French heritage language speakers in the United States face multiple challenges as they attempt to maintain French as a living language, despite the fact that French is one of the most commonly studied foreign languages in the country (second in the list of most common languages offered in elementary and secondary schools after Spanish, and before Latin, German, and Chinese). The case of French is particularly interesting, because French heritage language speakers represent several distinct geographic populations and different historical circumstances, from recent immigrants to settlements dating back several centuries. Franco-Americans and Acadians in Maine and Cajuns in Louisiana serve as examples of revitalization efforts to protect and encourage the vitality of French as an indigenous language. In New York City, communities of French expatriates and recent Francophone immigrants have collaborated to ensure French maintenance not only as part of their cultural identity but also as a path to academic and economic success and security.
In the historically French-speaking regions of Maine and Louisiana, there have been significant obstacles to French language maintenance, ironically even as French is promoted for English speakers in public schools. In New York, socio-economic factors and the strong need to acquire English skills have discouraged members of the Francophone immigrant community from maintaining and developing proficiency in French. French-speaking communities in the United States strive to maintain French as a language spoken in families, schools, and expanded communities, through formal teaching adapted to heritage speakers, as well as through public policies that have revitalized and encouraged French maintenance in multiple social and economic contexts. These include long-standing Franco-American and Acadian communities in Maine and the Houmas and Cajuns in Louisiana, who have sought to revitalize French after years of neglect and persecution in their local communities. Additionally, expatriate and immigrant French speakers in New York City have successfully created dual language programs in public schools to provide opportunities for their children to maintain and develop French proficiency.
The presence of significant French-speaking communities in the United States is not surprising. French is the fifth most spoken language other than English in the U.S., after Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, and Vietnamese, and it is widely spoken both in historically French-speaking areas, such as Louisiana and Maine, and in urban settings with increasingly significant French-speaking immigration. Acadian and other French Canadian settlements in Upper New England and upstate New York date back to the eighteenth century, and Louisiana was originally a French colony. These historically French regions have preserved local vernacular varieties of the language and, despite both persecution and limited opportunities, French speakers in these areas have continued to maintain these varieties within families and extended small communities. Thus, French is an interesting example of heritage language vitality not only because of its geographic and historic diversity, but also because it is a language that includes vibrant vernaculars that continue to be recognized under the large umbrella of “Francophonie.”