Council Promotes French Language

Posted on: 05/01/2010

In 1956 Earlene Broussard Echeverria, an Acadian from Vermilion Parish, attended her first day of school and did not know a word of English.

With the controversy over immigration and the English language, it is hard to imagine that only 50 years ago there was a large French-speaking population that did not know “the American language.”

Acadians are descendants of French colonists who were living in Acadia, Nova Scotia. Because the settlers refused to pledge allegiance to the British monarchy during times of tension with France, thousands of Acadians were expelled from this region between 1755 and 1763. Many settled in Louisiana and began a new French culture in America.

For years there was a very large minority of French speakers in the state. The Acadians developed their own towns, laws, churches and schools. But as America began to form as a country, those who did not speak English were forced to assimilate.

It wasn’t until 1918 that all states adopted compulsory education laws, requiring children to attend school until a certain age. When Louisiana enacted a law in 1910, schools were required to teach the Cajun and Creole populations how to read and write in English.

The Acadians spoke French, but most were illiterate. Many French-speaking children were required to attend English schools, although they could not speak the language.

Acadian children were punished for speaking French and humiliated in front of the class, according to Echeverria, a Cajun French teacher at Louisiana State University.

“It was a sense of powerless and frustration. You can’t even ask how to go to the bathroom without being punished,” she said.

Parents started to see how children were being treated in school and stopped teaching them the language.

“There was a stigma attached to speaking French since 1910. This is America — the land of assimilation,” she said, explaining the ever-decreasing number of French speakers.

In order to preserve the French language and culture, the Counsel for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) was created by a Louisiana legislative act in 1968. It was designed to teach the large French population how to read and write in the language and to promote education of the language in schools.

Elaine Clement, community outreach coordinator for CODOFIL, uses the French word, “revendication,” as a way to describe the Acadian’s effort to take back their language through education.

“Most of the French speakers in Louisiana were illiterate. They never got a chance. They were punished in schools from the 1920s to the 60s,” she said.

The Counsel for the Development of French in Louisiana, the only program of its kind in the U.S., coordinates French education in Louisiana school systems and partners with other groups to promote the development of the language. Clement said the goal of the program is to “get people talking, dialoguing and networking in French.”

In the 1990 U.S. census, CODOFIL asked that the federal government inquire about the number of French speakers in Louisiana. The numbers were overwhelming with more than 450,000 people speaking French in their home.


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