English Only

By Juliana L’Heureux

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So, a legislator from Auburn is proposing to make English the official language of Maine. For Maine’s Franco-Americans, this is something akin to serving last year’s fruitcake on the millenium. Here it comes again, so let’s figure out how to deep six it. In Maine, the struggle for language supremacy has existed since before the French lost the 1749, French and Indian War battle with England on the Plains of Abraham. 

Practically every personal Franco-Americans history tells a tale of French language suppression. Perhaps the most compelling story is a variation of how school aged children were "not allowed" to speak French while playing during recess. This story has legs in the Franco-American culture because it is carried by oral tradition from one generation to another. 

Many Americans find it difficult to understand why the French are so attached to their language in an English speaking culture. Actually, language is only one piece of the story. Until recently, Franco-Americans were raised believing that loosing their language would lead to the unthinkable step of loosing their Roman Catholic religion. "La Langue, La Foi, La Culture", a book by Michael J. Guignard, offers an excellent explanation about how the French language, the faith and the culture are somewhat interchangeable. In fact, for many decades, Franco-Americans cloistered themselves in isolated community groups called "little Canada’s" as a means to preserve the culture.

Ironically, past political moves to suppress the French language in New England backfired by simply driving the French deeper into culture preservation activities, especially in the parochial schools.

In his book, Guignard tells of a French priest named Father Chevalier. In 1870, Father Chevalier was a young priest in Manchester, New Hampshire when he bravely asked the school board to include French in the grade school curriculum. "He feared the Anglicization of his parishioners’ children and, according to the clerical logic at that time, their subsequent loss of faith", writes Guignard. Indeed, Father Chevalier’s request was turned down. Consequently, he founded the first French parochial school in New England where children learned their unique French Roman Catholic religion, their Quebecois language and their heritage. Subsequently, this preservation mission became the goal of all French parochial schools, says Guignard.

Franco-Americans schools gave extensive French language instruction and even taught Canadian history. Words to "The Star Spangled Banner" were learned along with the French version of "Oh Canada" and "La Marseilles" (the French national anthem).

In Biddeford between 1940 and 1964, only about 26 Franco-Americans per year graduated from the public Biddeford High School. In sharp contrast, in the Biddeford parochial schools of St. Louis, St. Joseph and St. Andre High Schools, numerous Franco-Americans graduated during those same years. Indeed, tens of thousands of Franco-Americans learned their culture through their French language while attending parochial schools. We should not minimize this cultural heritage.

Therefore, zealous politicians wanting to make a name for themselves by proposing to make English the official language of Maine should recall the oldest cliché in history class. "Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it". For Franco-Americans, proposing unnecessary laws only reinforce negative experiences of the past. 

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Published on February 11, 1999
Copyright 1999-2000, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux