Lieutenant governor envisions products of French immersion as cultural guides
“This is a need. We have to have more people who can converse in a manner that’s more welcome to our Francophone visitors. These kids are truly immersed in the culture.” Jay dardenne, lieutenant governor
The remedy to the common complaint among French-speaking tourists about the lack of French speakers in Louisiana can be found in a new generation serious about learning the language, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said Wednesday following his visit with students in French immersion classes at Prairie Elementary.
“This is a need. We have to have more people who can converse in a manner that’s more welcome to our Francophone visitors,” he said.
Dardenne noted the Prairie Elementary students’ mastery of the language, along with their poise and discipline in spite of the entourage that accompanied the elected official.
“These kids are truly immersed in the culture,” Dardenne said after his visits with preschoolers and two fifth-grade classes.
He suggested the district create an organization of its French-speaking students who could serve as ambassadors during events or festivals that attract Francophone tourists.
“How incredible will that be when you have visitors from foreign countries who are greeted by fifth-graders who are articulate, pointing directions, telling them where to go, conversing with them fluently in French?” Dardenne asked. “I talk about the need to have 4.5 million ambassadors for Louisiana.”
Lafayette Parish is one of nine school districts in the state offering French immersion programs in which students learn core academic subjects — all except English language arts — in the second language.
Lafayette began French immersion at Prairie about 20 years ago, and it’s expanded to include several other schools teaching in French through grade eight.
The district’s goal is to expand the program from preschool to 12th grade, said Mario Charest, the district’s immersion pathways coordinator.
“An investment at this preschool level has a huge impact at upper levels,” Charest said.
Currently, Prairie is the only school in the district with a French immersion preschool class.
On Wednesday morning, teacher Rachel Perry and her 20 preschool students went about their daily morning routine with each student announcing an answer to the question “Comment ça va?” (How are you?) As Perry called to “tout les garçons”— all the boys — in the class, Dardenne joined them in line as they sang a “Bonjour” song. The girls then took their turn with a counting song.
In Martin Christian and Kirby Jambon’s fifth-grade immersion classes, their students worked on very different projects. In Christian’s music class, students worked in small groups on songs and performed their early drafts for guests, some playing harmonica and a “frottoir” (washboard) as Christian accompanied them on guitar. A slide of pictures of Clifton Chenier, “le roi de zydeco” (king of zydeco), was displayed on the classroom’s whiteboard as students steadily worked on their chansons (songs). One group of four students sang “Tout le monde chante avec moi. Tout le monde danse avec mois. … Ce le festival.”
“It’s about him in his car listening to music, but when school starts, he has to write a song and sing it for his class,” said Sami Taha, 10.
“Now, it’s different because he has to create the song,” said Ashton Scott Dooley, 10.
Ashton also noted that “the more languages you learn, the more parts of your brain unlock and you get smarter.”
Nearby, in Jambon’s science class, students worked in small groups to devise responses to the teacher’s questions about energy. Jambon projected images on the board of scenarios in which energy is used: a lit lamp, a hammer striking a nail and someone rolling down a hill in an oversized hamster ball.
“The core classes force them to use their language while using high-level thinking skills,” Charest said. “Energy is an abstract concept. The mastery of these skills needs to be high for them to express it in a second language.”
Superintendent Pat Cooper said a potential tax referendum that could go before voters next year would help support the expansion of educational programming such as French immersion.
Dardenne said he supports the expansion of French immersion, which he described as a sort of atonement for the discrimination faced by generations past who were forbidden to speak the language in schools.