From Repression to Preservation of the French Language

par Piccinin, Helgi

CODOFIL poster

The early years of the 20th century were difficult for French-speaking communities of Louisiana. Starting in 1915, for the first time, with industrialization proceeding apace and, above all, with French-speaking children being compelled to go to school in English, the culture and language of these communities were threatened. Thus, French usage gradually fell away and was lost to entire generations. In 1968, a portion of the community took action, establishing the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), an organization with the stated mission of reintroducing French into the school curriculum and supporting francophone culture in Louisiana. While this organization is not without its critics, its work has helped to achieve major advances towards preservation of French language and culture. Videographer Helgi Piccinin gathered a variety of accounts on this fundamental aspect of Louisiana’s francophone heritage. 


Article disponible en français : De l’interdiction à la préservation du français, paradoxes louisianais du 20e siècle

"One flag,one nation, one language"

Lumpy in Panajachel, Guatemala, already well-plastered with trip souvenirs

In 1901, oil was discovered in Louisiana near Jennings. For better or for worse, the state was forced out of its isolation as industrialisation got underway. The First and Second World Wars accentuated the trend towards opening the state to outsiders and helped foster a sense of kinship with the American people, who had previously been viewed as les Anglais [the English]. Little by little, Louisiana's already mixed-race, French-speaking population and distinctive lifestyle began to be transformed by Americanization.

Paradoxically, the decline of French in Louisiana coincided with the introduction of compulsory schooling. In 1915, English became the mandatory language of education. Speaking French at school was forbidden and sometimes even harshly punished. This assimilation through education was highly effective. Within a few years, an entire generation had learned English and forgotten its French. Floyd Leblanc and "Bébé" Carrier were among those who experienced this break with the past first hand. They told us about how they had learned English at school, even though their parents spoke only French. Destined to become English-speaking Americans, the two Cajuns retained their mothertongue more by accident than on purpose. After breaking his leg as a youngster, Leblanc began learning French again while in the care of his Cajun grandmother. As for Carrière, his father, a farmer who needed help in the fields, pulled his young son out of school as soon as the law allowed.

 FRENCH LANGUAGE VIDÉO 1 : Floyd Leblanc and Bébé Carrière on How They Learned French; 2 min. 16 sec.



Once they became adults, students from this period, whether out of shame or fear of marginalisation, taught their children little if any French. They became known as the lost generations. Élaine Clément, community outreach coordinator at CODOFIL, is one of them. The consequences of the ban on French at school and limited inter-generational transmission are obvious today: "Lots of people in Louisiana understand French but don't speak it."

 FRENCH LANGUAGE VIDEO 2: Élaine Clément on the Lost Generations; 1 min. 39 sec.

The Creation of CODOFIL

The CODOFIL office in Lafayette

The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) was created in 1968, a product of a long struggle involving American social activism. After long years of assimilation and marginalisation, it was as if Louisiana had suddenly awakened to the potential for cultural enrichment that the French-speaking community had to offer. This new social and economic awareness was reflected in Legislative Act 409, which empowered CODOFIL "to do all that was necessary to ensure the development, utilisation, and preservation of the French language as found in Louisiana, for the cultural, economic and touristic benefit of the state."

CODOFIL's Philosophy and Objectives

"We treasure our past to enrich our future by affirming our French language identity through education (Goal I), community outreach (Goal II) and international exchanges (Goal III)."

In 2009, during my visit, these goals were readily apparent. Since education was one of the main goals of the Vidéo Eldorado ( odyssey, Louisiana was a perfect destination for us. One of the missions of our band of nomads was to offer young people from the integrated communities a variety of video workshops. Our first two workshops were held with a French immersion class at Myrtle Place Elementary School in Lafayette.

In less then two days, the class, once divided into two groups, made two short films: La Balle et le Fantôme [The Ball and the Ghost] and Amitié en Survie [Friendship in Survival Conditions]. I was impressed by how the class functioned and by the quality of French spoken by these 11 and 12-year-olds, given that many come from families where French is no longer spoken. It was a big challenge.

Shooting the short film

Community service encompasses a whole range of activities, services and networks aimed at strengthening Louisiana's French-language culture. There are plenty of opportunities for those who are interested. Among the most interesting activities in my book are the Tables Françaises [French language tables]. The idea behind them is as simple as it is brilliant: to organize regular gatherings where people can converse in French. Currently, there are tables set up all over Louisiana - and the more there are, the more opportunities there will be for people to speak French without relying on chance meetings or conversation limited to the family circle.

International exchanges have been an eye-opening experience for many Louisianans. On the one hand, they provide an opportunity to travel, study and speak French on an everyday basis. On the other hand, they build bridges between the French-speaking world and a once-isolated community. CODOFIL executive director David Chéramie explains how his organisation has not only provided his lost generation of former French-speakers with a renewed knowledge of their language, but also with a better understanding of their cultural identity.

 FRENCH LANGUAGE VIDEO 3: David Chéramie on the Lost Generation and the Importance of CODOFIL's Mission to Reach out to the International French-speaking Community; 2 min. 52 sec.

Teach French Yes! But which French? 

