Freeing the silenced tongue

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Freeing the silenced tongue - Mainers with French-Canadian roots try to revive their banished patois by Ellen Barry, Boston Globe, 2/12/2001


WATERVILLE, Maine - Rhea Cote was a ponytailed 5-year-old when she marched into the living room and informed her parents they would no longer hear French coming out of her mouth.

Rhea was too young to explain her decision to her baffled parents, who continued speaking to her only in French until their deaths, but her reasons would be clear to all the Roys who became Kings, Boileaus who went by Drinkwater, Bonenfants who renamed themselves Goodchild. In Maine in 1959, French identified you as a descendant of French-Canadian immigrants - a person, Rhea had picked up from the other children, who would grow up to be considered the second-class citizens of Yankee New England.

Forty-two years later, it was a tremulous Rhea Robbins who showed up in Waterville on a recent weekend, hoping to speak French again before she dies.

Some who have examined language in Maine speculate that New England may have as many as half a million Franco-Americans like Robbins, people who share the experience of repudiating their birth language practically overnight. Born at a time when assimilation seemed the only route to social success, they bore the brunt of a systematic attempt to eradicate the French patois that had been spoken in Maine for generations.

Now, as they reach middle age, they are trying to reclaim the ghost of a language. Phrases they cannot translate pop into their heads. Words get muddled between their brains and their mouths. And for many, the sound of spoken French prompts a great upwelling of loss.

Everyone who calls has the same message. They want to revive the language that's buried in their brain, said Linda Gerard der Simonian, who hosted the first meeting of the language reacquisition group that Robbins attended in Waterville last month. It's almost like a tape recorder.

The women in appliqued sweatshirts and leggings in der Simonian's living room are predominantly in their 40s and 50s. One Acadian activist calls them the Punished Generation - the fourth- and fifth-generation Americans of French-Canadian descent who were chastised, or teased, or shamed into purging from their consciousness the tongue they had learned from their grandparents.

Many of them spoke only French until they reached school age, and then were stunned to confront an official world that considered the language a bad habit. In the parochial schools to the north, near the Canadian border, which had received state orders to prioritize the switch to English, nuns employed strict and sometimes creative sanctions against the use of French, even at recess.

Martha St. Pierre was a 9-year-old who had been in Maine for five months when she broke her arm in a Van Buren schoolyard. When she ran to her teacher to ask for help, she was sent to her seat until she could ask in English, said St. Pierre, who is now 47. In the elementary school Don Levesque attended, children got a free pass on homework for reporting on classmates who lapsed into French.

It was total immersion, said Levesque, 53, who is editor and publisher of the St. John Valley Times, and grew up in Madawaska. What was it that Vladimir Lenin said? Give me one generation and I'll give you the rest? Well, it almost worked.

Shadow of a memory

Ben Levine, who documented the French-Canadians' loss of language in his 1980 film Si Je Comprends Bien, said he believes there are 300,000 to 500,000 Franco-Americans who abandoned the language abruptly under social pressure. He and his collaborator, a language teacher named Julia Schulz, began seeking out members of the middle generation at two Franco-American film festivals that they organized in Waterville in 1999 and 2000.

As films flickered to an end, people began to come forward, telling organizers that something about the Quebec landscape had tripped a wire in their brain - but that they could not quite get hold of the memory.

They experienced tremendous tension, and they didn't learn to speak it, Levine said. That's the group we're trying to contact.

And so last month, at the first language reacquisition meeting in Waterville, Schulz used plastic fruit to teach the words for apple and grape to a group of women who weren't sure how much they knew.

What they want is to reconnect with some kind of a very deep place within themselves, said Schulz, president of the Penobscot School of languages in Rockland. They sense that there's something very, very strong in there, and they want to reconnect with it. We're not going to practice ordering a meal in a restaurant.

That morning, ordinary complaints about case and gender were accompanied by wistful stories. Robbins said she found herself trailing French-speaking people in the supermarket, hoping to catch a few snatches of conversation.

Estelle Guerette Quimby, who attended the Waterville meeting, said she once approached an old man in a store and asked if she could go to his house just to hear him speak. The meeting was awkward and unsuccessful, she recalled; she couldn't understand him and finally went home.

When she tried to explain how she lost the language as a 5-year-old, Quimby sounded bereft.

It just left, she said sadly.

Some are beginning to take the attitude that their French was not simply lost, but taken. In parts of New England, attitudes toward French changed so radically that within many families, older siblings speak fluent French while younger siblings never learned it.

The first waves of Canadian immigrants flowed into mill towns like Waterville starting in the second half of the 19th century, with about a million settled in New England before the Depression hit. As the French-Canadian neighborhoods boomed and overflowed, the immigrants found themselves an urban underclass, and some were even targeted by New England's Ku Klux Klan.

Although many of the first wave of immigrants never did learn English, some children and grandchildren coming of age in the postwar era decided the best way to help their own children would be to raise them speaking English - a divisive decision in a community that resisted the idea of the melting pot.

Recent reversal

In Maine, schools began turning away from French in 1919, when a state law was passed establishing English as the only legal language of instruction. But the real dropoff came in the 1950s and '60s, when French masses were dwindling and the war had nudged Franco-Americans into the American mainstream, say historians. In the northern St. John Valley, where the parochial schools were attended by all children, nuns began serious enforcement of a ban on French, while to the south, Franco-American children like Rhea Cote felt the full force of peer pressure.

You had to prove your patriotism, said Roger Roy, a business professor at the University of Maine-Fort Kent who recently wrote a paper about the loss of French-Canadian culture and language.

By 1963, Roy said, it was over; French was threatened not just as a first but as a second language. Among people of Franco-American descent, the number of households using French would drop to just over 1 in 10 by 1990, Roy wrote.

In recent years, a bilingual program has begun accepting children in the Madawaska area, the very border towns where nuns had cracked down hardest in the 1950s. But the last generation to be schooled in French is dying, said Schulz, conveying urgency to their middle-age children.

In adulthood, many of them say they now understand the impulse behind the school rules. Levesque remembers the shock of showing up at the Sacred Heart School to discover that his native tongue was forbidden.

Every week, children were issued red movie tickets, which they would have to hand over to any classmate who caught them speaking French. At the end of the week, the child with the most tickets would be exempt from homework.

Recently, Levesque learned of the death of the nun who had passed out those tickets. Reading over her obituary for publication in his newspaper, he realized something staggering.

You wouldn't have known it, but this nun may have been very French and very local, Levesque said. She probably spoke French with her own family, he added, wonderingly.

My feeling, he said, is that they thought they were putting out good American citizens.