Everyone spoke French in Madawaska. But not anymore.
Northern Maine has long been the epicenter of Acadian French, a variation brought to the region by French immigrants in the 17th and 18th centuries. Now few Acadian children learn their ancestral language at home, and the dialect is on the way out in its last American stronghold.
Bilingual French immersion programs in schools could be the answer to the language decline among northern Maine youth, but educators will need to mobilize public support and tackle teacher shortages and decades of discrimination against bilingual students to get there.
“I think this is a critical time, as we still have many community members who are Francophone and we can draw from them as resources to support these programs, but in a generation or two, we may not. – not be that luxury, ”the Maine Department said. According to April Perkins, specialist in bilingual education programs.
On Wednesday, October 20, Noah Ouellette – the Kindergarten to Grade 12 education coordinator at the French Consulate in Boston – spoke with students from the French National Honor Society and local education officials at Caribou on how the French government could support immersion programs in school districts in North Maine.
Ouellette has been traveling New England for several years, trying to spark interest in bilingual education. While Brunswick and Lewiston have made progress towards introducing bilingual programs, much of that progress has been halted by COVID-19, he said.
“The number one barrier is getting parental buy-in,” Ouellette said. “If the parents want it, it really pushes the school board and the general management to put it in place. ”
Maine should be well placed for scholarships and teacher exchanges with France, as it has the highest percentage of Francophones per population of any US state. Almost 3 percent of Mainers speak French as their first language. Louisiana comes in second with an equal percentage of 2%.
But the tongue quickly disappears. In Madawaska, in the heart of the Franco-Acadian valley of Saint-Jean, 60 percent of adults – but less than 12 percent of children – speak French at home, according to 2019 census data. 50 miles south, 90 percent of adults and 100 percent of children speak only English.
The decline of French in Maine began in schools, with English-only laws targeting Acadian and Wabanaki students. Teachers were known to severely punish the use of languages other than English in the classroom, which resulted in generations of language loss.
Jonna Boule, French and Spanish teacher at Caribou High School, said her grandparents did not pass on the Acadian dialect because they felt their language was seen as a flaw rather than an asset .
“I knew they could speak French but they didn’t speak French with me,” Boule said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to get back. I felt like I had [experienced] a loss.”
While laws encouraging the punishment of students for bilingualism do not currently exist, the education system discourages the use of other languages in more subtle ways, Perkins said.
“When students who have another language available to them come to school, they normally only learn English,” Perkins said. “The lesson they and their families receive is that English is the most important language and the key to their academic and professional success.”
Bilingual programs could help teach students that languages are something to celebrate, Perkins said. When instruction is delivered in their native language, students become assets and leaders in classrooms where they might otherwise feel displaced.
Maine does not have French immersion programs in public schools. There is a Spanish immersion program at Lyseth Elementary in Portland, and a private French school, L’Ecole Française du Maine, in South Freeport.
Madawaska had a grant-funded French immersion program in the 1990s and early 2000s, which is now defunct. The Caribou school district, RSU 39, lost its college French program two years ago and only offers the language in high school.
French immersion faces another hurdle: the shortage of world language teachers in Maine. French teachers have been on the US Department of Education’s Critical Teacher Shortages in Maine list every year since 1998, with the exception of the 2018-19 school year.
The Maine DOE is currently preparing to launch a task force – tentatively early next year – to assess what is needed to bring more immersion and world-language teachers to the state and introduce bilingual programs in public schools.
The state legislature is also considering a bill, LD1189, which includes a provision to reduce barriers for teachers in other countries to obtain degrees in schools offering immersion programs.
This is good news for those who hope to save Acadian French.
“I don’t see why, if Acadian French [were] introduced into the curriculum whether or not it would be considered different as a valid French immersion program, ”Ouellette said.
Boule teaches Acadian history as part of his French classes at Caribou High School and said the effect on his students can be profound.
“They find this piece of themselves. It’s part of piecing together your life story, your ancestral life story, ”said Boule.
Senior Caribou Chloe Sleeper grew up in an Acadian family – her mother and grandparents still speak French to each other, but she never learned the language at home. She learned Parisian French at school, which has helped her understand those close to her when they speak their mother tongue.
“It’s a little weird, I almost feel a little bit guilty because I’m like ‘I’m not really keeping this France story alive,'” she said. “But if I can understand it, I pretty much agree with that.”
Her classmate Naomi Côté had a similar experience. Her grandmother is Acadian, but she only learned about her family history after taking Boule’s course.
“I grew up eating ploys, but I never knew where it came from,” she said. “I just thought it was something my grandma liked to do.”