Everybody used to speak French in Madawaska. But not anymore.
Northern Maine has long been the epicenter of Acadian French, a variation brought to the region by French immigrants in the 17th and 18th centuries. Now, few Acadian children learn their ancestral language at home, and the dialect is endangered in its last U.S. stronghold.
Dual-language French immersion programs in schools could be the answer to the decline of the language among young people in northern Maine, but educators will have to drum up public support and battle teacher shortages and decades of discrimination against bilingual students to get there.
“I think this is a critical time, because we do still have many community members who are Francophone and we can pull from them as resources to support these programs, but in a generation or two we may not have that luxury,” Maine Department of Education Bilingual Programs Specialist April Perkins said.
On Wednesday, Oct. 20, Noah Ouellette — the K-12 education coordinator at the French Consulate in Boston — spoke to French National Honor Society students and local education officials in Caribou about how the French government could support immersion programs in school districts in northern Maine.
Ouellette has been touring New England for several years, trying to spark interest in bilingual education. While Brunswick and Lewiston made strides toward introducing dual-language programs, much of that progress was shut down by COVID-19, he said.
“The number-one roadblock is getting parent buy-in,” Ouellette said. “If the parents want it, it really pushes the school board and the superintendent to put it in place.”
Maine should be well positioned for grants and teacher exchanges with France since it has the highest percentage of French speakers by population of any U.S. state. Nearly 3 percent of Mainers speak French as a first language. Louisiana comes in second with an even 2 percent.
But the language is quickly vanishing. In Madawaska, at the heart of the French-Acadian St. John Valley, 60 percent of adults — but less than 12 percent of children — speak French at home, according to 2019 Census data. In Caribou, less than 50 miles south, 90 percent of adults and 100 percent of children speak only English.
The decline of French in Maine began in schools, with English-only laws that targeted Acadian and Wabanaki students. Teachers were known for harshly punishing the use of languages other than English in the classroom, which led to generations of language loss.
Jonna Boure, the French and Spanish teacher at Caribou High School, said her grandparents didn’t pass on the Acadian dialect because they felt their language was seen as a flaw rather than an asset.
“I knew that they could speak French but they didn’t speak French with me,” Boure said. “It’s something that I always wanted to get back. I felt like I had [experienced] a loss.”
While laws encouraging punishment of students for bilingualism don’t exist now, the education system discourages the use of other languages in more subtle ways, Perkins said.
“When students who have another language at their disposal come to school, they’re normally taught only in English,” Perkins said. “The lesson they and their families receive is that English is the most important language and is the key to their academic and professional success.”
Dual-language programs could help teach students that languages are something to be celebrated, Perkins said. When instruction is in their native language, students become assets and leaders in classrooms where they may otherwise feel out of place.
Maine has no public school French immersion programs. There is one Spanish immersion program at Lyseth Elementary in Portland, and a French private school, L’Ecole Française du Maine, in South Freeport.
Madawaska had a grant-funded French immersion program in the 1990s and early 2000s which is now defunct. The Caribou school district, RSU 39, lost its middle school French program two years ago, and only offers the language in high school.
French immersion faces another hurdle: the dearth of world language teachers in Maine. French teachers have been on the U.S. Department of Education’s list of critical teacher shortages in Maine every year since 1998, except for the 2018-2019 academic year.
Maine’s DOE is currently preparing to launch a task force — tentatively at the start of next year — to evaluate what’s needed to bring more immersion and world language teachers to the state, and introduce bilingual programs in public schools.
The state Legislature is also considering a bill, LD1189, which includes a provision to reduce barriers for teachers from other countries to obtain credentials in schools with immersion programs.
This is all good news for those hoping to save Acadian French.
“I don’t see any reason why, if Acadian French [were] introduced into the curriculum, that that would be considered different or not a valid French immersion program,” Ouellette said.
Boure teaches Acadian history as a part of her French classes at Caribou High School and said the effect on her students can be profound.
“They find that piece of themselves. It’s part of piecing your life story, your ancestral life story back together,” Boure said.
Caribou senior Chloe Sleeper grew up in an Acadian family — her mom and grandparents still speak French with each other, but she never learned the language at home. She’s learned Parisian French at school, and that’s helped her understand her relatives when they’re speaking their native language.
“It is kind of weird, I almost feel kind of guilty about it because I’m like, ‘I’m not really keeping this French history alive,’” she said. “But if I can understand it, I’m pretty much okay with that.”
Her classmate Naomi Cote has had a similar experience. Her grandmother is Acadian, but she didn’t learn about her family history until taking Boure’s class.
“I grew up eating ployes, but I never knew what it was from,” she said. “I just thought it was something my grandmother liked to make.”