Cover Story

The French Connection

by Mary Tutwiler

Don't believe the dire warnings about Creole and Cajun French dying out in Acadiana.

Abby Thibodeaux is hovering over the pool table in Red's Levee Bar, a nearly pitch-black hole-in-the-wall with a propped-open door looking out into the wilderness of the Atchafalaya Basin. He's not playing pool. No one is. His buddies, Carol Blanchard and Jeff Boudreaux, lean into the light cast by the low hanging lamp, each with a cold bottle of beer clutched in their hands.

"Ecoutez (listen)."

So begins the classic Louisiana pastime, telling Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes. "Boudreaux and Thibodeaux went hunting," Abby begins. "Thibodeaux, he was shining his spotlight across the bayou. He saw a deer, and he shot it and killed it.

"Boudreaux says, 'How we gonna get dat deer?'

"Thibodeaux says, 'I'm gonna shine my light across the bayou, and you're gonna walk on de beam of light.'

"Boudreaux says, 'You must t'ink I'm stupid. You t'ink I'm gonna walk out on dat beam? I'll get half way across and den, I know you, you're gonna turn it off.'"

Red's Levee Bar is the only watering hole in Catahoula, the tiny town primarily based around crawfishing, catfishing and harvesting the bounty of the basin. French was the primary language spoken here until 30 years ago. "When we were young," Abby Thibodeaux says, "everybody spoke French. Our kids, they don't want to."

"Just the cuss words," Jeff Boudreaux adds.

The men are all in their late 40s and early 50s. Fluent in Cajun French, they speak it interchangeably with English, and will gladly include outsiders ' whether their accent is Parisian, Québécois or Senegalese ' into the round of joke telling.

Language is at the heart of what makes Acadiana a unique place. The Cajun and Creole identity ' food, music, humor, work and family ' were held apart from the rest of mainstream America until the 1920s by the linguistic divide that kept culture in and the rest of the world out. Following World War I, America zealously pursued the creation of a homogenous nation. "We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language ... and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people," pronounced president Theodore Roosevelt in a 1919 letter to the American Defense Society. Louisiana responded with a law passed by the state Legislature in 1921, banning French language in schools. Over the succeeding decades, the momentum to suppress French resulted in the decline of the language. Meanwhile, mainstream American filtered into bayou country on radio waves, through the roughnecks who came from Texas to work the oil patch and from the social elite who spoke the language of commerce ' English.

The biggest blow to Louisiana's French language came on the heels of Cajun and Creole GIs returning from Europe and the Pacific at the end of World War II. Pop culture streamed in with the globe traveling troops while tradition retreated into the deep reaches of the country and the kitchens of the elderly. By the 1960s, French in Louisiana had reached its nadir. That was when the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana was born, in 1968. Cajun pride and a backlash against the Americanization of the rich culture of Louisiana arose literally with a battle cry, "Reveille," Zachary Richard's anthem about the deportation of the Acadians by the British from Nova Scotia in 1755. "Reveille" means "awake," and Richard clearly meant it as a metaphor to his people to rise up and save their language.

"The miracle is that, with all the attempts to kill it, there is anyone still speaking French in Louisiana at all," says UL Lafayette folklore and French professor Barry Ancelet. "I think it has to do with the ferocious sense of independence here."

Spoken French simply subsided under the surface. Ancelet says anywhere you go, there is still someone who speaks French. "Go to the bank, go to the butcher shop, go to Albertsons and start speaking French. Maybe the first person you speak to won't know French, but he will say, 'Wait a minute,' and go find someone who does."

"If you know where to go, you can spend a whole day and not speak a word of English," says CODOFIL Director David Cheramie. "The best places to go are on the north side. There are more authentic Cajun and Creole French speakers there than other parts of Lafayette."

Creole is a hybrid language composed of elements of French and West African dialects spoken in the Caribbean. While the language came to colonial Louisiana with African slaves, a large influx of Creole-speaking refugees found a haven in Louisiana after the liberation of Haiti from French rule in 1803. The small towns of St. Martinville, Breaux Bridge, Cecilia and Arnaudville harbor fluent Creole speakers today.

Breaux's Mart on Moss Street is a north Lafayette landmark. Market owner Karl Breaux's family made a commitment years ago to become proactive in the French movement. Breaux speaks Cajun, Creole, Spanish and Parisian French and at least a quarter of his employees speak either Cajun or Creole as well. That makes for a rich environment in the store, where people make a point of shopping because of the language. Elsie LeBlanc can be found at the deli counter at Breaux's Mart, serving up plate lunches.

"Bonjour, mon serait l'aimer le dinner (Hi, I'd like a lunch)," Wallace Bernard says to her in Creole. "Quelle tais veut (What would you like)?"

"Je l'aimer le daube, les pommes de terres, les fevres, et une petite morseau de le gateaux (I'd like the roast, potatoes, beans and a little bit of cake)."

Bernard grew up speaking Creole in Scott. "We were born and raised in the Creole culture," he says. He now lives in north Lafayette, where he says most of the family-owned stores like Guidry's Fruit Stand nurture the language. "The Creole culture is here, and it's alive," Bernard says with obvious pride.

