May 2, 2023 - Education

French immersion school for Indigenous students is a Louisiana first

Illustration of a fleur de lis in a speech bubble.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Louisiana’s first-ever French immersion school serving a primarily Indigenous population is due to open this fall, marking a major moment in the state’s complicated history with its French language history.

Why it matters: For decades, it was illegal to educate Louisiana students in French and culturally frowned upon to even speak it, but the effort to protect the state’s unique language heritage for Indigenous students is paying off.

“Our dialects are an immaterial cultural heritage worth preserving,” École Pointe-au-Chien interim president Will McGrew tells Axios. “This school is one of the unique communities where that can happen.”

Driving the news: Ecole Pointe-au-Chien in Montegut is enrolling students now, and it will be the state’s first French immersion school directly created by the Legislature.

  • The state’s special school status, established last year, is the same as that for NOCCA or the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and The Arts in Natchitoches.
  • McGrew tells Axios that about 35 students are expected for the 2023-2024 school year for kindergarten and first grades. The school will expand annually to eventually include pre-K through fourth grades.

The big picture: Despite the state’s founding as a French colony and its long reputation as an American bastion for the Francophone language, French is increasingly rare to actually hear in Louisiana conversation.

  • As many as a million people were speaking French just 60 years ago, according to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, but that number has dwindled to about 120,000.
  • Of those, the paper reports, only about 20,000 speak Cajun French, a dialect unique to the state.

Between the lines: Also rare are speakers of Indian French, typically descendants of the state’s Indigenous tribes like the Pointe-au-Chien and Houma people, who spoke a version of the language blending their own with what they learned from colonists and traders who arrived from France.

  • The U.S. currently counts 245 Indigenous languages, with 65 already extinct and another 75 nearing it, according to the Administration for Native Americans' review of Ethnologue.
  • Louisiana’s Cajun, Creole and Indian French vocabulary and pronunciation can often be far different from what someone may learn growing up in Quebec or Paris.

Still, there’s hope, McGrew says.

  • “What makes this community so unique is that a significant portion of the population still speak French fluently with their families, so there’s a real possibility that the kids can not only learn French, but the language can stay alive in an authentic way,” he says.
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