By Claire Ohlsen | LSU Student
In 1956, Earlene Broussard Echeverria, an Acadian of Vermilion Parish, attended her first day of school and did not know a word of English.
With recent 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 adapted 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 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 English 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.
Codofil, the only program of its kind in the U.S., coordinates French education in the Louisiana school system and partners with other groups to promote the development of the language. Clement said the goal of the program is to "get people talking, dialoging and networking in French."
In the past century, the number of French speakers has floundered greatly as Louisiana began to assimilate with the American culture, but CODOFIL works to increase those numbers so that Louisiana may preserve part of its heritage.
"Is French going to survive in Louisiana?" Clement asks, "They've been asking that since the end of the 19th century and we're at the end of the 20th century."
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 over 450,000 people speaking French in their home.
Clement believes that the people of Louisiana want to save this cultural characteristic because so many Louisianans have a French background.
"French language is our birthright. We live in an international world. It is honoring our past and future," she said.
It is not known how many French speakers there are in the state now, though both Clement and Echeverria believe it is significantly lower.
Echeverria said that older generations still speak Cajun French, but that baby boomers on down do not because it is not being taught in schools.
CODOFIL began as a partnership with the state department of education and was approved to promote the education Louisiana, or Cajun, French, but was quickly changed to the broader term of French.
In the past years, CODOFIL's funding has been cut significantly and the program was threatened with elimination. It is now part of the office of tourism and according to Echeverria, has no money to do any programs. The number of board members has decreased and many do not even speak French. There are currently only three full-time staff members.
CODOFIL is criticized for the irony in promoting Cajun French, but hiring teachers from Canada, France and Belgium. Many also disapprove of the program being funded by taxpayer's dollars because French is not nearly as useful as other foreign languages might be in the U.S.
Clement said there still is a market for French in many professions, such as health care, education and law.
She said she recognizes that French may not be as popular of a foreign language as Spanish is, but said that knowing another language is important in our ever-changing multicultural country. Students at LSU can earn a minor in Cajun French.
Echeverria believes that learning a second language is important, but said that "unless you're going into education, you're probably not going to be able to use French on a daily basis."
Echeverria believes that the promotion of the Cajun culture has fallen into the subculture of music and that the academic element can be forgotten. She said many Cajun and Zydeco musicians speak the language.
"There is an enormous network of support if you're a Cajun musician," she said, "Music is very important to Cajun culture. It's the most popular manifestation of the culture because music is a universal language."