“Let’s Make French a Global Language in North America!”

Franco-American researcher Claire-Marie Brisson, Ph.D., grew up in Detroit, the “Paris of New France.” As a preceptor at Harvard, she does a considerable amount of work to educate her compatriots about the United States and Canada’s Francophone heritage. Through her lectures and her podcast, she paints a nuanced portrait of French-speaking communities, and debunks the stereotypes that still cling to the language of Victor Hugo and Michel Tremblay.
Claire-Marie Brisson. © Marina Qu

France-Amérique: At Harvard, in your North American Francophone Podcast, and in your upcoming book, you dissect identities you describe as franco-américaines. What does this French term mean?

Claire-Marie Brisson: The term franco-américain has two English translations: “French-American,” which refers to people influenced by both cultures, and “Franco-American,” which defines French speakers born in North America. The latter, particularly those living in New England, are mainly descended from people whose origins can be traced back to Quebec and Acadia. It would be interesting to use other designations, such as francophone d’Amérique or franco-étasunien [from Etats-Unis, “United States”] to specify different linguistic and geographic identities.

Let’s take a brief look at the distribution of Franco-Americans in the United States. Where do they live?

The history of the American Francosphere stretches from coast to coast. Oregon was founded by a French speaker; San Francisco’s chocolatiers spoke French; and California’s archives attest to the language’s longstanding presence in the state. In Texas, there is still a large French-speaking population in the city of Beaumont. Closer to the Mississippi, a thriving trade between France and Quebec led to the settlement of other communities. And Virginia, where I used to live, still has interesting ties with the French-speaking world; Thomas Jefferson was a great wine lover and encouraged the French to come and recreate the vineyards of Bordeaux in his state. Francophones can also be found in the Midwest, around the Great Lakes, and even in Florida, which attracts a lot of Canadian “snowbirds” [people who spend part or all of the winter in the Sunshine State].

Your family has European heritage. What are your ties to France?

My parents are both French and English speakers. My father’s ancestors produced wine in the Médoc region. They were promised a plot of land in North America, and our family decided to settle there and grow vines. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out and my ancestors instead settled in the Quebec City area. On my mother’s side, my great-grand-father came from a family of Irish fishermen. Neither I nor my mother are Irish, although she may have used the hyphen between the two terms to better navigate her Irish-American identity.

How has the use of the French language evolved in North America?

English used to be called the language of money, and French the language of the past. In Maine, children were even forbidden from speaking it at school. In Quebec, the Catholic Church’s censorship of books probably influenced the use of the language, which back then was based on older texts closer to Molière’s era. In Louisiana, there was a creolization of French and Spanish. Today, the French language is still working out its place on the continent, and teaching it should remain a priority for American universities. However, many French departments have closed in the United States, not because of a lack of teachers or interest, but because administrations want to cut [budgets] in favor of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Many African American authors explain how they “became” Black. Do you see similarities in this cultural and identity journey among Franco-Americans?

I am very inspired by the work of Louisiana writer Victor Séjour, whose first French-language story is Le Mulâtre (1837), a book that shines a light on African Americans and, by extension, on certain Franco-American identities. After all, being a Francophone in the U.S. means being isolated, despite our longstanding cultural roots. Many academic publications emphasize the sense of rootlessness that North Americans feel, particularly as we now live in a society of belonging. However, settling for the term “American” erases the nuanced identity of people from the United States, which is often defined by multiple, intricate layers.

In her course on the North American Francosphere, Claire-Marie Brisson examines the work of Quebec author Kim Thúy, one of the most celebrated Francophone voices in the Vietnamese diaspora. © Vivian Rashotte/CBC
“By sharing with my students the story of my grandfather Ernest Brisson, his journey between two cultures, and his commitment to Francophonie, I hope to inspire them to explore their own roots.” Courtesy of Claire-Marie Brisson
At Harvard, Claire-Marie Brisson also discusses the Quebec writer and journalist of Innu origin Michel Jean and his 2019 novel Kukum. © Hamza Abouelouafaa/Radio-Canada

You teach a course on the North American Francosphere at Harvard. Is this a symbolic step forward for the French language?

I always say that French is right on our doorstep, here in North America. It is spoken a five-hour drive away from Cambridge, in Quebec. Instead of calling it a foreign language, let’s make it a global language. Of course, some literature professors have already been promoting works from Quebec for some time, but the course on Franco-Americans that I teach at Harvard is a first. I am a descendant of Franco-Americans who learned not to speak their language at school. The fact that I am teaching a course about this community turns history upside-down.

Who are your students, and what are they looking for?

They are young people who already have a good level of French and have chosen to study the language for a wide variety of reasons. Some want to become doctors and know that speaking French is very useful in humanitarian work, for example. Others are more interested in the business side of the language.

You regularly speak out against “the Francosphere stereotypes,” particularly in North America. Why is it so important for you to combat them?

I have been teaching French for ten years now, and I have noticed that some of my students’ interest in the Francosphere is something of a trend. They see French as a privilege, as the language used to order wine or macarons in Paris. This French culture is a source of pride for the French-speaking world, but solely focusing on the tricolor flag and the Eiffel Tower feeds into stereotypes that are far removed from the reality of so many Francophone communities. My course aims to inspire a more complex conversation, to adopt a different position on the Francosphere, and to expose this perception of language to reality. Especially as there is still too great a divide between literature and the utilitarian aspect of French. Some academics say that the language is dead and that it is only spoken in France. But the biggest French-speaking city in the world today is Kinshasa [in the Democratic Republic of the Congo]! And the Francosphere is continuing to grow in Africa.

What about Francophone communities in the United States?

The United States is a mosaic in which dozens and dozens of languages coexist. Our country has no official language, even though it is automatically considered English-speaking from the outside. It is also said that Americans have no desire to learn new languages, but I would say it is more that the history of minority communities is still relatively unknown.

Interview published in the March 2024 issue of France-Amérique.