By Melody-Joy Keilig
Bienvenue à Petit Canada. Welcome to Little Canada. For French speakers of New England, bilingualism became a compromise.
French was the mother tongue in the once-bustling Petit Canada neighborhoods throughout New England until the 1950s and ‘60s. During this shift from residents speaking and hearing French regularly to increased use of the English language, outward migration was becoming commonplace for the young generation of the time.
While some of these mill cities have continued to speak French, what has caused the language to become less common today overall?
David Vermette, author of “A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans,” says that the decline of the French neighborhoods and their heritage language is an observable phenomenon called the three-generation pattern of language loss.
This pattern begins when an immigrant family comes to the United States. The immigrants, in this case, the French-Canadians, cling to their heritage language while possibly learning some English.
This second generation, the first wave of Franco-Americans, clung to their culture and heritage language while learning English to fit in with American society outside of their French-speaking communities.
The third generation can often understand some of the heritage language, but they often don’t speak it fluently. Because they were raised with more English being spoken in public life and school, their parents end up only speaking to their children in English.
French-Canadian immigrants and some Franco-American descendants faced various degrees of discrimination in English-speaking American society. But, Vermette says the biggest reasons for the rapid erosion of the French language and its enclaves were economic.
“The only reason there was a French-Canadian, French-speaking neighborhood in Manchester, Woonsocket, Lowell, Lewiston, or any of these towns was because of industry,” Vermette says.
Within 50 years, there was a rapid demographic change among the mill towns and cities that these French-speaking immigrants settled in for work in the textile mills and the paper and shoe industries.
As more generations moved out and took on work that no longer required the use of the French language, this aided the decline.
The way the average American viewed the French speakers of New England in comparison to the French language classes also had a generational effect.
According to Vermette, he says that Franco-Americans tend to be self-conscious about their French, so they typically won’t speak it so much when an outsider is around them.
“They’re afraid people will criticize them. They’ve been told their French is “bad French” and whatnot. A lot of older people were told that,” he says.
Another term that made the rounds was “dirty French,” which Vermette says he directly links to the past denigration of the French-Canadian immigrant group. The attitude in American society was that the French language wouldn’t give schoolchildren an educational future.
Because of this attitude, French-speaking children were told their New England French dialect wasn’t proper and structured.
“It came from American French teachers because, as far as I can tell, the notion of ‘Parisian French’ comes from French teachers,” Vermette says.
According to Vermette, the rejection of the various French dialects of New England contributed to the decline of the French language.
“It’s a deep sort of hurt that is transferred from one generation to the next. I definitely think that is what happened in New England for sure,” he says.
How much can one language differ from one dialect to the next or compared to its original source for certain versions to not be taken seriously in education? Some French educators today throughout New England say it could be due to how mainstream American society is exposed to the French language.
Typically, the French language of France is taught in American French-language programs. According to Elizabeth Blood, a French professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts, the French-language department was flourishing in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“In the 1960s and ‘70s, French was the main language they taught. It was the biggest language they taught; they had about six or seven tenured French professors,” Blood says.
Blood says, at the time, learning the French dialect of France was “in vogue” and a language that many students were eager to learn. The demand for French only started to decline by the end of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
However, due to the past out-migration of Franco-Americans in the past, the Salem area was able to keep the French language at the university in demand for French-speaking students.
“In our area, in Salem, we had a Little Canada. It was one of the sites of French-Canadian immigrants from Canada and their Franco-American children,” Blood says.
When Blood started teaching French at Salem State in 2003, she replaced the last older French who was from the height of interest in the French language department during the 1960s and ‘70s. By the time Blood was teaching, the French major at the university became a minor due to the growing lack of students interested in the program.
Blood says that she wanted to revive the French program at Salem State by finding more practical uses of the French language that the students coming in from the Salem communities could use for future work.
“The students I see coming to our college now are students who are really focused on, ‘I want to get X degree so that I can do X job.’ And I’m trying to tell them, hey you can study French and it’s fun and it’ll enrich your life and you can travel, but it’s not a good sell for people who are more focused on practical needs,” she says.
With Salem State University being a public institution, most students in attendance are regional, first-time college students and within the lower and medium-income brackets. Most students are looking for degrees that will successfully land them in specific fields after graduating.
“We are right next door to Canada; it’s our number one trading partner. There are so many good reasons why people should be studying French. But, I don’t think that students today see it as the bonus that maybe people in the past used to see it as,” Blood says.
In order to make the French language department at Salem State fit the practical needs that the majority of students are looking for in a college program, Blood says that she’s strived to create assignments and tasks that show how students can find a future in the French language.
From starting a freelance French-to-English translation business to working with her students as they work on translating various essays and stories, Blood says she wants to make these documents accessible for everyone, but English-speaking Franco-Americans have a particular interest in reading these historical documents, books, essays and more.
During the translation work, Blood says her students come from diverse French-speaking backgrounds. Although the students will sometimes have different translations for several French words, Blood says that the French language is still mutually understandable at a general level.
Being a French educator, Blood says she has had parents ask her if their college-aged kids will learn “real French” from Salem State. In addition, Blood says she also gets a lot of questions about whether she teaches France French or Québécois French.
To answer these questions, Blood says that she responds to these types of questions by explaining that like every language in the world, French has a variety of regional dialects with some differing accents, pronunciations and expressions.
“Everybody’s French is equally valid,” Blood says.
Another French educator, Kate Harrington at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, says we need to prioritize the French language of New England by fostering a better relationship with French-speaking Canada.
Since Harrington started teaching at the college level around 2004, she says there has been significantly less interest in the French-language programs.
“At the time, having a French major was a pretty standard program to offer at a college or a university. And just in the sixteen years that I’ve been teaching, we have seen a huge decline in French programs,” Harrington says.
Harrington says her own high school and college experiences were immersed in French programs compared to now, where French-language programs often get cut out of education. She says that Americans will follow “language trends” that lead to promises of better business and money.
However, she says that the French language can certainly bring those things to New England where the region already has tourism from Québec.
“In the three northern northeast states, French is just as important if not more so,” she says of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
Harrington says that many different solutions can be found once New England French-language education programs foster a better connection with French speakers in Québec. This way, French-language programs can offer students a lot more than classroom studies and possibly create more demand to learn the language.
“Things that teachers can try to do and the Québec Delegation and the Canadian Consulate, maybe bringing in speakers into classrooms from Canadian companies that have settled here in New Hampshire or people who work at international types of organizations who can say, ‘We need French speakers and you’re a close market to us,’” Harrington says.
Student trips to France often happen at the college level to immerse themselves in the French language and continue to learn. However, Harrington says that the three northern New England states should find ways to send students to the French-speaking province right above the region as an alternative.
Not only would a student trip to Québec be within driving distance, but it would cost significantly less and still be just as worthy of an investment in learning the French language.
New England, home to three border states where the French-speaking population is at least a quarter of the population, there is a struggle to keep the French language relevant.
In this region where local French dialects were historically rejected by education, it’s become an uphill battle in the present to show the true value of the French language where it once was commonplace.
Harrington says, “We need a new mindset where we’re thinking of ourselves as a border state and that we have neighbors to the north.”