LAFAYETTE — In Arnaudville, students and tourists have been flocking to the small Acadiana town to soak up the French language and culture.
In Vacherie, a rural community between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, employees of a plantation home offer tours in French.
And across south Louisiana, scholars say, a younger generation is finding pride in a language that has been in a deep decline in the state named for a French king.
For those struggling to revive the language in Louisiana, the cause is morphing from education initiatives to a focus on business.
“We have tens of thousands of students who are taking French as a second language and nearly 4,000 in French immersion learning environments,” said Joseph Dunn, executive director of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, the state agency charged with developing the language. “We’ve got to be looking to create opportunities for them, so they are eventually anchored in this linguistic identity.”
Forty years ago, about 1 million people in Louisiana could speak French fluently. Today, CODOFIL estimates about 150,000 people in Louisiana are fluent in the language.
The decline is due, in large part, to natural attrition — the deaths of people who spoke French as their primary language at home. The state’s declaration of English as the legally-recognized language and attempts by educators in the 1920s to punish children who spoke French on school grounds led to the social and economic decline of French, Dunn said.
In 1968, the state created CODOFIL, which has been promoting French education and recruiting native speakers from Francophone countries to teach in Louisiana classrooms.
CODOFIL also plays a part in developing Louisiana immersion teachers. In the past two years, the agency broadened its efforts to include economic development and tourism in French.
Dunn pointed to his former workplace — Laura Plantation — as an example of how the French language boosts the economy. Located in the St. James Parish community of Vacherie, the plantation home attracts about 15,000 to 20,000 Francophone visitors annually and maintains at least four French-speaking tour guides on its roster to handle the demand for tours in French, said Jay Schexnaydre, assistant manager of Laura Plantation. Those tourists are spending $20 to tour the plantation, and while in the area they will likely tour other sites, eat at local restaurants or stay overnight at local accommodations, Schexnaydre said.
Focusing on the economic angle, CODOFIL is launching a “Franco-responsable” program, encouraging French speakers who own businesses or provide services to do business in French. The program — its name means “French responsible” — is designed to encourage French speakers to take responsibility for promoting the language in their daily lives and at work.
Participating businesses will be identified with a “Franco-responsable” sticker. The program, still under development, is an update on a program initiated about 30 years ago that identified businesses with another sticker: “Ici on parle français” or “French is spoken here.”
The goal, Dunn said, is to create a statewide database accessible to tourists and Louisiana residents.
“It’s important and essential for the people in Louisiana who speak French to take personal and professional responsibility for their linguistic identity,” he said. “French is spoken across the state. We want to begin to build that network.”
The new CODOFIL initiative is encouraging to business owners like Lori Johnson Walls, owner of Johnson’s Boucanière in Lafayette. The small restaurant and meat store is an homage to her family’s grocery store and meat market, Johnson’s Grocery in Eunice, started by her grandfather, who spoke little English.
Her father, Wallace Johnson, as a young boy would take care of the English-speaking customers in his family’s store. Johnson, now 85, learned English before he started school for practical reasons — to play with “the little American boy” who lived near his house.
It was also for practical reasons that he and his wife didn’t teach French to their daughter. “When we wanted to say something we didn’t want her to hear, we said it in French,” Johnson said.
Walls matched her dad’s smile. “They spoke French a lot around Christmas,” she said.
Walls learned French in school and can understand conversations better than she can speak the language.
Her dad is the resident-speaker in the shop, conversing with French-speaking customers, both locals and tourists, who visit.
“We’re about continuing the Cajun tradition, and the language is another way to show commitment to those traditions,” Walls said.
Johnson said he’s not worried about the decline in French speakers. He said he still hears the language spoken between Lafayette and his hometown of Eunice.
Scholars such as Thomas Klingler and Amanda LaFleur sense a renewed advocacy for the language — among both old and young Louisiana French speakers.
“The inter-generational transmission of the language at home is certainly in decline and very furiously threatened, but we are also witnessing, currently, a real enthusiasm for maintaining French, largely among the younger generation who did not learn the language in the home, but in school and in immersion programs,” said Klingler, an associate professor of French and head of the French and Italian department at Tulane University.
Klingler and LaFleur, coordinator of Cajun studies at LSU, have both taken groups of their students for field experiences in Arnaudville, a town of about 1,100 some 30 miles north of Lafayette, to document native speakers’ dialects and stories and to learn more about cultural traditions. A group of French speakers in town is marketing Arnaudville as a place for tourists and university students to experience the language and culture.
In Arnaudville, the “Franco-responsable” movement is already underway and it’s encouraging locals to speak “en francais.”
“Many French speakers in Louisiana are not quite aware of the potential positive effect that speaking French in their public lives can have on the cultural and economic well-being of the area,” said LaFleur.
And the more the language is heard, the easier it will be for even the most timid of speakers to begin practicing what they know, she said.
“It’s sometimes tough to overcome what we call the ‘honte’ factor, a sort of shyness that comes from not being quite convinced that our French is ‘good enough,’ ” LaFleur said.
“But most things worth doing involve sticking our necks out.”