Before the Cajun culture was celebrated, largely due to the discovery of our food, my grandparents lived through a time when being a Cajun was not welcomed in this country…or even in their home state of Louisiana. I can’t help but think about that time in my family’s history when I read through SB 1156, the English as “the official language” bill. In the debate over this bill, proponents say it’s not about tribal languages. They even put a native languages exception into the bill, but all of this sounds disturbingly familiar to me.A section of the SB 1156 reads: “5. This phrase does not authorize bilingual education programs which maintain a student in a language other than English.” There was once a similar provision under Louisiana law. We may be able to learn from their past.
In The English Only Question, Dennis Baron gives a history of how this issue came about in Louisiana. The education issue first came up in 1864, not to prohibit French but to require at least some English in all schools. At the time, there were many schools and even whole parts of the state where English was rarely used. The 1864 state constitutional convention included language that was specifically written so as to not exclude or prohibit French, but to require English: “The general exercises in the common schools shall be conducted in the English language.” Another provision was also added at that time stating that the laws and proceedings of the state were required to only be written in “the language of the U.S. Constitution”. The 1921 Louisiana Constitution once again required only English in the schools, although still being careful not to forbid French.
In practice, these provisions were implemented over time in a way that manifested itself in the punishing of any French being spoken in Louisiana schools. As recently as the 1960’s, the English-only rule in schools was enforced by punishment of offenders who were caught speaking another language. Even though the constitution took pains to not exclude or prohibit French, Louisiana schools had effectively done so for more than a generation. In that generation, a part of a culture and a heritage was lost.
By the time the 1974 Louisiana Constitution was written, the state had seen the folly of the earlier provisions. That constitution tried to begin the process of undoing the harm that had been done. The state constitution, from 1974 on, recognizes “the right of the people to preserve, foster, and promote their respective historic, linguistic, and cultural origins”. However, more needed to be done than just removing the earlier ill-advised laws. Remedial measures had to be taken.
In 1968, Louisiana Governor John McKeithen appointed Jimmy Domengeaux to preside over a new state-charted organization called the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, (Le Conseil pour le developpement du francais en Louisiane) commonly known by the acronym CODOFIL.
As president of CODOFIL, Jimmy Domengeaux spearheaded a statewide effort to introduce French education in public classrooms from elementary through high school levels. He did so largely by recruiting teachers from France, Belgium, Quebec, and other French-speaking regions and nations around the world.
Let’s learn from the mistakes Louisiana has made over the last 150 years. They passed a provision in 1864 that was specifically intended not to exclude the French language. Over a 100 years later they had to take active steps to try and undo what they had done. At least Louisiana was able to recruit French teachers from other countries to reintroduce the linguistic heritage to the state’s people. Where will we find people who speak the Native American languages 100 years from now when we finally realize that we have amputated a part of a culture?
Even though Louisiana has tried for over 35 years to right the mistake it made, the 1864 English as a Common Language Provision directly lead to one of the languages of my grandparents dying with their generation. English is and has been the common language of my family, but now it is the only language of my family. I sure wish I could take part in the conversations when the older generation starts to cut up in French at a family gathering. The translations always lose something.