This May, University students will spend five days in the small bayou community of Arnaudville, Louisiana conversing with native French speakers at a retirement home, taking Cajun dance lessons and learning how to cook some of Acadiana’s most cherished recipes. The annual LSU sur les Deux Bayous study abroad program immerses LSU Cajun French students in the language, culture and traditions of francophone Louisiana with the hope of preserving the French roots of our great state.
The LSU Cajun French program is just one of many programs across Louisiana seeking to develop and preserve Louisiana French language and culture. Although some residents may believe the Cajun French language and traditions are disappearing, experts like LSU Cajun French instructors Cathy Luquette and Ashley Luoma are more encouraged now than ever.
“There is a growing movement these days,” Luquette said. “Louisiana French has skipped a generation or two, but the younger generation, like college students, are now really interested in learning Cajun French. There are younger Cajun musicians coming up and lots of groups of people getting together at French conversation tables [who] are just interested in the language their grandparents used to speak.”
Beginning in 1765, Acadians settled in south Louisiana, and French language and culture thrived as the Acadians continued to migrate throughout the 18th century. There can be misconceptions, even among Louisiana French speakers, about the similarities of Cajun French to standard French. Because the language was taught orally until the late 20th century, some speakers believe it is a “broken” language. In actuality, the grammar and structure of Louisiana French is very similar to that of standard French. The separate evolutions of the two languages created some of the distinct differences.
“When people were settling in Louisiana in the 18th century, they had no communication with developments in language back in Europe,” Luquette explained. “They kept the same words they had always used. Then, if new terms were needed, they would adopt some native American words, some Spanish words, some English words and some African language words. Meanwhile in France, the French language was evolving in its own way.”
Luoma said that the English she speaks is not the same English that her grandparents spoke, which is why she believes there’s no way that French could be the same.
“The world changes and language evolves,” Luoma said. “The French that our grandparents spoke may not be around anymore, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be French and there won’t be people who have an attachment to French and feel rooted in French as part of their culture. We just have a more modern version of the language today.”
Speaking French in Louisiana wasn’t always easy. In 1915, the French language was suppressed by the State Board of Education, and children were punished for speaking French in school. Some students were required to repeat the first grade because they spoke too little English. Louisiana residents did not embrace their French roots again until the 1960s when the language and culture were revived through new Louisiana French music, literature and theater.
The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) was created by the state legislature in 1968 and exists to develop and preserve the French language as found in Louisiana for cultural, economic and touristic benefit of the state.
Today, CODOFIL plays a key role in preserving Louisiana’s French roots by providing scholarships for the study of French abroad, funding multimedia productions developed, created, and distributed by French speaking Louisiana citizens, supporting French teachers in Louisiana schools, putting on events, and providing resources for French speaking residents.
In 1998, LSU’s Cajun French Studies program was founded by instructor Amanda LaFleur, who developed much of the material used in classes today. Currently, Cajun French instructors Luquette and Luoma teach four semesters of elementary and intermediate Cajun French classes and next fall, a Cajun French culture class will be offered. There are about 50 students in the program.
The Cajun French program can fulfill a foreign language requirement and the classes are structured similarly to a standard French class. However, there are some elements geared specifically toward Louisiana.
“The choices of what vocabulary and verbs to use in the teaching material is a function of the culture,” Luoma said. “In the first semester of the standard French program they don’t learn the words for ‘to hunt’ or ‘to fish,’ but we do in Cajun French.”
Luquette said much of the vocabulary taught in the Cajun French program is related to flora and fauna because the Cajuns were typically hunters, trappers and fisherman. Additionally, students learn many Cajun French terms related to cooking, family and religion because those were important aspects of life for the early Louisianans.
For some Louisiana students, the Cajun French program allows them to connect to their ancestors.
“Students will say, ‘My grandmother used to say that!’” Luquette said. “They really do have an appreciation for it.”
Through projects in class, students also have the opportunity to interact with and learn from French speaking residents. They practice the language, but also learn about Cajun history and traditions.
“In the second semester, students have to go out and find a native Louisiana speaker, video them and then transcribe it,” Luquette explained. “They really enjoy it and the people they interview really enjoy it. The students start seeing a connection because they will ask a question and are excited that the native speakers understand them. They didn’t have to travel to France to get that experience. They got it here in Louisiana.”
While LSU students are studying French at the college level, almost 100,000 elementary and high school students in Louisiana are studying French as a second language according to CODOFIL. Additionally, Louisiana boasts 26 French immersion schools in eight parishes.
In Arnaudville, Louisiana, the Jacques Arnaud French Studies Collective brings together French speakers young and old at advanced and beginner levels through regular programs, such as Thursday afternoon “Quilting en Francais,” Friday night French sing-along and pot luck dinner, Saturday multi-generational French conversation tables and monthly youth educational projects.
Additionally, the Jacques Arnaud French Studies Collective hosts annual university immersion programs for Indiana University, New York University and LSU. This May, University students will spend five days soaking up the rich Cajun culture and traditions in Arnaudville while advancing their Cajun French speaking level and earning class credit. Before embarking on the trip, students sign a contract promising not to use English both inside and outside of the classroom
In Arnaudville, students are immersed in the Cajun French language and culture and experience local hospitality. While time is spent in the classroom, students also go crawfishing, take dance lessons, play cards and visit a retirement home to have conversations with native Louisiana French speakers.
Other organizations such as The Cajun French Music Association (CFMA) are dedicated to promoting and preserving Cajun French culture and traditions through Cajun fiddle and accordion lessons, jam sessions, dancing lessons and Cajun French language classes. With approximately 2,000 families in membership, the CFMA has six chapters in Louisiana, three chapters in southeast Texas and one chapter in Chicago.
Social media is playing an exciting role in the preservation of Cajun French as well. The Cajun Virtual Table Francaise Facebook group connects approximately 30,000 people from around the world to promote, learn and share the language. While scrolling through the page, users may see phrases their grandparents would exclaim or verses from Louisiana French poems. Beginners and advanced speakers alike join together in the group bound by the belief that “the future of our culture and language can only be saved by those of us living it today,” according to the group description.
Louisiana’s French heritage has shaped its food, traditions and holidays, and organizations like CODOFIL, the Jacques Arnaud French Studies Collective and university programs like LSU are making a difference in the development and preservation of Louisiana French language and culture.
“People ask me, ‘Do you think Louisiana French is going to disappear?’ Actually, I’m more encouraged now than I have been in a long time,” Luquette said.
For more information, visit the Cajun French Virtual Table Francaise on Facebook or listen to a Louisiana French Speaker here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r18LPg6ra48