Just a few generations ago, students speaking Acadian French were punished.
Students in French students at Valley Unified high schools competed in a regional French Spelling Bee at the St. John Valley Tech Center. Pictured are the top three winners in each of three categories, French I, French II and Advanced French. Credit: Courtesy of the Madawaska School Department

FORT KENT, Maine — A St. John Valley French teacher has begun a project she hopes will help keep alive the language of the Acadians who settled in the area.

Just a few generations ago, students living in the St. John Valley were punished for speaking their native French in school, which contributed to the decline of the language, Fort Kent French teacher Connie Cloutier said. Groups like Le Club Francais are trying to reverse that.

“French is leaving our region fast, and if we don’t promote it or make it fun, [kids] won’t get in the habit of using their language,” Cloutier said.

So Cloutier developed a French spelling bee with students from Fort Kent, Wisdom and Madawaska high schools. A majority of the students in those schools can claim French Acadian heritage.

“Unfortunately as the years have gone on, the language has almost disappeared with younger generations,” Fort Kent student and round one bee winner Tia Saucier said. “If we don’t maintain our language, it’s in danger of disappearing forever.”

About 60 percent of households in Grand Isle, Madawaska, Frenchville and St. Agatha reported speaking French at home, according to 2019 census data. While the language tradition remains for now, there’s evidence that it’s slipping. Just nine years prior, the 2010 census found that more than 70 percent of Madawaska families spoke French at home.

Some educators are championing the introduction of dual-language French immersion programs in schools as a solution to the decline of the language among young people in northern Maine.

Le Club Francais, of which Cloutier is a member, provided $4,500 in prize money for the winning French spelling bee students.

The purpose of the French club is to preserve, promote, and if needed, to re-introduce French in the valley, to honor the Acadian ancestors and claim its rich heritage, Le Club Francais education committee chair Don Levesque said.

“Most of the parents of the students in our French pre-K do not speak French, but recognize that knowing two languages can be an ace up their child’s sleeve,” Levesque said. “The French language is a major component of who we are. A basic knowledge of French speaks to our soul.”

The French bee not only helps to preserve the traditional language in the St. John Valley, but also benefits students of all backgrounds because learning a second language increases problem-solving abilities, according to Levesque.

Students competed in three categories depending on the French class in which they were enrolled at each school.

The top three in each of the nine classes then competed at a regional French spelling bee held recently at the St. John Valley Tech Center.

The three winners were: Jacob Daigle of Madawaska, French I; Ellie Roy of Fort Kent, French II; and Ashley Ouellette of Madawaska, Advanced French.

Cloutier said she wants to expand the French bee next year to include Canadian students and possibly from other interested Maine schools.

“I believe that in order to be a complete person, one has to be conscious of where she or he comes from,” Levesque said. “Someone once asked me if I am Acadian or American. I asked why I can’t be both.”

Former BDN writer Hannah Catlin contributed to this report.