Louisiana Today—Living in Two Languages (2)

par Piccinin, Helgi

The State of Mississippi

Louisiana today is experiencing a resurgence of interest in francophone culture and heritage after a long period of decline, primarily due to the requirement to attend school in English. This forced transformation led to adoption of many elements of American culture and the English language in every sphere of society so that English is now the first language spoken in Louisiana, and the number of people who state that they speak French at home has greatly diminished. However, since 1968, the possibility of obtaining instruction in French has been reintroduced into Louisiana schools, and the French-speaking minority is working to ensure a future that includes preservation of their particular culture. A noteworthy point: among youth, the French language, presented in a positive light, is largely propagated through arts and culture. Videographer Helgi Piccinin gave this matter his close attention.


Article disponible en français : La Louisiane aujourd’hui : vivre en deux langues (2)

What's the Point in Continuing to Speak French in Louisiana?

The Vidéo Eldorado team upon their departure from Quebec City

I speak French. I think in French. I write in French. I dream in French. In otherwords, I'm a French speaker through and through, all one hundred percent. Playing the pragmatist's advocate, however, I found myself tormented by a bothersome question that wouldn't leave me alone during my stay in Louisiana: "What's the point of it all"? I admit that I had a hard time even putting the question into words, for it seemed so brazen. Especially with respect to those have had to fight so hard to affirm and preserve their French-language identity over the course of a long and sometimes trying history (see articles 2 and 3). Yet in all sincerity, it seems a question worth asking today, in order to piece together some sort of justifiable answer. So let's recapitulate: in 1990, 250,000 Louisianans reported that they still spoke French at home. Ten years later in 2000, their numbers had dropped to 200,000. These figures may not tell the whole story, but they are eloquent enough: the proportion of French speakers in Louisiana is declining. The same undoubtedly holds true for other parts of North America, but Louisiana is especially isolated. The metaphor of the drop in the ocean springs to mind as an apt description of this French-speaking minority that has survived in the heart of the world's most populous English-speaking country-for the contrast is undoubtedly striking. Which brings me back to my question: "What's the point of it all?" What's the point of preserving a language spoken by so few in this little corner of the UnitedStates? Why work so hard to preserve the French language community in Louisiana?

Life as a Linguistic Minority

Singer Zachary Richard was the first one to point out that it was all well and good to proudly talk about Louisiana's French-language heritage and identity, but that the real challenge for the younger generation was to resist the siren song of American influence. "American culture" is global in its social, cultural and economic dominance, as well as its ideological reach, but Louisiana is particularly vulnerable. From a linguistic perspective, English has permeated every corner of the region, to the point where it is by far the main language in use. "French is often in use in isolated, ghetto-like conditions, whether at home or at school. And who cares about family and school? I sure didn't when I was 14," admits Zachary. At 14, his French-language heritage was not exactly his number one priority. All he wanted to do was have fun with his friends. For him, the real objective lies there. "... to make sure kids can have fun and play around in French. It's not a question of speaking the language. You've got to have something to use it for."

 FRENCH LANGUAGE VIDEO 1: Zachary Richard on the Importance of Being Able to Play around in French; 1 min. 31 sec.

When I think of all the young Louisianans I met during my trip, I get the impression that they were genuinely attached to their French-language heritage. Nevertheless, I have to admit that most of them don't speak French anymore, except for the odd phrase here and there. Most of our conversations were in English. Yet many Louisianans regret that this heritage wasn't passed on to them and are genuinely interested in learning French. Is this interest strong enough to turn back the tide of Anglicisation? The people I met indicate that there may be room for optimism. Some people have found a way to express themselves in French in contemporary Louisiana. Créole musician, Cédric Watson, has brought a breath of fresh air to the traditional Zydeco scene (see Article 1). Rocky McKeon, through his musicand artistic endeavours, has broken with colourful "Cajun" clichés to promote the use of Louisiana French. Entrepreneur and visionary Stephen Juan Ortega has developed a bilingual business network by offering translation services (see Article 4). Each of them has succeeded because of their ability to use French. Speaking a minority language has allowed them to create new opportunities for themselves.

Cédric Watson after his concert at the Festival de la Louisiane in Lafayette

Cédric Watson's enthusiasm for French, his second language, testifies to this interestand openness to language learning. "I like French but I also like English. That's what I speak. It's my first language," he notes, after explaining how he managed to learn French despite the fact that his parents didn't. Maybe there are things that are better expressed in one language than the other!

 FRENCH LANGUAGE VIDEO 2: Cédric Watson on the Benefits of Being Able to Speak French; 1 min. 12 sec.

