La.'s French-learning boom

Teacher Fabienne LeChevre works with Alejandro Perez, 10, at the International Schoolof Louisiana in New Orleans. The boy is fluent in English, Spanish, and French.
Teacher Fabienne LeChevre works with Alejandro Perez, 10, at the International Schoolof Louisiana in New Orleans. The boy is fluent in English, Spanish, and French. (GERALD HERBERT / Associated Press)

More families there want their children to get an education in the language.

Posted: November 24, 2011

NEW ORLEANS - The wave of Hispanics into the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina doesn't appear to have lessened Louisiana families' demand for their children to get a French education.

There's a waiting list at all 29 of the state's public French immersion programs, and this year at least one school - the International School of Louisiana in New Orleans - received more applications for its French program than ever.

Demand for Spanish-language education remains strong, both for local use and as a language of inter-American commerce. But even some Spanish-speakers are seeking French-language education for their children.

Gayle Perez, a New Orleans native who grew up speaking Spanish because of her Ecuadoran parents, enrolled her son in ISL's French program. Alejandro Perez, now 10, is fluent in English, Spanish, and French.

"It was the best thing I could have done for my son," Perez said. "He's not just learning a new language. He is learning that there's another part of the world out there, one that's not only English-speaking or only Spanish-speaking."

Perez said she chose French for her son partly because of the language's place in New Orleans' history but mostly because of its place in the world. French is spoken in more than 30 countries and is the official language of the United Nations.

"Knowing French, knowing any other language, it opens up the world," Perez said. "It will make my son more interested in the world and make him more relevant in the world. He will be able to do anything he wants to do."

There has been increasing demand for children to learn a second language as non-English tongues have become more commonplace in the United States and on television news, said Sean Wilson, head of ISL, which offers immersion in French and Spanish, as well as classes in Mandarin Chinese.

"We live in a world that is very interconnected," Wilson said. "Now more than ever, we're hearing Arabic, Spanish, Hindi, Portuguese, and there's an increase in demand when something is heard more frequently."

Though French isn't heard as often as some other languages - even in New Orleans - Wilson said learning it has many benefits. Bilingual students have a better chance of being academically successful, he said.

Louisiana's push for a resurgence in the French language began in 1968 with the creation of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, or CODOFIL, after the language had been in sharp decline for decades.

"At first, the idea was to learn French so we could communicate with our grandparents," said Joseph Dunn, who heads CODOFIL, which is based in the Cajun French-heavy city of Lafayette. "Now we're looking at positioning French with reasons for it to live, for it to be relevant today."

Jean-Claude Brunet, the consul-general of France in New Orleans, said that the more French-speakers Louisiana has, the bigger the tourist draw. For example, Laura Plantation in Vacherie, upriver from New Orleans, attracts many French-speaking visitors because it offers tours in French, he said.

Louisiana has 150,000 to 200,000 French-speakers, Dunn said. Roughly 50,000 of Louisiana's public school students are learning French as a second language, and 3,500 students are in French immersion programs, he said.

CODOFIL is working to boost the number of French immersion programs, but the bigger goal is to get the French language spoken in the community, Dunn said.

"There's a perception out there that Spanish is easier and more useful, and that's because Spanish is omnipresent," he said. "You see it and you hear it in your everyday life."

Dunn said both French and Spanish have a place in Louisiana history, and they should coexist today.

For generations, French has been spoken in various forms in Louisiana's French Cajun, Creole, and Native American communities.

Around 1915, when the state Board of Education suppressed the language in public schools and children were punished if caught speaking French, the French language took a dive. In 1921, the Louisiana Constitution prohibited the use of any language other than English in the public school system but allowed students to take classes in French as a second language.

After CODOFIL's creation, Louisiana's first French immersion program was introduced in Baton Rouge in 1981, and today there are 29 such programs across the state. Most are in the southern part of Louisiana, between Lake Charles and New Orleans, but Dunn said CODOFIL hopes to get more northern Louisiana schools involved.

"We can only act as facilitators," he said. "We can't make them do it, but we can show them how it's done."

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