by Warren A. Perrin
In 2008 controversy erupted in Terrebonne Parish which brought up the issue of “English only” versus the proponents of bilingual education and free speech in Louisiana. The issue arose after Vietnamese-American co-valedictorians, who are also cousins, spoke in their native language at Ellender High School’s graduation this spring. The students said they were addressing family members in the audience who were not fluent in English. In response, as President of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), I sent a letter to the school board in response to board member Rickie Pitre’s suggestion that graduation speeches should be spoken only in the English language.
Some background: A proposal to make English the official U.S. language was attempted in the early part of this century when this country experienced a wave of nationalism. However, the United States Supreme Court, in the 1923 case of Meyer v. Nebraska, struck down such a statute as an arbitrary exercise of the states’ police power and an unreasonable infringement of the liberty and guarantees of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
Regrettably, in 1921, Section 12 of the Louisiana Constitution reverted back to its Reconstruction era position on language, to wit: “The general exercises in the public schools shall be conducted in the English language.” As a result, Louisiana experienced “linguistic genocide” which, in many cases, causes its Francophone citizens to feel shame even to this day.
Fortunately, the 1974 Louisiana Constitution was amended to provide very extensive equal protection rights for Louisiana citizens in Article XII, Section 4, to wit: “The right of the people to preserve, foster and promote their respective historic, linguistic and cultural origins is recognized.” Further, Louisiana R.S.1:51 makes Louisiana an officially bilingual state. The above was confirmed by the 109th U.S. Congress in House Resolution 294 adopted on May 24, 2005.
What have we learned about languages in Louisiana? Apparently, not enough, given the present controversy in Terrebonne Parish.
Rather than working to “chill” student rights, we should encourage the board to work to improve foreign language skills in order to provide our children with more opportunities to compete in the 21st century. Terrebonne Parish is a wonderful example of the precious resources Louisiana has to offer. The French language and cultural diversity in the parish’s Cajun, African, Native American and Vietnamese communities should be respected, honored and nurtured to ensure that they continue for generations to come.
Why is it important to save a language?
The “survival of the fittest” principle does not apply to languages. Indigenous languages, such as Louisiana French, are often dismissed as primitive and in need of replacement. However, we know that the process which has lead to the dominance of English is not the result of any intrinsic deficiency of French; rather, unequal rates of social change have caused disparities in resources between developed and developing societies, resulting in English dominance. As modern communication continues to be dominated by English at an increasing rate, this does not mean that people have to lose their mother tongues if they choose not to do so. Bilingualism has historically been the norm rather than the exception. In Louisiana, it has been a powerful source of cultural pluralism and diversity.
The Louisiana French language is a source of unique historical data of such things as folklore, land preservation, genealogy and traditions. Much of the detailed knowledge of the past is encoded in the language spoken by groups who have lived for centuries in close contact with their surroundings, and this provides useful insight in the management of our environment and understanding of our heritage.
Linguistic diversity is an irreplaceable resource for future generations. While one new technology may be substituted for another, this is not true of languages. To remove the unique French language from Louisiana is to remove it from the world forever. Because a large part of language is culture-specific, an important part of cultural identity is lost when a language disappears.
Louisiana continues to lead the nation in developing its cultural tourism industry. One of the primary reasons given by visitors to Louisiana is our unique French language and customs. Just like any other national resource, the language should be protected rather than “strip mined” as we too often do today.
Louisiana’s bilingual educational program is recognized as one of the best in the nation. As we continue to find ways to improve education in Louisiana, we should look to expand, rather than reduce, the support of this program because if we lose the language, we will likewise lose the culture.
Although I have not personally met the young Vietnamese-American graduates whose use of their native language caused this issue to rise to the surface again, I would like to honor the courage and strength of these two valedictorians who stood up and proudly spoke their native language to honor their heritage and their parents’ struggles to afford them the opportunity of a good education. Decades of punishment and humiliation perpetrated on the young French-speaking children of south Louisiana have taken their toll. Many of my elder relatives have related stories of being unable to ask permission of their teacher to visit the restroom because they could not speak English and, as a result, soiling their clothes. Until recently, instances of being visibly proud of being French-speaking and openly speaking it in public are rare. That is slowly changing, but we still struggle with the effects of this linguistic genocide. Instead of trying to suppress languages other than English, perhaps we could learn from these two young women about being visibly and publicly proud of our native French heritage.
Despite globalization, we still feel the need to develop local identities to pass on to our children. As Native American Darryl Babe Wilson said, “We must know the white [man’s] language to survive in this world. But we must know our language to survive forever.”
Warren A. Perrin, J.D., is an attorney with the firm of Perrin, Landry, deLaunay, Dartez & Ouellet, President of CODOFIL, and an adjunct professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.