Arnaudville may become ‘living classroom’

Cajun French and Creole residents of this town of about 1,060 have opened their community as a living classroom to university students and those interested in immersing themselves in the language and culture.

The spoken language in Arnaudville wasn’t learned in a classroom, but rather passed down from parents to their children, and residents like Arnaudville native Mavis Frugé hope to preserve and share the language as the town begins to market itself as a hub for cultural immersion opportunities.

Students from Tulane University, LSU and even a group from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire have looked to the town’s residents for field experiences: documenting stories and dialects and learning more about cultural traditions.

Last week, a dozen graduate students from LSU’s French department helped launch the town’s first cultural immersion program, which included lessons on traditions such as making crawfish nets, catching crawfish, cooking étouffée and couche-couche, traditional methods of egg-dyeing and visits to cultural sites.

On campus and in Baton Rouge, the students have limited access to French speakers, said Amanda LaFleur, LSU’s coordinator of Cajun studies.

“Through this program, they’re meeting authentic speakers of the language,” LaFleur said.

While students are learning about the traditions of the culture, they also see “what’s going on in a modern vein.”

For Jeanne Jegousso, of Tours, France, the visit has taught her more about Louisiana culture and different dialects, words and phrases used, which she said she plans to share with the undergraduate French students she teaches.

“As instructors at LSU and in Louisiana, we should know about this culture and share with our students,” said Jegousso, a graduate student in the French department studying black and Caribbean literature.

The native speaker said she’s found the Cajun French speakers are more direct in their questioning and use older French words, such as “char” for car instead of the standard French word, “voiture.”

The experience shows that the language is evolving, said fellow graduate student Carrie O’Connor, of Williamsburg, Va. She said several of the undergraduates she teaches are from Louisiana and they’ve picked up on words and expressions used in class.

During their visit last week, students also documented stories from residents and participated in community pot luck meals.

The students’ presence also gave timid locals a chance to practice their language, LaFleur said. She said they’ve encountered some residents who at first aren’t too confident in speaking, but in time are holding full conversations with the students.

LaFleur said LSU plans to continue to partner with the town to develop immersion options for its students and to the public through its community education programs, LaFleur said.

“I think it’s a good collaboration,” said folklorist Rebecca Henry, founder of the Creole Heritage Folklife Center in Opelousas. “They come and learn our ways. We’re trying to bring back the pride in the culture.”

Henry taught the students how to make couche-couche last week, a traditional dish of cooked cornmeal topped with milk and thick ribbons of Steen’s cane syrup. Frugé’s kitchen doubled as a classroom for the breakfast making and later for a lesson on traditional egg-dyeing using flowers and silk fabrics.

Located about 30 miles north of Lafayette, Frugé describes her hometown as a “little, rural community” where French is still spoken at places besides the kitchen table, making it an ideal site for those who want to learn French and more about the cultural traditions of Louisiana’s French speakers.

Frugé and other cultural ambassadors such as local artist George Marks support an effort to transform an abandoned rural hospital into a French immersion center that could house visitors interested in learning French by living and speaking the language within the community.

The hospital property ownership is split between two parishes — St. Landry and St. Martin — and is governed by a hospital district. Efforts to cut the red tape attached to the building’s ownership have stalled the immersion center’s efforts.

Meanwhile, Frugé said, plans will continue with a focus on university partnerships and attracting tourists.

Many Louisiana students and residents seeking an immersion French-speaking experience travel to Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia.

“Louisiana students have been going for years and for a long time, people have been saying, ‘Why can’t we do something like that here?’ This is the most concrete effort I’ve seen yet to meet the demand,” said Thomas Klingler, an associate professor of French and head of the French and Italian department at Tulane University.

Klingler also holds an endowed professorship in French created by Richard Z. and Seola Arnaud Edwards. Seola Arnaud Edwards is Frugé’s aunt and the two women are descendants of Jacques Arnaud, Arnaudville’s founder.

He and a group of his linguistics students visited Arnaudville for three weekends in March to document Creole and French speakers. As part of the class, they’ll produce a documentary that they’ll share with residents.

“Linguistically, I think they found it fascinating,” Klingler said. “Most of them had only been exposed to standard French in school. Obviously, our native speakers of French had different exposure but not to Louisiana French, and Creole was a new experience for them as well.”

He said his some of his students will return this summer for more research.

“I hope it’s a long-term relationship that Tulane will have with the community,” he said.