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"Protecting the language strengthens communities": a school preserves one of Louisiana's oldest dialects.
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“Protecting the language strengthens communities”: a school preserves one of Louisiana’s oldest dialects.

One morning in Bourg, a town in southern Louisiana, Cynthia Owens went over flashcards with her kindergarten students.

She showed a picture of a crocodile and explained that the Indigenous tribes in the area call it “Caïman.” Her nine students repeated the word before she then used the French term, “crocodile,” which was echoed by the fidgety group of five- and six-year-olds.

“Who here enjoys apple pie?” she inquired. Numerous hands were raised: “I love tarte aux pommes!”

Owens teaches at École Pointe-au-Chien, a primary school where students learn in both French and English. The school, which opened last year, is the first of its kind in Louisiana, offering education in both Metropolitan French and local French dialects spoken by the Indigenous and Cajun communities it serves. The majority of the nine students at the school are from the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe, a community that has blended Indigenous and French words for generations to describe the flora and fauna found in the bayous.

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The preservation of Indian French, referred to by community members, has become more pressing in recent years as hurricanes and coastal erosion, caused by climate change, pose a threat of displacement for the tribe who have lived on this land for centuries.

Patty Ferguson-Bonhee, a member of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe and the legal counsel and director of the Indian legal clinic at Arizona State University, expressed that many of their words hold significance to their community and serve as a means of unity and comprehension.

In the year 2021, the Pointe-aux-Chenes tribe’s original village was hit by Hurricane Ida, resulting in the destruction of 68 houses and causing damage to the closed elementary school that was considered a vital part of the community by tribe members. The cost of home insurance has significantly increased and residents have noticed a decrease in their neighbors due to this event.

However, those who have stayed affirm that the new school represents a ray of hope.

Dominique Naquin, a member of the tribe, stated that the reopening of the school has given a sense of resurgence and resilience amongst the community. She proudly shared that her two sons are now enrolled in École Pointe-au-Chien and expressed that everyone she has spoken to is thrilled about this development.

The Pointe-au-Chien tribe has approximately 850 members, with elders estimating that roughly half of them speak Indian French. However, the majority of these speakers are aged 60 or older.

Kahlie Naquin, the nurse at École, explained that many of the older members of the community who speak the traditional Indian French dialect are passing away, causing the language to be lost. Naquin, who grew up hearing her grandparents speak this dialect, also learned modern French in high school. Despite having the same last name, she is not related to Dominique and Kahlie. Naquin shared that her grandfather would correct her when she brought home lessons from her modern French class, as it differed from the traditional dialect. However, due to the school’s efforts in teaching both dialects, the children are fortunate to have exposure to both.

The Pointe-au-Chien people are descendants of the Chitimacha tribe, an indigenous group who originally inhabited Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes and later intermingled with French-speaking colonizers.

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For many years, Louisiana public schools prohibited the use of French – despite reports from local newspapers that around 1 million individuals spoke the language at home, based on census records from 1968.

According to tribal elder and fisherman Earl Billiot, speaking French would result in being physically punished by being hit on the fingers with sticks. Billiot, who still prefers speaking French over English, attended a school specifically for Indigenous students that was overseen by missionaries before integration. He says he quickly adapted to speaking English.

According to local media, it wasn’t until 1974 that Louisiana removed its prohibition of teaching French in schools. Since then, the number of individuals who speak French in the state has decreased to approximately 120,000.

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According to Will McGrew, the board president of the school and CEO of Télé-Louisiane, a media company that supports multiple languages, it is ironic that while public support for French in Louisiana is currently high, the number of French speakers in the state is actually at its lowest. He also notes that during the time when there were more French speakers in Louisiana, discrimination against them was at its worst.

In 2018, members of the tribe and parents began advocating for a French-immersion school. The movement gained momentum when the state shut down Pointe-au-Chien’s elementary school in the spring of 2021 despite objections from parents and community members. In 2022, the governor at the time, John Bel Edwards, approved a bill to provide $3 million for the creation of the school.

“We not only successfully reopened the school, but also converted it into a French-immersion school,” stated McGrew triumphantly. “This has been a goal for many years, not just in Pointe-aux-Chenes, but in all the neighboring communities. It’s a significant accomplishment.”

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This year’s classes are being conducted in Bourg, which is five miles away from Pointe-aux-Chenes, due to ongoing construction to make Pointe-aux-Chenes’ elementary school more resistant to storms. The school currently has nine students in kindergarten and first grade, taught by three teachers who speak French. However, the school plans to grow by adding a new grade level each year.

According to Dominique Naquin, her sons have fully embraced the language they are learning in school. She has noticed them conversing in French at events and even speaking with their older relatives in the language. She believes this is a wonderful development.

Communities like Point-au-Chien face an uphill battle in their quest to preserve their language. About 40% of all languages worldwide are endangered, according to the Language Conservancy advocacy group. Indigenous coastal communities such as Point-au-Chien are especially vulnerable because they face the combined pressures of rising seas, intense storms and temperature increases that threaten traditional ways of life. Point-au-Chien’s neighbors, the Isle de Jean Charles band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, have already begun to resettle further inland.

According to McGrew, the school is just one resource among many to help improve the tribe’s ability to withstand climate changes.

According to the speaker, constructing floodwalls is essential, but without community support, it would be a futile effort. They believe that by preserving their language, communities are strengthened. This is why the school is considered groundbreaking.

Source: theguardian.com