Waking Up French

March is the International Month of Francophonie, celebrating French language and culture throughout the world. I wonder whether the very idea makes some Americans of French descent quake in their boots.

Many Franco-Americans have, at best, an ambivalent relationship to the French language. During my research for Piecework: When We Were French, I spoke with many people who grew up in New England speaking French as their first language. Most were discouraged from speaking it outside the home and often, once they started school, they were discouraged from speaking it altogether, because their teachers believed it would make it harder for them to master English and their families believed it would handicap them socially and professionally later on. Some remembered being ridiculed by French teachers who disapproved of their accents and pronunciation and chastised them for speaking a backwoods bastardization of their beloved “Parisian French.” Many native speakers became simply too ashamed to even try to maintain their French language skills, believing that, not only was their French inferior, but speaking it was a sign of inferior intelligence.

My own generation’s relationship to the French language is decidedly less-charged, but no more cozy. My grandmother and her siblings were raised speaking French, but as it brought them no benefit and quite a bit of hardship, none of them taught their children. By the time my generation arrived, French was only used by the elders, and even then, usually only when Canadian relatives were present. This made the language seem distant and out of reach. The French departments of our schools still emphasized French as a foreign language and, indeed, often those of us who did choose to study it, thinking we would finally be able to bridge a gap with our grandparents, were dismayed to discover that we still couldn’t understand what the hell Meme was talking about. For many of us, French is the primary obstacle our fully embracing Franco-American identity. We are what writer David Vermette has called “anglophone Francos,” caught between two worlds in a way our parents and grandparents (or their Quebec cousins, who still believe that language is culture) never would have thought possible.

So, many of us get a little nervous when someone mentions la francophonie. A very old inferiority complex gets stirred up. They certainly can’t talking about my grandmother when they talk about la francophonie. I’m not even sure they could be talking about my Canadian cousins!

I’m interested in this shame. I believe, first of all, that it’s an important aspect of Franco-American culture, and also that, like all shame, unacknowledged, it holds us back. It keeps us from truly connecting to our past because we are too afraid to face it. This dynamic is explored in depth in the documentary, Réveil – Waking Up French. Focused on the Franco-American communities of Maine, the film provides a picture of how immigrants walk the delicate line between assimilation and preservation. The film also brilliantly captures how the cultural dispossession visited on one generation persist for generations to follow. If you get a chance to see Réveil, don’t miss it. I personally felt that it over-emphasized the connection between language and culture, to the exclusion of people like me — Franco-Americans with mediocre French, acquired in adulthood. But nonetheless, it validates the feelings of displacement, shame, and confusion felt by many first generation Americans about their ancestral cultures, and it offers hope about reclaiming a heritage feared lost.

One of the interesting outcomes of the film is that it has contributed to the establishment of a French Language Reacquisition Program in Maine. As the program’s founder, Julia Schulz, recognizes, neurolinguists now believe that a language learned in childhood cannot be totally lost. Schulz helps former francophones to overcome old feelings of shame and humiliation and to discover that French still holds a place inside them.

While I don’t know of a specific program in Vermont geared toward reacquisition, French classes are not difficult to find. They’re offered through many schools, universities, continuing ed programs, and, in the Burlington area, through the Alliance Française of the Lake Champlain Region. Incidentally, the Alliance also has a number of events planned for this month to mark le mois de la francophonie, including my upcoming performances of Piecework: When We Were French at Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier, Vermont, which the Alliance will sponsor. Representatives from the organization will be present at each performance and can give you information about the programs and classes. Maybe it’s time to wake up your French.

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