turning.
“We have tens of thousands of students who are taking French as a second language and nearly 4,000 in French immersion learning environments. We’ve got to be looking to create opportunities for them, so they are eventually anchored in this linguistic identity.” -Joseph Dunn, executive director, Council for the Development of French in Louisiana,
Much of the decline is due to the deaths of people who spoke French as their primary language at home. The state declared English the legally-recognized language. Educators in the 1920’s punished children who spoke French on school grounds.
CODOFIL was established in 1968 to promote French education and recruit native speakers from Francophone countries to teach in Louisiana classrooms. There is a new focus on French in the business sector, particularly the tourism industry.
Laura Plantation in Vacherie attracts about 15,000 to 20,000 Francophone visitors annually and maintains at least four French-speaking tour guides. CODOFIL is also launching a “Franco-responsable” program. It’s designed to encourage French speakers who own businesses or provide services to do so in French. Participating businesses will be identified with a “Franco-responsable” sticker. The program is still under development. It’s an update to a program initiated in thr early 80’s. The ealier version identified businesses with a sticker that read: “Ici on parle français” or “French is spoken here.”
Lori Johnson Walls, owner of Johnson’s Boucanière in Lafayette, says her small restaurant and meat store is an homage to her family’s grocery store and meat market. Johnson’s Grocery in Eunice, was started by her grandfather. He spoke little English.
Her father, Wallace Johnson took care of the English-speaking customers. He learned English before he started school to play with “the little American boy” who lived nearby.
He and his wife didn’t teach French to their daughter for another reason. When they wanted to say something they didn’t want her to hear, they said it in French.
Thomas Klingler, associate professor of French and head of the French and Italian department at Tulane University says, “The inter-generational transmission of the language at home is certainly in decline and very furiously threatened, but we are also witnessing, currently, a real enthusiasm for maintaining French, largely among the younger generation who did not learn the language in the home, but in school and in immersion programs.”
Klingler and Amanda LaFleur, coordinator of Cajun studies at LSU, have both taken groups of students on field trips to Arnaudville, aout 30 miles north of Lafayette, to document native speakers’ dialects and stories. Arnaudville is being marketed as a place for tourists and university students to experience the language and culture.
“It’s sometimes tough to overcome what we call the ‘honte’ factor, a sort of shyness that comes from not being quite convinced that our French is ‘good enough.” – Amanda LaFleur
She adds, “But most things worth doing involve sticking our necks out.”