The Near-Demise of French in Louisiana

On reesefuller.com:
Shane K. Bernard was born in Lafayette and raised in the Ivanhoe subdivision. The son of swamp pop legend Rod Bernard, he grew up with his Cajun buddies who, like himself, didn't speak a lick of French, played with GI Joes and read comic books. In the introduction of his latest book, The Cajuns: The Americanization of a People, Bernard says that although he's Cajun, he was raised just like any other American kid.

He says he began to wonder, "How did I end up like I am? I'm a Cajun, but I'm so different from my grandparents - only a little different from my father - but there's a big cultural gap between my grandparents and me."

Bernard is a historian and has worked for the McIlhenny Co., the makers of Tabasco sauce, as curator since 1993. In the spring of 1997, he began researching his dissertation for his doctorate in history, which would lay the groundwork for The Cajuns, a history of the Cajun people from the beginning of World War II to Sept. 11, 2001.

Bernard found that the common thread running through Cajun culture during those 60 years was the process of Americanization or, as he writes in his book, "the process of becoming like the Anglo-American establishment that has traditionally dominated the nation's mainstream culture."

But while the culture was being packaged and marketed, money was being made, and the once most prolific and defining characteristic of the Cajuns was disappearing - the French language.

According to Bernard's research, during World War II there was a 17 percent decline in Cajuns who spoke French. The decline has continued until today. He says if you measure CODOFIL's efforts by its original intentions in 1968 - to make all of Louisiana bilingual - then it has failed.

Even French immersion programs, Bernard says, won't save Cajun French from extinction. He says it's certainly beneficial to learn another language, but the French that is being taught is not the French of his forefathers. The irony is that in 1940 there was a small, educated group of Cajuns who spoke English as their first language and the mass of ordinary Cajuns spoke French. With the French immersion programs, the majority of Cajuns will continue to speak English as their first language and a small, educated group will speak French as well. He says, "French immersion, in a way, is helping to change the cultural landscape of Louisiana into something it wasn't before."

Bernard points to the bilingual street signs as an example of symbolic ethnicity. If the majority of Louisiana residents cannot speak or read French, then why are there signs in both languages? While it may not serve a practical purpose, it serves as a reminder that there is, however tenuous, still a connection to that French past.

Like Bernard, Jacques Henry is also interested in Cajun culture.

Born in Paris and educated at the Sorbonne, Henry's relationship with Louisiana began in 1978 when he conducted field work here for his master's thesis. He returned in 1984 for good

Henry also argues that the decline of the French language is the largest factor contributing to the evolving Cajun identity. Cultural preservationists have long argued that without the French language, Cajun culture will die. Henry agrees that the culture will die without its language, but that it will be a slow process over the course of generations, and other factors would also contribute to the demise of the culture. Henry writes that "it is probable that Cajun French will survive in a special niche: it will be the language of Cajun music."

CODOFIL President Warren Perrin is also glad to see that research on the Cajuns is still ongoing. He says, "Both are excellent works, and I'm glad we have them." He doesn't argue with the numbers that indicate a decline in the French language

"I grew up in suburbia, read comic books, built model airplanes, played Little League ball and watched many of the same TV shows and movies that other budding Generation Xers watched throughout America. Most of my childhood friends were Cajuns, but like me none spoke French. Rarely did we join activities that might be considered traditional or ethnic; perhaps a fishing trip to the Atchafalaya Basin or Bayou Courtableau, an Easter game of pacque-pacque, or a family crawfish boil or gumbo.

"Regardless, when I visited my Cajun grandparents on Crochet Street in Opelousas, I heard Cajun French. They used it as a secret code, so that my cousins and I could not understand what they were saying. They spoke English, too, of course. They had to speak it to survive in the modern world. Maw Maw worked for South Central Bell, Paw Paw, for the U.S. Postal Service.

"As I grew older, I became increasingly aware of the cultural rift between our generations. How was it, I wondered, that after more than 300 years in the New World, our family had suddenly lost the ability to speak French? What had occurred between my generation and that of my grandparents to bring about this significant change?

"Americanization is what occurred - rapid, widespread Americanization, sparked by the onset of World War II and fueled by the convergence of several ensuing trends and events during the postwar period: the advent of mass communications, rampant consumerism, interstate highways, the jet age, educational improvements, even the rise of rock 'n' roll, to name only a few major factors. The 20th century notion of progress had come to south Louisiana."

- from Shane K. Bernard's 'The Cajuns: Americanization of a People.'

1 comment:

John Sobieski said...

The reason there are bilingual eng-fr signs in La. is tourism and the token attachment to historical French relevance to La. culture and society. I did take 2 years of French in highschool but I doubt if it is even an option there given the Hispanic immigration.