March 20th marks the official International Francophonie Day, a celebration observed every year within the International Organization of La Francophonie’s 84 member states to celebrate the French language and Francophone cultures. In the United States, the American Community Survey counts a little over 1.3 million Francophones (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013). Speakers of a language other than English undergo constant assimilation pressures, amid an ocean of English and dominant monolingualism. Francophones in this country do not escape this rule and are challenged to maintain the practice of French at home, at school, and in their communities through various modes of transmission and education. Long-established Francophone populations in the United States have shown a strong desire to maintain and even revitalize “their French” after a long decline of language use, often linked to more or less violent forms of discrimination.
Francophones in the United States are defined by criteria that are historically, geographically, culturally, and economically changing. Some Francophones, descendants of the first U.S. settlers, succeeded in transmitting their language over several generations, even several centuries. This migration started with refugees from Europe and Canada in the 17th and 18th century who settled in the states of New England, the Midwest and the South. Other more recently established Francophones greatly reduced the use of the French language after a few years, failing not to have found a favorable context to maintain it. But as a general rule, Francophones in the United States have organized themselves very quickly in order to not lose their French and encourage the transmission of their heritage to their children, increasing the economic potential of their family or community network while guaranteeing the vitality of French linguistic heritage in their new environment (Ross and Jaumont, 2013, 2014).
As a result, French is in fifth place in the United States by the number of speakers who speak a language other than English at home. The actual number of Francophones residing in the United States is likely to be well above official estimates, especially given the large number of illegal residents. Some Francophones also practice several languages fluently. Flore Zéphir (2004) estimates that 20% of Haitian-Americans also speak French, in addition to Creole and English. It is the same case of people who choose to declare Arabic, Wolof or any other language during the census, and who could just as easily present themselves as Francophones. Finally, population growth in Francophone countries, particularly in Africa, suggests that the number of Francophones in large American cities will continue to grow, largely due to continued immigration from Francophone regions.
Despite these figures, challenges are vast, and the maintenance of French as a “living” language in the United States is not without difficulty. One cannot forget the adverse effects of past repressions, particularly in French-speaking areas (Maine, Louisiana) where anti-French laws, accompanied by brutality and criminal acts forced Francophones to hide for much of the early part of the 20th century. More recent laws, ratified in Louisiana and in Maine in the last few years, are more reassuring and favorable to the sustainable development of the French-speaking heritage of the country (Ross, et al., 2016). These institutional supports increase opportunities for education and transmission among younger people. This is the case for initiatives that support bilingual education where the learning of French complements the acquisition of the English language and does not threaten it in any way.
Throughout the highly controversial history of foreign language education in the United States, the French language has long enjoyed a privileged status. It continues to be the second most widely studied foreign language in schools and universities, after Spanish (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). Thus, the Francophone community is distinguished from other immigrant communities by the significant place occupied by French as a foreign language in the United States (Rhodes and Pufahl, 2010). With more than one million students learning French, the linguistic self-defense dynamic of Francophones is not the same as that of other immigrant communities.
However, an emphasis on the teaching of “Parisian French” has had the effect of restricting the use of other types of French outside of family contexts. Thus, and not without irony, the historic regions, with a strong presence of Francophones, were most likely to encounter a phenomenon of stigmatization of speakers who spoke the “French spoken at home” among Francophone communities, whereas the use of “noble French,” or “good French”, was advocated in schools. Access to these classes is often difficult for native speakers of French, but initiatives such as those undertaken by the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, the French Heritage Language Program (New York, Maine, Florida, Massachusetts), or the actions undertaken by French-speaking parents (in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, Boston, Miami, San Francisco, among others) offer innovative solutions to enable French to be transmitted through school while encouraging the development of a dynamic linguistic community.
In large urban centers, socioeconomic factors associated with the quasi-obligation to master English for success in the United States tend to discourage members of French-speaking immigrant communities from maintaining or transmitting French. New immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East encourage the practice of English in the family, while favoring the practice of the national or regional language spoken in their country of origin rather than French, which becomes the third language spoken at home. A few counterexamples have developed, such as that of the Malian community in the Bronx and Harlem, which, deeply attached to the French language, tries to encourage the practice of French in the same way as Bambara. Classes are taught for the youngest organized on Saturday (Jaumont, Ross, Le Devedec, 2017).
In addition, Francophone immigrant communities in West Africa and Haiti play a key role in the spread of French to cultural centers, places of worship and in community media, enabling families to maintain a link, albeit fragile, to the French language. As for the expatriate communities, European and Canadian communities succeeded in creating bilingual programs and French-language extracurricular education in public schools in large urban centers, especially when they could not afford to pay the high tuition fees of private bilingual schools.
Fostering the learning of one’s heritage language among our younger people, by offering classes in local schools, has a high value added especially when measuring the impact of a good school on a neighborhood or a town. This principle has been particularly well illustrated in the Francophone communities of large American cities where parents from very different backgrounds have become incubators of educational opportunities for their children. It is thanks to the ethnic and sociocultural diversity of this large family that is “La Francophonie” that the French language regains ground in the United States. In addition, the collaboration between multiple community partners with varying backgrounds –from government agencies, Embassies, foundations, to community centers and parents’ associations — promotes the promulgation of multilingualism in schools in a country that is often criticized for its lack of interest in foreign language learning.
- Jaumont, F., Ross J., Le Devedec, B. 2017. “Institutionalization of French Heritage Language Education in U.S. School Systems: the French Heritage Language Program” in Olga Kagan, Maria Carreira, Claire Chik (editors). Handbook on Heritage Language Education: From Innovation to Program Building. (Oxford, U.K.: Routledge).
- Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. 2017. Données et des statistiques sur la langue française. Retrieved from the internet on March 19, 2017.
- Rhodes, N.C., Pufahl, I. 2010. Foreign language teaching in U.S. Schools: Results of a national survey. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
- Ross, J.; Jaumont, F.; Schulz, J.; Ducrey, L.; Dunn, J. 2016. “Sustainability of French Heritage Language Education in the United States” in Peter P. Trifonas and Thermistoklis Aravossitas (editors) International Handbook on Research and Practice in Heritage Language Education. (New York, NY: Springer).
- Ross J., Jaumont, F. 2014. “Terrence Wiley, Joy Peyton, Donna Christian, Sarah Catherine Moore, Na Liu. Handbook of Heritage and Community in the United States: Research, Educational Practice, and Policy (Oxford, U.K.: Routledge).
- Ross J., Jaumont, F. 2014. “Les Communautés Francophones aux Etats-Unis” in Revue Québec Français. October 2014.
- Ross J., Jaumont, F. 2013. “French Heritage Language Vitality in the United States.” Heritage Language Journal. Volume 9. Number 3. Fall 2013.
- Ross J., Jaumont, F. 2012. “Building bilingual communities: New York’s bilingual revolution”. In O. Garcia, Z. Zakharia Z., G. Bahar Otcu (Eds.). Bilingual community education and multilingualism (pp. 232-246). New York: Multilingual Matters.
- U.S. Census Bureau. 2013. Language Spoken at Home by Ability to Speak English for the Population 5 Years and Over. 2008-2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates
- U.S. Census Bureau. 2012. Statistical abstract of the United States. Higher Education Enrollment in Languages Other Than English: 1970 to 2009.
- Zephir, F. 2004. The Haitian-Americans. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.