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The Future of French in Louisiana

Financial support for French education and maintaining Louisiana's French heritage seems to be waning.

In 2010, Southeastern University did away with its French department because of budget cuts to the university system. And in June of this year, Gov. Jindal stunned the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana by cutting $100,000 in funding with a line-item veto.

Margaret Marshall is a past president of the CODOFIL Consortium of Louisiana Colleges and Universities. She's taught college-level French for 37 years and has held many top offices in state and national organizations promoting French language and culture. She is also one of the tenured professors who lost their job when Southeastern closed their French program.

Marshall told WRKF's Ashley Westerman that the cuts to CODOFIL are short-sighted and will only hurt the state in the long-run.

MARSHALL: Louisiana is known for its French heritage. This is an asset; it makes Louisiana different from any other state in the United States. And these cuts are going to really hinder their ability to provide the kind of resources they have been to feature French at festivals, in schools. And even people in Louisiana who are not of French heritage, they're proud of the fact that we have this French heritage. It's one of the official languages of our state. We're the only bilingual French-English state in the United States. And to cripple the services that CODIFIL provides is really going to have a very negative effect on French in Louisiana.

WESTERMAN: Now, let's talk a little bit about that French heritage. Can you tell me a little bit about the different between Cajun French and then, I guess, French-French as in the French that was spoken by the explorers that came here? Can you tell me a little bit about the difference between those?

MARSHALL: Well, Cajun French is different from what we call Standard French or French from France in that the Cajuns were not really educated in the language. They did not have education here when they came after the, what's called the Le Grand Dérangement, when they were forced out of Nova Scotia in 1755 by the British. And so when they came here about 10 years later, they were given the worst plots of land, the marshes and so forth, and it's really thanks to the Indians that they were able to survive as well as they did here. It's not one thing either. You know, we think of Cajun French as a label but really the way Cajun is spoken from one area like in Lafourche Parish to Lafayette Parish to wherever. So you've got a lot of variation in Louisiana. And even the way Creole is spoken is not the same from the Pointe Coupee area to the Vacherie area to the Lafayette area. So to get back to your original question, I would say that Cajun French, the grammar is not, uh, it's been regularized.

WESTERMAN: So, but that being said, if there's so many variations all over the state, is academia really the place to be preserving the French heritage?

MARSHALL: Since French was, let's say removed from the public school system, speakers of French in Louisiana were made to feel humiliated and stupid if they spoke French. So for the most part, except in a few exceptional places like Pierre Part and a few other places, the parents did not teach French to their children and this has been going on for several generations now. So French is being lost in the home. While there's still many people who still speak French in the home in Louisiana, it's really been disappearing at an alarming rate.

In order to bring French back, CODOFIL was really set up in 1968 by James Domengeaux, who had the foresight to realize that the French heritage was a key to what made Louisiana distinctive. And so when he set up CODOFIL, what he wanted to do was put French back in the schools because French had been removed from the schools. The only way to do that is to have French teachers who can teach in French, and they have to be trained in universities because they can't get a license to teach unless they have a diploma and a degree. So, I would have to say that academia is essential to the promotion and retention of French in this state.

WESTERMAN: And talking a little bit about that retention, aside from nostalgia, why is it important for this state to maintain this heritage?

MARSHALL: Well, economically, it's really important for tourism and for the economy of the state. It's the heritage of a large majority, I would say, of Louisianians and so promoting the language and culture helps us keep what makes us different from every other state in the United States. I can't imagine why we would want to just forget French and just say, "Okay, this heritage doesn't mean anything anymore." We've got the music, we've got films being made, we've got a fascination for tourists with our bayous and when they go and they hear people speaking Cajun or Creole French in the bayous it makes such a lasting impression. It's such a treasure. I mean, you know, we need to defend it because it's our identity. You lose your identity, you lose who you are, and life doesn't matter too much anymore when you lose your identity.