A linguistic renaissance sweeps through Louisiana's Cajun country

The stoop-shouldered man walking down Rue Principal greets a passer-by with a hearty ''Bonjour.'' Wearing a touring cap, and with a small white mustache and ready smile, he looks as if he just stepped out of a Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph of a Parisian street scene.

These are not the sidewalks of Paris, though; they're the streets of Lafayette, La., in the heart of Cajun country. The smattering of French that can be heard in the streets and the strains of Cajun music that drift across from an open-air cafe sound comfortably at home here.

They should. French language and culture have been a part of this region for 250 years. Not all of those years have been spent in carefree coexistence with the English-speaking community, however. Children especially have suffered from discrimination over the years. Many were punished in school for letting even an errant ''Oui'' pass their lips.

But much of that has changed. A cultural and linguistic renaissance is sweeping southern Louisiana, with Lafayette at its geographic center. And well it might. Fully 25 percent of the state's population speaks French - 75 percent in some southern parishes, or counties.

The largely unorganized movement toward this renaissance won legal sanction back in 1968 when the Louisiana Legislature established the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL); authorized establishment of a French-language TV station; authorized the teaching of history and culture to the French elementary and secondary school population; and directed colleges to offer teacher certificates in elementary French.

Today, over 260 elementary schools in 31 of the state's 64 parishes have gotten into the act. Upward of 300 teachers teach French, half of them brought in from Belgium, France, and Quebec on exchange programs. Nearly 50,000 students take part in French language instruction, up from zero just a few years ago.

The Franco resurgence can be traced largely to one man - the indefatigable James Domengeaux. The white-haired, patriarchal former congressman was the first to rally support for the French cause and nudge the Legislature into action. He sees the need for renewed emphasis on teaching foreign language throughout the country and believes that linguistic pluralism is essential if America is to remain the focal point of international affairs.

''Louisiana can provide the leadership in this linguistic renaissance,'' says Mr. Domengeaux, seated behind a desk in his Lafayette offices. Dressed in a gray pin-stripe suit with a wide, black Ascot tie, he looks like a throwback to the days of the Fourth Republic. ''Ten years ago people were ashamed to speak the language. Our greatest accomplishment is that we brought pride back to the language. People are proud to speak French.''

This pride is evident in tiny Milton, La., 15 miles southwest of Lafayette. At Milton school, along the banks of Vermillion Bayou, where ancient homes stand facing the river instead of the roads that are relatively recent additions, French is a required subject.

Harriet Castille's fifth-grade class includes students whose grandparents still speak French almost exclusively and children whose parents are from Detroit.

Ms. Castille says that, whether or not the children learn a word of French, the listening drills and the syntax training that teach them to think in either language will be valuable in all their classes. The principal and other administrators at Milton school speak French and are supportive of what French teachers are doing in their classrooms.

In other schools, however, principals are not as supportive - and many of them are Cajun. In fact, most of the opposition to renewed teaching of French in schools comes from the Cajun community itself and from parents who were discriminated against in school for speaking French. Kneeling on corn kernels and copying long pages out of Webster's dictionary were only a few of the punishments they received as children for speaking French.

In fact, Ms. Castille's parents are Cajun, but she did not learn French until she was a junior in college. Her father feared she would face the same discrimination in speaking French that he had.

''I missed something when I was growing up,'' Ms. Castille says. ''I don't want these kids to miss out, too.''

Except for pockets of resistance in the Cajun community, the citizens of Louisiana appear generally to favor the resurgence of French culture and language. ''Our strongest support is the Anglo-Saxon Protestants of northern Louisiana who see French as chic and fashionable,'' says Mr. Domengeaux.

One reason for the widespread support is the lengths to which he and others have gone to make sure that the promotion of French language and culture is not seen as a concurrent grab for political power.

''We have avoided the politicalization of this issue,'' Domengeaux says. ''There is absolutely no danger of a Quebec developing here.''

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