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A French flame flickers in Cajun country: How Louisianans keep culture alive

Last Updated Feb 3, 2016 at 7:17 pm EST

ARNAUDVILLE, La. – The older folks in Cajun country recall the sting of corporal punishment — of the pain inflicted on their knees, knuckles and elsewhere by teachers working to beat the French out of them.

Rita Dautreuil Marks was smacked with a ruler on her fingertips for speaking the forbidden tongue. She remembers kids being left in a dark room, sometimes deprived of lunch.

Merlin Fontenot, 92, recalls the penalty for a first offence: writing lines on the blackboard, 100 times, “I WILL NOT SPEAK FRENCH.” Another violation brought a ruler across the knuckles.

Their teachers were enforcing the law. French was prohibited in Louisiana schools for a half-century under a 1921 state constitution, amid an aggressive push to modernize and integrate poorer communities.

Some teachers were particularly vicious in upholding the constitution, George Arnaud recalls.

“They put us on our knees if they caught us,” said Arnaud, 66.

“Sometimes (they placed us) on corn or rice — so it would hurt a lot more.”

The beatings had an impact. Arnaud entered school speaking only French; by adulthood he’d almost forgotten the language. Marks failed a grade; later to spare her children similar punishment, she refused to teach them French.

The decline in the number of French-speakers in Louisiana has been dramatic, as the oldest die off. It has plunged to 115,000 from 194,000 in just over a decade, in this former French territory that’s home to a mix including Acadians expelled from Canada; Haitian Creoles; and European immigrants.

Tales of assimilation frequently transpire over four generations: many baby boomers describe how their grandparents spoke just French, their parents mostly French, while they speak mostly English, and their kids only English.

The culture had survived a more brutal disruption, two centuries earlier. One parish commemorates the 1755 expulsion from Atlantic Canada in its name, “Evangeline.” Today, just under one-fifth of residents still speak French in this parish, named for the heroine of an epic poem about the diaspora.

But here’s the thing — these days, when it comes to French, people express optimism.

Louisiana not only revised its constitution four decades ago. It also created CODOFIL, a public agency for preserving French. David Cheramie ran it for 13 years, and he detects a comeback.

It might never rebound to the lingua franca status of a century ago, he said, but it’s settling in for a smaller, sustainable presence.

The biggest change is attitudinal: Once derided as the language of poor labourers, it’s now considered a cultural heirloom and sophisticated global tongue.

French is cool again.

“It was considered an ignorant, backward language,” said Cheramie.

“Now (kids) are proud to speak it — and not ashamed like they were 50 years ago. It was an ‘honte’ (embarrassment)…. Talking to your kids in French, it was like child abuse… Now it’s the opposite — the attitude has totally changed.”

Signs of the culture endure in central Louisiana’s bayou towns.

There are French street signs, store signs, and radio shows. Accordion-heavy zydeco music is frequently sung in French. Even the genre name has francophone roots, from an old expression that includes the slang contraction for beans, “‘z’haricots.”

Numerous linguistic projects are afoot.

Some are educational. Immersion programs modelled on Canada’s have grown — enrolment is up tenfold since 1990, with 4,000 students now participating. Students also travel to study in the land of their ancestors — at Nova Scotia’s Universite Sainte-Anne.

Charles Larroque mastered French in Quebec. He visited around the 1976 Olympics; married a Quebecoise; wound up spending a decade; and returned home to teach.

Now head of CODOFIL, he says his linguistic sales pitch has evolved. Back in the ’80s, he’d urge youngsters to learn French to communicate with their own grandparents.

That generation has passed. Now he’s promoting economic opportunity — in tourism; for health professionals hoping to work abroad; and in resource industries operating in Africa.

People who’ve learned French, he says, must find places to use it.

“They’re all dressed up with no place to go,” Larroque said.

“They want to do things — cool things, in French. And that’s where we are right now.”

Other initiatives are cultural.

Inside a converted warehouse off the highway, George Marks and Mavis Fruge whip up creative ways to get people practising French: in embroidery clubs, art exhibits, and roundtables bringing together Arnaudville’s older and younger residents.

He’s a painter and the creative force behind Nunu’s, an arts-community centre. She’s a retired military spouse who spent 21 years away and, upon returning home, became involved in linguistic preservation.

They’re about to launch their biggest project: Cajun cultural immersion. They’re turning an old hospital into lodging for visiting students. Starting this year, they intend to have visitors spend time with crab fishers, grocers and farmers to learn local terminology.

They hope to preserve some of the regional patois.

When older folks speak, they sound a bit like New Brunswickers or coastal Quebecers. But the kids speak a scrubbed-down French, stripped of old idioms and accents — closer to how English-Canadians sound after a few years’ French immersion.

“French as we know it — probably, that’s over,” Marks said.

“(But) French in Louisiana is evolving.”

He’s Rita Marks’ son. She’d never taught him French, after her childhood punishment. But she’s proud of George — he picked it up anyway, some by listening to older folks, and later by visiting France.

Arnaud became a ship captain. He started speaking French again with older colleagues, and prefers it today. Cheramie mastered it in France. He now dreams in French.

Fruge’s fluent. But the 77-year-old just learned something she’d never have been taught at school. She learned it from her grandson, who’s now studying in French.

It’s the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance, in her mother tongue.

“Je fais serment de fidelite au drapeau des Etats-Unis,” she says, reciting its final words, about liberty and justice for all.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” she ends, with a smile.

“I love it.”