Books

Who Are the Francophones in the United States?

Twelve million Americans speak French. But who are they? And what is their experience? These are the questions asked by Kathleen Stein-Smith and Fabrice Jaumont, champions of the French language in North America and editors of French All Around Us. In this collective work written as a manifesto, they give voices to 22 writers, professors, teachers, historians, filmmakers, and activists, all of whom are Francophone and convinced that French deserves to be in pride of place in the United States.
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Scott Tilton (left) and Rudy Bazenet (right) launched Louisiana’s application to join the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie in 2018 before creating the Nous Foundation in New Orleans. © Nous Foundation

For most Americans, French is an easy-listening “language of love” that they learned for two or three semesters “a long time ago” to keep their parents happy. They love crêpes, dream of visiting the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, have heard of the Marquis de Lafayette, and know that Detroit, New Orleans, and St. Louis have “some kind of connection” with France. However, for them, French is still a foreign language. But do they realize that it is also the seventh most-spoken language in the United States after English, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Arabic? Or that it is the second most-taught language?

Do they know that, in 2018, Louisiana became the first American state to join the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, which comprises 88 countries and regions united by the French language? Or that in some 20 cities from Boston to San Diego, 3,500 students take weekend French classes through the FLAM (Français Langue Maternelle) network? Or even that host Jesse Martineau shares the stories of descendants of the French Canadians who emigrated to New England by the thousands every two weeks on his French-Canadian Legacy Podcast?

Celebrating these initiatives springing up all over the U.S. inspired Kathleen Stein-Smith to write her book. A librarian and adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, and chair of the American Association of Teachers of French’s Commission on Advocacy, she describes herself as a “Francophone de cœur, if not de sang” and an “advocate” of the French language. In May 2020, she founded the Association for the Advancement of the French Language & Francophone Culture in the United States, an informal group which meets on Zoom once a month and went on to provide the pool of people featured in French All Around Us.

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Reflecting the “Scope of the Francophone Experience in the U.S.”

In the book, author Robert B. Perreault, who grew up in New Hampshire, only learned English at the age of four, and looks back over the meaning of the term “Franco-American.” Agnès Ndiaye Tounkara, who “spent a third of [her] life in Senegal, a third in France and a third in the United States,” describes her work for the FACE Foundation in New York, an organization that helps Francophone immigrants and young Francophone-born Americans to preserve their linguistic and cultural heritage.

Joseph Dunn is campaigning for the development of a tourism and service economy in French in Louisiana. In the same state, poet David Cheramie discusses the efforts made to encourage people to speak French, but regrets that these initiatives are in English – a paradox he has nicknamed “Sisyphus on the bayou.” In Detroit, Quebecer Mélissa Baril helps children to speak French through her online bookstore Le Caribou à Lunettes. And in the following chapter, Mark Labine recounts the French history of Minnesota – a state nicknamed L’Etoile du Nord (the North Star).

“There are so many historical and contemporary connections between France and the United States, and so many Americans who speak French at home or at work, and who study it at school,” says Kathleen Stein-Smith. “Yet French is invisible in the United States. Our project was created to remind people that on est toujours icitte (we’re still here) – a popular expression among speakers of Missouri French.”

French Is “an Asset” for the United States

New Jersey native Kathleen Stein-Smith was a child when she developed a passion for the French language – “an essential skill” according to her Anglophone mother. After studying at Laval University in Quebec in the 1970s, she experienced the transformations brought about by the Quiet Revolution (La Révolution Tranquille), a series of linguistic laws that imposed French as the only official language in the province, thereby making Canada a bilingual nation. An idea then began to form in her mind: “What if the United States did the same thing?”

Fifty years later, the country still does not have an official language or linguistic policies. But on a local level, more and more projects are appearing. “Organizations and programs everywhere are showcasing the French language and Francophone culture. They include the Franco-American Centre and PoutineFest in New Hampshire, and the Nous Foundation in New Orleans. There are also artists such as Zachary Richard in Louisiana and Josée Vachon in Maine, and writers including David Vermette, who relay the story of the Francophone experience in the United States.”

Nevertheless, Kathleen Stein-Smith is worried: “If French does not become a bigger part of the national conversation, the language may be forgotten.” Some of the authors she featured in the book are the heirs of a centuries-old Francophone culture. They include Georgie V. Ferguson, a member of the Pointe-au-Chien, a tribe in Louisiana who speak a French-Indian dialect. “It is important for this cultural heritage to be maintained. But American Francophonie, with all its cultural, economic, political, and diplomatic stakes, does not only affect Louisianians or the Franco-Americans of New England; it makes up part of our national identity.”

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French All Around Us: French Language and Francophone Culture in the United States, edited by Kathleen Stein-Smith and Fabrice Jaumont, TBR Books, 2022.

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