If you’ve ever visited the state of Louisiana, a deep French cultural influence was probably one of the first things you noticed. French is everywhere…in the names of the towns, parishes and places, in the lyrics of Cajun music, and in the names of typical Cajun dishes like boudin and andouille sausages.
However, over the past 50 years, it’s become much less common to find the language in the one place that matters most for its survival: the lips of people, particularly young people.
Early in the 20th century, the Louisiana government began trying to suppress the use of French in favor of English. According to the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, children were actually punished for speaking French in school starting in 1915. The Seattle Times reports that in 1968, there were still about a million French speakers in Louisiana, but today that estimate is down to at most 200,000 when you add up all the different French dialects spoken in the state.
Meanwhile, the government’s efforts have shifted gears, from trying to eliminate French in schools to encouraging it via immersion programs in historically French-speaking parishes.
Sue Vasseur, manager of popular Cajun bar Fred’s Lounge, told reporters that the immersion programs give her hope:
“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.”
Immersion programs help, but they aren’t a panacea. As Gwen Duplechin of Butte La Rose observed in the article, “you have to keep it up or it doesn’t work.” Her own granddaughter went to a French immersion school, but lost touch with the language afterwards.
In this respect, the future of French in Louisiana seems most secure in the city of Lafayette, where it is spoken with some frequency in everyday life, by people of all ages.
Unfortunately, this year Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal put the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana’s budget under the knife, which will make finding teachers for the immersion program more difficult and severely affect other efforts to preserve the language.
Given the lifelong advantages that growing up bilingual gives children in terms of cognition, investing in immersion programs for kids seems like a no-brainer. The region’s unique cultural heritage is preserved, kids reap the additional benefits of growing up bilingual…how is this not a win-win situation?