Study finds Southbridge, MA's use of French fading away

 The shift from French to English is nearly complete in Southbridge, according to a doctoral student who studied the French language in Southbridge. More than 60 people went to the Jacob Edwards Library July 23 to hear the conclusions of the Franco-American Language Project. 

People who arrived at the talk greeted each other in French and English, then listened to Cynthia A. Fox and graduate student Louis E. Stelling present a summary of the study's findings. 

Mr. Stelling, who did the field work and conducted interviews with 35 French-speaking town residents, "is the expert on Southbridge," according to Ms. Fox. His doctoral dissertation compares linguistic components of two towns included in the project, Southbridge and Woonsocket, R.I. Ms. Fox, who co-authored the study with Jane Smith, is an associate professor of French studies at State University of New York at Albany. 

Ms. Fox noted a decline in French usage and claims to French-Canadian ancestry based on differences between the 1990 and 2000 censuses. "We may not have chosen Southbridge with current census data," she said, but quickly added that she was glad Southbridge was included. 

French is an intimate language, "a language used with family and friends," she said, as she suggested reasons why French language use is in decline among Northeastern Franco-Americans today: French Canadian is not taught in school; French speakers married non-speakers and didn't transmit their language to their family; for reasons of etiquette; there is no practical necessity to speak French; there is no one left to speak French with; and negative feelings about the French language. 

Southbridge was among eight towns chosen for the study based on data extracted from the 1990 census and because the town had not been studied previously. According to the census, 20 percent of the town's population claimed French-Canadian ancestry, and there were at least 1,000 French-speaking homes. 
Southbridge attracted settlers from Quebec Province in Southeastern Canada. By 1850, Canadian immigrants in Southbridge comprised 11 percent of the population; in 1870, they were 24 percent, and by 1900, 60 percent were French-Canadian. All were from Quebec. 

Although the groups spoke different dialects of French, the migrants shared culture, religion (Roman Catholic), and a wish to preserve their ancestral heritage. But by the middle of the 20th century, the culture of the French-Canadians was slowly slipping away, further suppressed by the World Wars and the Great Depression. 

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