Determined to support both the Creole and Cajun heritage, Breaux makes a point of hiring kids at Breaux's Mart who have gone through Lafayette Parish School System's French Immersion program. "If a kid over 14 [who speaks French] comes in here looking for a job, I hire him or her, even if I don't have anything for them to do. We're very serious about our French heritage and preserving our culture," Breaux says.

Eighty years after the Louisiana school system nearly put a quietus on the French language, French Immersion programs are picking up steam in public elementary and middle schools in Acadiana.

When the U.S. government conducted the 1970 census, half a million Louisianans responded that they were native French speakers. By 1990 that number had dropped to 200,000. Meanwhile one elementary school in Baton Rouge, La Belle Aire, started a short-lived French Immersion program in the early 1980s, and Lake Charles followed suit in the mid-80s. That program is the oldest consecutive French Immersion program in the state. Lafayette's began in 1992 in three kindergartens: Prairie, S.J. Montgomery and Myrtle Place, later adding Evangeline Elementary and Acadian Middle.

French Immersion starts in kindergarten. Because of space constraints, 150 of the approximately 175 who apply this fall will be admitted to the program. Approximately 900 students (kindergarten through eighth grade) are enrolled in French Immersion in Lafayette Parish. Every subject is taught in French except for English reading and writing. Teachers come from Francophone countries around the world ' France, Canada, Belgium, Lebanon, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Niger, Tunisia, Gabon, Burundi, Haiti and the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Rarely are students admitted past kindergarten, and the class advances as a whole throughout elementary school. As students graduate to middle school, the program matriculates with them to Paul Breaux Middle School. There is no high school French Immersion, as state requirements for graduation and teacher certification make continuing the program too complicated. French Immersion students entering high school take a placement test and often advance to standard junior and senior level classes of French instruction.

Morgan Calhoon is a rising eighth grader at Paul Breaux. The 13-year-old began French Immersion at Prairie and is glad to be in the program. "There were a lot of us at Prairie," she says. "Most kids speak English at recess, but it's just as easy to speak French. My step-dad's parents love it that I can speak French with them." Calhoon's experience is a complete reversal of the generation of Cajun and Creole French speakers in the 1930s and '40s who were told they were ignorant because of their language and culture. "It's fun to be in the class, to be able to do something most people can't do," she says. "Some of my friends who aren't in it wish they were because of all the stuff we get to do."

"Stuff" like traveling to France over the summer is one perk. College scholarships is another. French Immersion students usually score an average of 10-20 points higher than non-immersion kids on standardized tests, according to Nicole Boudreaux, Lafayette Parish's lead foreign language immersion teacher. "Studies show they are better at collaborative learning," says Boudreaux. "They have a tendency to take difficulties as a challenge rather than an obstacle. These are qualities not measured on standardized tests but are qualities looked for in the workforce."

For some time, there have been dire predictions that the French language of Louisiana will be lost in this generation, but is it possible the student population can turn the tide? "What we are seeing," Cheramie says, "is a leveling off in the loss of French speakers." The 2000 census showed a stabilization of the French speaking population, 200,000, as it was in 1990. Of those counted in the 5-17 year old age group, 20,000 said they were bilingual. "There is very little immigration [of French speakers]," says Cheramie. "I think it's fair to say those are all CODOFIL products."

French immersion fourth graders from Prairie Elementary showed off their aptitude recently on "Francomix," Oliver Marteau's Thursday afternoon radio show on KRVS 88.7 FM. Marteau, a native of France and a doctoral candidate in the Francophone studies program at UL, was impressed. "Some of them are bilingual. They are really young and really motivated. It's good for the future," he says. Marteau arrived in Lafayette three years ago, without much English at his command. "I was struggling in English, and people, when they knew I really spoke French, they would speak to me in French. I met so many people the first year in Lafayette, I didn't really develop my English."

Many local French speakers were so traumatized by the experience of being punished for speaking their mother tongue in school that they suppress their linguistic knowledge in public. But most people will admit that French is still widely spoken in family settings. "For me, once they knew me, it became like family," Marteau says. "If you speak to one person they introduce you to another, and after a while you will know hundreds who speak French. I see Lafayette as two cities. One is secret. Everyday, people are speaking English, but what you don't know is that in private they speak Cajun and Creole."

Finding someone who speaks French is no problem at Chautin's Barber Shop in Arnaudville. The little corrugated tin barber shop is no bigger than a snowball stand and holds only two old-fashioned chairs. Lester Chautin, 68, was counting his money, lounging in his comfortable reclining seat, his shined cowboy boots propped up on the foot rest on a recent morning. Not the least embarrassed, he greets customers with a hearty "Bonjour!" and a joke.

"You know if they hurry up they can get it done before hurricane season."

"Get what done?"

"Mais, they got to put up those hurricane fences down by the coast, then they won't get no hurricanes up here."

Chautin speaks more French than he does English. "I've been barbering since 1960. It was all farmers back then," he says. "Today, it's about half English, half French. It happens automatic ' I switch [back and forth]. I don't know when I do." Chautin says when he first started school he barely spoke English at all. "My father, he wouldn't speak English." Now his 7-year-old grandson is learning to speak French. "I'd like him to keep the French going," Chautin says. As for Arnaudville, it's full of French speakers. "If you want to talk to some Cajuns," says Chautin, "we got a lot of them here."

