Ending the Damaging Myth of “Bad French” in New England

 

Ambassador Claudel (second from left, with glasses), accompanied by local dignatories.  Lewiston Evening Journal, October 20, 1930.  Click to go to the accompanying article.

Ambassador Claudel (second from left, with glasses), accompanied by local dignitaries. Lewiston Evening Journal, October 20, 1930. Click to go to the accompanying article.

When French Ambassador Paul Claudel visited Lewiston, Maine, in 1930, he was given a warm reception by Franco-American leaders in the city.  A delegation of civic leaders greeted him at the railroad station, and he was taken on a tour of the Franco institutions of the city, including St. Mary’s Hospital, and the French churches.  At City Hall, he was greeted by a color guard of boys from the Catholic orphanage, the Healy Asylum, and members of the children’s band, the Fanfare Ste-Cécile.  It was, in many ways, a great validation of the Franco-American community in Maine’s most Franco-American of cities.  But one moment of that visit is revealing.  When Ambassador Claudel sat down with Lewiston Evening Journal reporter Charlotte Michaud, one question was of particular resonance locally.  Was the local dialect of French “inferior” to his own way of speaking?

Claudel’s reply – that the difference was not greater than what you might find in France – was a vindication for many in the local community.  Then, as now, the myth (or, as Le Messager called it in 1944, the “stupid legend”)  that New England French (which is all but identical to Canadian French) is somehow “wrong” or “bad” French, was pervasive.  It’s one of the major contributors to language loss among Franco-Americans.  Talk to anyone who grew up with French as a first language in Maine or elsewhere in the Northeast, and you’ll likely hear a story about a French class in high school in which they were told off for speaking “the wrong French.”  As a result, may gave up on the language.  This is a lesson that was taught to Franco-American children for a long time – perhaps as long as 150 years, since it seems to have begun with the first teachers in Franco-American parish schools.

As far back as 1893, when the largely-Canadian Sisters of Charity of St Hyacinthe were replaced as teachers of Lewiston’s Franco-American schoolchildren by the largely-European Dames de Sion, the new sisters’ French was held up as being much “purer” than the previous teachers’ Canadian French had been.[1]

Ambassador Claudel (who was himself an accomplished poet, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature on six occasions) was correct when he said the differences between the dialects are minor.  Imagine the differences between British and American English, or between a Mainer and a Texan – there are differences, but two people can hold a conversation, and neither is “wrong.”  In that 1930 visit, Father Gauthier, the pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic parish, told the ambassador he was “not in a strange county here [but] in old France.”  That reference to “Old France” is revealing, and helps to explain the difference between the French spoken on either side of the Atlantic.  Just as American English resembles the English of Shakespeare’s time, in many ways, Canadian French resembles the language of Louis XIV.  Many of the words which deviate  from standard French are concepts the French encountered in the New World (like patate for the native potatoes), or even more recently, like moulin for a mill (the Standard French is usine) or machine for a car (voiture).

Hank Brodeur, left, tending goal during a match at the 1951 World Hockey Championships in Paris.  User photo from www.internationalhockey.net/

Hank Brodeur, left, tending goal during a match at the 1951 World Hockey Championships in Paris. User photo from www.internationalhockey.net

In 1951, the Bates Manufacturing Company’s hockey team toured Europe as the official US representatives in the world amateur hockey championships.  All but one member of the team was Franco-American, and a native French speaker.  In France, where the tournament’s finals were played, the team composed of les Français aux Amériques caused some comment.  Initially, it was assumed that the American team sheet had been switched with the Canadian one, since their players all had English names.  But a French reporter remarked that the Americans could be “des notres” (“ours”) with what were described as “rural Norman country accents.”[2]  Even within France, the Standard French that appears in textbooks and newspapers, is not universal, but that doesn’t make variation “wrong.”  Just because the Standard English that appears in the New York Times doesn’t include “dooryard” or “wicked good” doesn’t make Mainers wrong-headed.  And, just like those hockey players in 1951, many Franco-Americans who visit Europe or even Canada today are pleasantly surprised by their ability to communicate in French.

Although the rates of French-speaking are lower today than they once were, there are signs that young people and parents of children are interested in French-language education and acquisition.  Maine not only has a French immersion school in Freeport, but an after-school program, the Maine French Heritage Language Program.  I spoke to Jacynthe Jacques, who was born in Québec, but now lives in Maine and teaches French to children in Lewiston and Augusta through this program.


 

The Maine French Heritage Program is a part of the French Language Heritage Program, which began in New York City, and is partly funded by the French government.  It has expanded  in the past few years to French-speaking parts of the US, like Maine.  “This program was really set up to give value to the local French back to the people,” says Jacques, noting that “Although there have been French programs in the area before,” none had taken that route.  Another goal of the program is “building a bridge between the grandparents and the grandchildren, who wanted to communicate in that French language.”  The MFHLP has been operating in the Lewiston-Auburn area for the past four years.  It currently operates as part of the Auburn Schools’ after-school program.

Jaques, who also coordinates the “Fun in French” program at the Gendron Franco Center in Lewiston, joined the program first as a volunteer and now as a teacher.  The program is headed by Doris Bonneau of Auburn, and Chelsea Ray, a professor of French at the University of Maine in Augusta.

The focus of the MFHLP on the value of the local French tradition is an attempt at countering the myth of the “bad French.”   “I have friends who attended bilingual schools in Auburn,” says Jacques, “they were learning the ‘Parisian’ French in school; a different flavor of French from the French their parents and grandparents were speaking, so there was a disconnect there.  Sometimes they’d get corrected, by the teachers in the school, being told this wasn’t a proper French.  We’re trying to get away from that.”  The MFHLP tries to give students “a global feel” for the language, including both the regional and standard terms for words.  “We want these kids to be able to communicate with their grandparents.”

It’s also an initiative that brings value for older generations.  “Some of the parents and grandparents who attend our end-of-year celebrations, some of the games we play, and songs we sing – the parents and grandparents feel that connection. We’ve definitely had some parents for whom that’s made a real difference.”

In the last few years, in particular, the program has found increasing relevance in its long-standing commitment to emphasizing the global nature of French.  The increased presence e of Francophone Africans in the Lewiston-Auburn area means that lessons about Francophone African cultures in the classroom help “open the eyes of the kids,” in Jacques’ words, “to cultures they’ve never encountered before.”  Jacques is part of several other programs locally that build bridges between new immigrants and the Franco-American population.  The bridge-building goes both ways.  The recent Franco-American Day celebrations at the Gendron Franco Center were attended by some Francophone New Mainers who, says Jacques, “felt like they were at home,” speaking French among fellow members of the Francophone world.

Learning a new language can be valuable for so many reasons – in a global world, it opens doors and new career prospects.  But closer to home, it also helps build tolerance and acceptance across cultures.  For Franco-Americans in particular, it can also which work against the long-held prejudices, and help to make Franco-Americans more self-confident – not only in their own language, but in their culture, traditions and heritage.

 

[1] Paroisse Canadienne-Française de Lewiston, Maine: Album Historique (Lewiston, Maine, Dominican Fathers, 1899), p51.

[2] L’Equipe, Paris, March 13, 1951.

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.