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Parlez-vous français? For Maine's Acadian youth, the answer is often 'non'

French-speaking population says culture threatened by lower birth rate, young people leaving region

MADAWASKA, Maine — Driving along Route 1A in northern Maine, it would be easy to think you had taken a wrong turn and ended up in Quebec. As you enter what locals simply call “The Valley,” signs appear in French along with the red, white, and blue of the Acadian flag.

This insular community stretches about 80 miles, from Hamlin to Allagash, including a string of towns where French is the most commonly spoken language. Census figures show 79.3 percent of the town of Frenchville’s population speaks the language — in the small city of Madawaska, two-thirds speak French as their first language.

Economic and demographic changes in The Valley, however, have left many locals afraid that French — or even their community — could peter out.

Locals say their concerns are threefold: Many young people are leaving the region to look for work in bigger cities, the transition from a primarily agrarian society has resulted in families having fewer children, and many of the young people who remain choose to speak English rather than French.

“Anyone in their 30s or younger, they’re speaking English,” said George Dionne, 63, sipping coffee on an early spring morning with friends at the Grand Isle General Store.

In 2000, 26 percent of Madawaska’s households had children under 18 living at home — by 2010 that number has dropped to 20 percent.

Sprawling families were once the norm in The Valley. On a recent day in Madawaska four sisters were sitting on a porch sipping coffee and conversing in French. The Sirois said they have 14 additional siblings, and in the 1950’s families of that size were quite common. Now, locals said families usually have two or three children at most.

And today, they said, you hear French less and less among youth. 

“The language will soon be extinct,” one of the sisters said. “And that is sad.”

French is frequently heard at the McDonald's in Madawaska, where the restaurant makes its French patrons feel welcome.
Kevin Williams

Donald Cyr, a native French speaker and history professor at the University of Maine in Presque Isle, said there is increasing interest in Acadian culture, however. He has been restoring a Catholic church shuttered in 1977 and turning it into a local museum. He said while his only advertising is word of mouth, tourists stop by almost daily to snap photos of the church’s spires.

The church is located in a tiny town called Lille. He said in the church’s heyday in the mid 20th century the congregation boasted some 700 congregants, packing the pews. But by the mid-70s only 10 percent of that number remained. The diocese in Portland 350 miles away ordered the church shuttered and consolidated with a neighboring parish.

Cyr is optimistic about the future of French in the valley, but he thinks it may get worse before it gets better.

“Once we get to the point where the language has eroded enough, that is when people will wake up,” he said, pointing to Louisiana's Cajun culture as an example.

The Acadians who inhabit the valley today are descendants of those who fled into the thick woods of northern Maine to avoid expulsion by the British. The persecution also sent great numbers south to settle in French-held Louisiana in the 1700s, giving birth to the Cajun culture that exists today. Canadian and U.S. Census figures put the number of Acadians at 96,145 and 30,001 respectively.

“In Louisiana the culture there has been safeguarded, but 30 — 40 years ago it was way less that it is now. Now, their music and food are known all over,” Cyr said. French language is encouraged and taught in Cajun schools.

Cyr said two primary factors led to the decline in family size in The Valley.

The area was home to many family-owned potato farms, which benefited from families with many hands, so there was an economic incentive to have large families. Potato farming remains big business, but there are far fewer farms than a generation ago. Changes in Catholic teachings promoted during the Second Vatican council, such as espousing natural family planning, also contributed to the decline in birthrate, Cyr said.

The Madawaska School Department, which also encompasses mostly French Grand Isle and St. David, has 458 children in its school system — a decline from 1,074 in 1985 and 1,821 in 1975. Joseph Price, an Assistant professor of French at Texas Tech University, wrote in a Phd thesis in 2007 that the population decline has not only had a devastating economic effect on the city of Madawaska, but also a linguistic impact by not replenishing a new generation of French speakers.  

Seeing the dwindling population of youth, efforts to preserve the French language are in full swing.

“We want our children to be able to communicate with their grandparents and great-grandparents. Currently French is being taught at all grade levels, from kindergarten through high school,” said superintendent Ginette Albert. 

Lumber is one of the region's major industries.
Kevin Williams

This is a reversal of past years when the power structure in the town discouraged speaking French or celebrating Acadian culture.  

“You had the paper industry run by English people, a lot of the English people were running the town, and you were discouraged from speaking French. You were put down because you spoke French,” Albert said

Laura Plourde, 21, a waitress at a local Acadian restaurant, said that even when she was in school she was discouraged from speaking French. While she is bilingual, she said she and her friends, like many young Acadians, primarily speak English.

But an increased emphasis on learning French in the school can’t reverse the impact of lower birth rates — or the flight of young people from The Valley to cities such as Portland and Boston.

“We are losing our youth. The main industry around here is the paper mill. I have two kids and they are both in southern Maine. One came up to work in the paper mill and then left — there is nothing left for them to do here,” Albert said.

Albert said the region needs to focus on bringing economic opportunity to the Valley so that young people will remain, but she thinks schools and families have successfully stemmed the loss of the language.

“I think French is here to stay,” Albert said.

The insular nature of the Valley helped preserve French so that it is similar to how French was spoken in the 1700s. Most people switch seamlessly between French and English.

“We’ll speak English in one sentence and French the next, but everyone knows what everyone else is saying,” laughs Father James Albert, a priest with Notre Dame du Mont Carmel Parish in Madawaska. The Masses are often conducted in the same mishmash of French and English, with readings often being in French while the sermon is in English. This patois is referred locally as “Valley French.”

Guy Dubay, a historian and genealogist who works at the Le Bibliotheque Mikesell, a French library in Madawaska, said “we are a borderland culture and as a result we have inherited customs from both sides and that makes us difficult to understand.”

The border between New Brunswick and Maine shifted several times before finally being settled in 1842, but it left families geographically divided. Up until 1842 some locals on both sides of what would become the border referred to their area simply as the Republic of Madawaska, a term which endures affectionately to this day. It is this deep sense of history infused in the locals that has leaders feeling better about the future.

“We are very optimistic about the future of French,” said Judy Paradis, a retired legislator who worked at the local and state level to preserve Acadian culture. She said businesses are catching on to the importance of incorporating French.

Paradis served three terms in the Maine House of Representatives, and four terms in the state Senate. Her husband Ross served three terms in the statehouse from 2000 – 2006. In the 1990s, they helped launch the Committee to Save our French, started an annual French oratorical contest with four participating local high schools, and a started a French language school for 3 and 4 years olds.

Judy Paradis said that when she first arrived at the statehouse in 1986, French was an almost taboo topic.

Shortly after she arrived, another legislator whispered to her that she also spoke French.

“You mean we are all still in the closet?” Paradis said she responded incredulously.

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