the coming death of cajun french

The cover story in this week’s Independent is by my friend Mary. The headline: “The French Connection: Don’t believe the dire warnings about Creole and Cajun French dying out in Acadiana.”
Oh, if only it were true!
Reading the story actually seems to contradict that headline pretty strongly. Opening scene: People speaking French — who are in their late 40s or early 50s! And there’s a 68-year-old barber who speaks French! There’s a group of people who meet at a French table at a local cafeteria once a week, many of them in their 60s!
That there are old people who still speak French isn’t new, nor is it a sign of the strength of Cajun French. It’s a sign of weakness. Those people, bless them all, will die someday.
In my own family, French was spoken about as much as English when I was a kid. We lived for a while with my great-grandmother (b. 1907), who didn’t speak a word of English. Every week or so, I’d go with my grandmother to visit her aunt and uncle, who ran a small grocery store in town but couldn’t read English. My grandmother would read them their mail. That generation in my family grew up as Cajun rice farmers; French was a big part of our lives, up through the late 1970s and early 1980s.
But old people die. And when my great-grandmother did in 1988 — around the same time that the other remaining French-only people in my family did — the language ran dry. I haven’t heard anyone in my family have a conversation in French in the last 15 years. In the years before my grandmother (b. 1932) died in 2004, I’d sometimes try speaking in French with her. She’d have a heck of a time trying because, she said, she hadn’t spoken French to anyone in so many years.
And when I try to speak French today, it always comes out Spanish.
Mary writes about the great hope of Louisiana Francophiles, the French immersion programs in a handful of area schools. I think they’re great. Were I still living down there, I’d send my (fictional) kids there. But they’re small potatoes. In Lafayette, a district with over 30,000 students, there are about 900 in French immersion. There are probably fewer than 3,000 students statewide. That’s not enough to stop the language from dying — particularly since there’s little evidence that those kids will keep speaking French outside of school.
And of those kids who are learning French, they’re learning a version other than the Cajun their grandparents spoke. The only French teacher I ever had in a Louisiana public school was Belgian. Later, in private school, I had two Parisians and three Anglo (meaning non-Cajun) teachers. That’s one of the problems with language preservation efforts in south Louisiana — they’ve relied so strongly on outsider francophones. Mary writes about “Francomix,” the French-language program on the local public-radio station in Lafayette. Its host is…from France. Some of the early 1960s francophone activists (like Raymond Rodgers) were Canadian. Feufollet — the young Cajun band often cited as a victory for immersion programs — has a lead singer who grew up in Quebec. CODOFIL still gets in trouble with Cajuns for pushing French and Belgian and Senegalese teachers on Cajun kids, who are then inspired to start “correcting” their grandparents’ “non-standard” Cajun French.
You can also see that in the 2000 census data on language use in Louisiana. The census breaks down French speakers into “French,” “Cajun [French],” and “French Creole.” Nine percent of Louisiana French speakers over age 65 identified as Cajun or Creole speakers. Only three percent of French-speaking kids ages 5 to 18 did.
I’ve written about that census data before, but it’s really quite telling. There were, in 2000, 198,580 French speakers in Louisiana. But 37.3 percent of those francophones are age 65 or older. (By contrast, only 11.7 percent of English speakers in Louisiana are that old.)
Among kids ages 5 to 17, there are only 16,630 French speakers. That’s even fewer than the 20,690 in that age group who speak Spanish — in a state with a very low Hispanic population. (And that imbalance has no doubt grown substantially greater since Katrina.)
Finally, I suspect that the census numbers actually overstate the number of French-speaking kids. Remember, kids aren’t filling out the long form themselves; their parents are. I’d wager there are a disproportionate number of people who list their kids as French speakers out of pride when they’re really just taking French in school and not speaking one word of it outside class. To put it another way: I bet that, in other states, there are folks whose kids are taking Spanish or German or Latin in school but don’t mark them down as Spanish, German, or Latin speakers on the census. I’d wager that doesn’t happen as often in Louisiana.
Look, I wish it was different. I’d love south Louisiana to be truly bilingual. But it’s telling that all the regular folks that Mary finds speaking French in day-to-day life are older. For younger folks, French is a parlor trick — something a few people can break out once in a while for fun. Life isn’t lived in French for anyone under 40. And not even the best-intentioned immersion program will change that.
This isn’t a new problem. Check out this article from 1975. “Look What They’ve Done to my French, Mama: Attempts to Save Louisiana French,” goes the headline. And it’s true: People have been predicting the death of Cajun French for a long time. But the thing is, they’ve been right. Check this paragraph: “The 1970 Census showed, for example, that of the 21 parishes considered part of Acadiana, about 45 per cent of the people called French their mother tongue. In St. Martin Parish, for example, 79.1 per cent of the 32,453 inhabitants considered French their mother tongue. Even in the urban parish of Lafayette, 52.1 per cent of the 109,716 residents were French-speakers.” I don’t know the parish-by-parish breakdowns now, but the equivalent number statewide is now 4.3 percent, and I doubt there’s a single parish left that’s much over 10 percent. And 1970 wasn’t that long ago.
As for the idea that teaching kids how to speak French will save the language, that’s been tried before, too. “For the first time in years, children are speaking in French with their grandparents, since the middle generation missed out entirely on the French language,” a newspaper is quoted in the article — in 1975. That’s the year I was born. That non-French-speaking “middle generation” is now around 60 years old — they’re the ones we now think of as the most francophone folks around. And the children of 1975 don’t speak French at all.
One other quote from that article I find prescient, from someone named Richard Landry: “The French Acadian heritage will not be handed down through the ages by exposing school children to the Parisian French language in a classroom atmosphere, nor will it be handed down by a few people telling the public, through newspapers and television, that speaking French is the ‘in’ thing. A heritage is handed down by normal, everyday interaction between parents and children and friends and neighbors, in a natural setting where pride for a common land and language keep the heritage alive.”
Cajun culture isn’t going to die. The food, the music, the lifestyle, and the folkways will survive. (Cajun music, for instance, has a tremendous number of terrific young bands breathing life into the form these days, even as the oldest institutions of Cajun/zydeco die off. But that’s another post.) We’ll be different from the rest of the United States for a long, long time — or until our homes are all underwater, which ever comes first. But outside of bands singing old songs in the mother tongue, the French language isn’t going to be a big part of that, and we should be honest enough to admit it. The “dire warnings about Creole and Cajun French dying out in Acadiana” are all too true.