Early Wednesday mornings at 7 a.m., a group of Francophiles gather at Dwyer's Café in downtown Lafayette for an hour of coffee and conversation. From native speakers to novices who want to dip their toes in the rich rolling dialect of bayou French, anyone with a love of the language is welcome to join the group. "How is your garden?" Michelle Fontenot, a teacher at North Vermilion, asks Frances Hebert, a retired principal. "Sa grandis ' les mauvais herbs," Hebert responds with a laugh, showing with her hands how high the weeds are growing. There are five conversations going on at once.

Daniel DeBlanc is a new member of the table. He took a French class from Lafayette's recently formed Alliance Française, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching French to students of all ages. Now he comes to breakfast for practice and the teaching his new friends offer. Rodney-Lee Guidry, who is talking with DeBlanc, is a charter member of the French table. He's been driving into Lafayette from wherever he lived ' it's Pineville now ' since 1984 to attend the French table. "I grew up in Jennings," he says. "My first language was French. I didn't speak English so good. I had a hard time in school."

For many of the members of the French table, who are in their 60s, childhood was a time of linguistic turmoil. Vi Fontenot's father was a sharecropper in Church Point. With four daughters, he could hardly scratch out a living. Fontenot had to walk for a mile across the fields just to catch the school bus. "I was 6 years old," she remembers. "My parents both spoke French, and they only had a third grade education. They sent me to school, and I got to a strange environment where they spoke English. When we tried to speak French, they'd slap our hands. We soon learned over there at [school] we talked this, at home, we talked that. We were told we were not intelligent because we spoke French."

Seven in the morning dawns a bit early for other folks. About three months ago, Judge Rick Michot invited his friend Bobby Fontenot to lunch at T-Coon's. Michot, a founder of the French table at Dwyer's, had long ago given up the early morning hours, but he missed speaking French on a regular basis. The pair chatted in French, and made a date for the following week. Fontenot brought along Vi Fontenot, who in turned called her friend Elanie Billeaud, and a new table Francais was born. The back room of T-Coon's now hosts a Tuesday weekly dejeuner at 11:30 a.m., open to anyone who would like to speak, or just listen to the melody of French.

For Vi Fontenot, attending both French tables is a way of honoring and vindicating her French heritage. "I was a straight A student," she says. "I ended up as an assistant vice-president of a bank, and then a paralegal, because I speak French. The pity is I didn't teach it to my children. They understand, but they don't speak it. I've been coming to the French table for 15 years. I never miss it. It's the heart of my week."


Les Tables Français:

Dwyer's Café, Wednesdays, 7 a.m., 323 Jefferson St., 235-9364
T-Coon's, Tuesdays, 11:30 a.m., 740 Jefferson St., 232-3803
Nu Nu's (inside Town Market), the last Saturday of the month, 9 a.m. 1013 Neblet St., Arnaudville, 754-7724
Mello Joy, Fridays, 5 p.m., 625 Jefferson St., 232-0006

Places where people commonly speak French:

Breaux's Mart, 2600 Moss St., 234-4298
Guidry's Fruit Stand, 3619 Moss St., 269-4726
Creole Lunch House, 713 12th St., 232-9929
Chautin's Barber Shop, 112 Canal St., Arnaudville, 754-7676
La Pouissere, 1215 Grand Pont Ave., Breaux Bridge, 332-1721
Red's Levee Bar, on the levee road, Catahoula, 394-4391
Philippe's Wine Cellars, 3809 Ambassador Caffery, 991-9794
Pouparts Bakery, 1902 W Pinhook Road, 394-5366

For French Radio programming:

KVPI, 92.5 FM or 1050 AM "La Tasse de Café", a call-in French talk show broadcast from 7:45-8:45 a.m. every Wednesday and Friday. KVPI also broadcasts the news in French every morning at 7:30 a.m., and a French music show live from Fred's Lounge in Mamou Saturdays from 9 a.m.-11 a.m.

KRVS 88.7 FM ( broadcasts "Bonjour Louisiane" 5 a.m.-7 a.m. weekday mornings, "Francomix," 9-10 p.m. Thursdays, and French programming Saturdays 7 a.m.-noon and Sundays 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

French television programing:

Channel 5 Acadiana Open Channel, Sundays, 10:30 p.m., "Rendez-vous des Cajuns"; Monday, midnight, "Glorius Rosary," 7:30 p.m. "L'Academie Cadienne"
See for more listings

Channel 3 KATC, weekdays, weather in French on 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts

Channel 10 KLFY, Passe Partout, weekdays, 5 a.m., Saturday 6 a.m., Sunday, 7 a.m. Passe Partout

French language Web sites:

For local Francophone events, the CODOFIL Web site,, has a calendar with listings of regularly scheduled soirees, classes, music and Masses, as well as special events. Some are open to the public, or to members of the Alliance Francais ( Membership costs $30 for individuals, $50 for families. For more information, call CODOFIL at 262-5810.