Connecting across borders and backgrounds through French

A diverse group of people sitting around a table talking to each other.
A group of Lewiston residents speaking French together at the Gendron Franco Center. Photo by Daniel Quintanilla.

By Melody-Joy Keilig

The French language is not reserved for the country of France, according to educators in Maine. 

“We need to build bridges between nations and people. And French in this new context appears as we pull as a tool in our route to get into globalized work,” says Emmanuel Kayembe, a researcher and educator of Franco-American Studies at the University of Maine (USM). 

Kayembe grew up speaking French and has extensively published on French and Francophone literature. As a Francophone immigrant himself, he believes that there is a French-speaking future on the way for New England among Franco-Americans and new arrivals from Francophone Africa. 

According to Alliance Française in Portland, Maine, African immigrants from various French-speaking countries have been settling in the state since 2010. 

Whether they arrive as immigrants, refugees, or asylum-seekers, many African nationals have moved to Maine from Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, the Ivory Coast and Togo.

“I cannot say that French is declining in New England, especially in Maine, but we can say that there is a kind of renaissance of French because of the influx of immigrants,” he says. 

Emmanuel Kayembe teaches in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Maine. Photo by Melody-Joy Keilig.

The French language has long been regarded as a proper, classy language for Americans to learn before going abroad to France. Kayembe says that speaking French is more of an international language of cultural connection and business relations. 

“If we can think much in terms of a tool for the job market, if we can set a program of professional French, the French language could be a kind of asset for the job market. And people coming from Francophone countries can take advantage of the fact that they speak French,” Kayembe says. 

For this reason, Kayembe is part of a team at USM that advocates seeking professions with a bilingual aspect. For instance, Kayembe says that we need programs to support French speakers in professional fields such as healthcare and law. 

Not only worldwide but in French-speaking enclaves in Maine where new arrivals may be more comfortable speaking in French rather than English. Speaking the French language can also open more business opportunities to people reaching Francophone countries throughout the world. 

According to the World Population Review for the Maine Population of 2022, French speakers in the state make up one-third (33 percent) of New England as a whole.

“French is an advantage and asset when we can involve it in the job market and set a solid program for professional friendship,” Kayembe says. 

Kayembe is also working with the Consulate of France in Boston to set up a professional network for French speakers to connect. Last year, USM hosted a workshop about utilizing French as a language of business with French speakers in Maine. 

Although the French language has faced a decline in the past 50 to 60 years, institutions that support and promote French are now stepping up more than ever to save the language. 

Kayembe says that the Embassy of France in New York has started offering a grant for teachers who want to develop a similar business program for French speakers. Through education, the French language can benefit the economic sector by increasing communication with French speakers around the world. 

Within the culture of Franco-Americans in New England, there has been a past rife with shame in speaking the French language. Many older Franco-Americans speak about getting punished in school for speaking French, which caused some to abandon their roots. 

“A lot of Franco-Americans that I’ve spoken to don’t really see the value in their language. I think that’s an internalized message from so many years of believing that they were like second-class citizens,” says Jessamine Irwin, a French language professor at New York University. 

An ornate Catholic church interior with Mass.
The Gendron Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine with dwindling numbers of French-speaking churchgoers. Photo by Daniel Quintanilla.

During the early 20th century, Maine was a hotspot for Ku Klux Klan members targeting Petit Canada neighborhoods in attempts to scare off French-speaking immigrants.

Although these unfortunate events weren’t the only cause leading to the decline of the French language in New England, they certainly had an effect on generational trauma in these cultural communities. 

“It meant that you might not have as many opportunities. And it’s such a pity because as we know today when you speak more than one language and you have more than one culture, obviously you have a wider world view. You can connect with the world in different ways because language is just a representation of how we interact with the world,” she says. 

Today in Maine, these KKK tactics have had some resurgence since the early 2000s but have ultimately gone away for the most part. Within French-speaking communities of Maine that have a dark history of the KKK targeting Franco-Americans, there has been new kinship being made through the French language. 

Among the older generation of Franco-Americans and the younger population of French-speaking African immigrants, the French language in Maine has had new life breathed into it. 

Irwin, along with filmmaker Daniel Quintanilla, made a film called Le Carrefour that was released at the Camden International Film Festival in 2021. Le Carrefour, French for “The Intersection,” tells the story of friendship between an older Franco-American woman and a young French-speaking Congolese immigrant in Lewiston, Maine. 

A young Congolese-American man and an older Franco-American woman walking down the street talking to each other.
(Left to right): Trésor Mukendi and Cecile Thornton walking through Lewiston, Maine speaking French to each other. As seen in the film Le Carrefour. Photo by Daniel Quintanilla. 

Through their own past struggles, the film follows Cecile Thornton and Trésor Mukendi as they each tell their stories of being French speakers. Quintanilla says that while filming, he picked up on how the French language has been shared between these diverse groups. 

“My sense was that there is a true connection that’s happening, a true mutual help that happened with Cecile and that I’ve heard happen with other Franco-Americans. Mostly among women in Lewiston that not only were helping these new arrivals, but they were receiving something that was very valuable and very hard to find, even within the Franco-American communities,” Quintanilla says. 

With Thornton and other community members helping new arrivals adjust to their new surroundings, Irwin views speaking French as something beyond a cross-cultural exchange. 

“Because if you think about it, when you grow up in Maine, a lot of us know how to live locally. You know how to dress for winter and not freeze and you know how to navigate life here. Sharing that with others is just passing on cultural knowledge and being able to do that in French made it a lot easier,” Irwin says. 

Speaking French in Lewiston has become a tool for communicating with other people from halfway across the world. As well as addressing their needs in the language they prefer to speak to help them get winter clothing, find furniture for apartments, or simply have conversations in French. 

“It’s such a beautiful connection for everyone involved. That even extends to people who are not Franco-American or French-speaking asylum seekers because anyone that speaks French is part of that equation. You can access that intersection and that’s what our film is about. And for me, that’s what it’s about. It’s all about inclusion,” Irwin says. 

After filming, Irwin says that she realized several things about how the French language has evolved through diverse voices. Because living languages change over time, the French language in Maine has gone through its own evolution. 

The older generation of Franco-Americans is embracing their heritage language with the arrival of French-speaking immigrants. Now both groups of people are forming one larger Francophone community. Irwin says it’s important to create a space for the French language in Maine to look toward the future of French speakers. 

A crucial part of that future involves empowering French speakers to create representation for themselves. Irwin says content creation should fuel the Francophone communities of Maine for old and young alike to embrace the French language in creative ways. 

A woman and man with sound equipment.
(Left to right): Jessamine Irwin with the composer for Le Carrefour. Photo by Daniel Quintanilla.

“We have the power to write, film, act, paint, cook, dance, sing and so much more, all in French. We need content to fuel the Francophone communities of Maine and the best part is that it can come from these communities 𑁋 creating representation, recognition and a sense of belonging in the state,” Irwin says. 

By creating more opportunities for French speakers to better learn the language in schools, enter business fields that value bilingualism and find joy in connecting with others who truly speak their language. 

With educators, artists and language-lovers like these, the French language in New England may just have a bright future ahead. 

Irwin says, “I really think this is key. We need to lift people up and encourage Mainers, new and old, to share and create in French.” 

About Melody-Joy Keilig 4 Articles
Melody-Joy Keilig is a freelance writer with experience in content creation and marketing. She’s a headstrong long-form writer with a passion for attention to detail and storytelling. Melody resides near Manchester, New Hampshire.