In 1968, Louisiana passed Legislative Act 408, which provided for the teaching of French in the first five years of elementary school and the first three years of high school, as well as Legislative Act 259, which required universities and colleges to train qualified French teachers. In short, French was back in school. But which variety of French was the new program to teach? Furthermore, who would teach it, since nobody had learned it at school and few young people were even able to speak it fluently? During a trip to France, CODOFIL's founder James Domangeaux reportedly told French President Georges Pompidou, "Monsieur le Président, if you do not help me, French has had it in Louisiana. (NOTE 1)" A cooperative agreement was signed between Louisiana, France and other members of the international French-speaking community

In today's Lafayette, the presence of French-speakers is highly noticeable. I quickly came to realise that, more often than not, the French speakers I kept bumping into from France, Quebec, Africa and other parts of the globe were teachers in immersion and second language programs. Along with Louisiana French speakers, they form a community substantial enough to ensure that on certain nights of the week, French is almost the only language you hear in some Lafayette bars. Anything but insular, this multicultural French language community made me realise just what the concept Francophonie [international French-language community] could mean.

I also got the impression that the presence of these French-speaking "citizens of the world" helped foster interest in French among other Louisianians, whether they had French-language roots or not. Many of the teachers who come to the state only stay for a few years, but they have played an important role in developing French in Louisiana since the language programs have been introduced. However, their contribution, which was supposed to be temporary, is still essential today. Several of them confided to me that Louisiana is still incapable of assuming responsibility for French-language education on its own. "There are too few French teachers trained in Louisiana,"I was told several times. But the topic of debate isn't so much who should teach French, but rather which French should be taught! After explaining the evolution of French language programs since 1968, Elaine Clément summed up the situation: "So what French do you teach? For now, it's standard French, with Louisiana French on the side (...) But our real goal is to reintroduce Louisiana French everywhere."

 FRENCH LANGUAGE VIDEO 4: Elaine Clément on the teaching of French in Louisiana; 2 min. 44 sec.

Misgivings about CODOFIL or Simply an Image Problem?

Everyone seems to agree on the need to promote French in Louisiana, but not on the best way to go about it. Musical artist with a unique trademark blend of styles, Rocky McKeon divulged one source of friction when I asked his opinion on CODOFIL. "If you go to my parish and you mention ‘CODOFIL', people won't know what it is (...) CODOFIL doesn't want to get involved with the communities enough."

 FRENCH LANGUAGE VIDEO 5: Rocky McKeon Critiques CODOFIL; 2 min. 44 sec.

Street name testifying to the Cajun presence in St. Martinville

Rocky's criticisms seem a little harsh to me, but they do raise important questions. Has too much time and energy has been spent developing ties with France and not enough on building bridges in Louisiana itself? CODOFIL depends on government support, but what happens if this fundingis cut? Like other organisations, is it too centralised in Lafayette and not active enough in other parts of the state? The opinion of Rachelle Dugas, an Acadian who has worked in Louisiana for the past several years, is revealing in this regard. Although she can't put her finger on the reason, she confirms that CODOFIL has an image problem in the Cajun community.

 FRENCH LANGUAGE VIDEO 6: Rachelle Dugas on the Problem with CODOFIL; 2 min.

It seems to me that the criticism concerning CODOFIL has been assessed by David Chéramie and Élaine Clément. However, Rocky McKeon's remarks got me to thinking that, over and above the existing policies, programs and tools, it's all about the Louisianans themselves: "If we still speak French, it's because we're hard-headed." In the final analysis, it's up to Louisianans to decide whether they want to promote and pass on the French language. Families have played an important role in keeping the language alive, but can we expect them to fulfil the same role in today's environment?

The Role of the Family

Louisiana is a big state and there are numerous small villages with French-speaking inhabitants. Although we spent most of our time in Lafayette, we did make several visits to St. Martinville and Breaux Bridge. It was there that we encountered people like Mr. Carrière and Mr. Leblanc. Evenmore than CODOFIL, families have played a central role in keeping French alive in the hearts and souls of Louisianans. Families may not have always done as much as they could to pass on their French heritage, but many Louisianans can tell you about a French-speaking grandmother or grandfather that they remember with affection and pride. Mr. Carrière is emphatic: "When it's in the family, it's not lost." Mr. Leblanc, on the other hand, is less optimistic, noting that only two of his eight children speak French.

 FRENCH LANGUAGE VIDEO 7: Bébé Carrière and Floyd Leblanc on French in the Family; 2 min. 22 sec.


   St. Martinville with its architecture that is well worth a side trip

He may seem pessimistic, but his views are realistic. I remember the film L'Acadie l'Acadie?!? by Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault, in which a young Acadian expresses the same frustration with his language. "What's the point of speaking French if it's to talk to myself." Loving a language is one thing, but a language has little use if it can't be used to express one self and, more importantly, to communicate. Mr. Leblanc's disappointment is understandable, but the musician Horace Trahan (whose views mirror those of his contemporaries) hasn't lost hope. A product of the lost generation, he says he owes his French to his "hard-headed" granddad and father, rather than to any formal schooling. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Trahan speaks much better French than he says he does - and his sister is a French teacher! In short, all is clearly not lost, yet French-speaking Louisiana seems to be in a constant state of disequilibrium. Perhaps the balance could be restored if the "hardheads" joined forces with families and CODOFIL.

 FRENCH LANGUAGE VIDEO 8: Horace Trahan on Speaking French; 1 min. 01 sec.

As Louisiana faces the realities of the 21st century, discover how a new generation is dealing with the challenges of preserving its French-language heritage.(Read Article 4).


Helgi Piccinin

Vidéo Eldorado



Note 1:



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