Changing Strategies: from Struggling to Preserve of French to Fighting for Linguistic Diversity

According to a St. Martinville legend, Emmeline Labiche and her fiancé Louis Arsenaux-who locals say are the de facto couple who inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem Evangeline-were reunited beneath this oak tree after having been separated in Nova Scotia.

Continuingin an optimistic vein, Elaine Clément laughs as she cites two old magazine articles. Published close to 100 years apart, they made similar linguistic forecasts for Louisiana. First Life in 1893, then Harper's in 1971 predicted the demise of French! In 2009, it is obvious that their predictions were somewhat premature!

 FRENCH LANGUAGE VIDEO 3: Elaine Clément on the Battle for Linguistic Diversity and Dominance; 1 min. 42 sec.

"In a way, we're at the fore front of the language movement in the United States."These words, spoken by Elaine, are of crucial importance in my view. With her statement, she links the fight for French in Louisiana to a much broader universal issue-the question of respect and understanding between peoples. I can't help but think about the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel and how God, in order to punish mankind for building a tower to the heavens to reach Him, He creates a multitude of languages that prevent humanity from being able to communicate with each other. When you think about it carefully though, the punishment was not so much the multiplication of languages, but mankind's inability to speak them all. Asked to imagine herself in the shoes of a traveller discovering Louisiana 50 years from now, Elaine shares her ideal: "My hope is that you'll come back to find people who don't just speak two languages, but rather three or four."

"A Person Who Speaks Two Languages is Worth Two People"

CODOFIL's executive director David Chéramie, who is also a French-language writer, didn't learn French until he finished university at age 22. He caught the language bugat University of Miami after be friending members of Cuban community, whom head mired for their ability to navigate between American and Cuban culture whiles witching back and forth from English to Spanish. Why couldn't he do the same with French and his Cajun identity?

A young woman proudly displays a poster

 FRENCH LANGUAGE VIDEO 4: David Chéramie on Two Ways of Looking at the World; 2 min. 06 sec.

Learning French not only made David Chéramie's identity whole again, it led him to discover a whole new way of looking at the world: "It was as if all kinds of barriers just fell away. I understood things about my own culture and my own life that I'd never fully grasped before, because I could only see through English eyes. Now I had another set of glasses." Some values may be universal, but there is no single way of interpreting the world. Languages are not just tools for communicating, but for understanding differences. In this respect, Chéramie couldn't have come up with a better answer to satisfy the sceptic in me as I battled with my question: "What's the point of speaking French?" Moving from his metaphor of eye glasses to the classroom, he points out that studies of immersion classes have found that immersion students are more skilled at analysing problems and finding solutions.

 FRENCH LANGUAGE VIDEO 5: David Chéramie on the Various Studies on People Who Speak Two Languages; 1 min. 40 sec.

"We're All Americans with a Slightly Different Flair"

I finally dared to ask my question in a roundabout way to Elaine Clément. "If a language is useful that is fine but if not, why else protect it? Just because of tradition?" Elaine's heart felt answer was swift and eloquent. She began by challenging my misguided use of the word protect. "If I have to protect something, I put it in a museum and stop using it... No, for me, the language is very much alive." Going on, she explained that for her, this was a personal battle fuelled by respect for her heritage and the achievements of her forebears who had fought so hard to keep their language and identity alive. Today, it is this history that drives her, not to protect or preserve its memory, but rather to help keep the culture alive as a vital and vibrant force in society. Above and beyond the sense of belonging associated with a shared history and memory, the struggle for the survival of the French language in Louisiana is an affirmation of the value of being different. Why does Elaine fight for her language? Because it's also her way of affirming her American identity: "For me, this is what it means to American."

 FRENCH LANGUAGE VIDEO 6:  Élaine Clément; 2 min. 50 sec.


Time for music: The author and a companion accordionist

Louisiana fascinated me. No doubt because as a French Quebecker, I was naturally drawn to this remarkable island of French speakers surrounded by a vast English-speaking sea. As I said in my first article, nothing here is completely black or white. It's all one big melting pot of people, cultures and identities. For a traveller like myself, a monotone world without colours, tastes or odours holds no interest. French-speaking Louisiana is an example of such diversity in all its beauty. And the fight to keep that diversity alive is a universal fight that inspires respect from other cultures and peoples. Whatever arguments one uses, language is part of that fight. Languages are keys to understanding our differences. Let us endeavour to understand one another - this is the lesson I learned from my travels in Louisiana.


Helgi Piccinin

Vidéo Eldorado 



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