Tag Archives: Official language

English rules in America, except in a few French pockets of Maine

Le Rencontre, a French-speaking meetup at the Franco-American Heritage Center, Lewiston, Maine (Annie Murphy)

Le Rencontre, a French-speaking meetup at the Franco-American Heritage Center, Lewiston, Maine (Annie Murphy)


Here’s a guest post from reporter Annie Murphy who divides her time between Peru and Maine.

On a Thursday afternoon at the Franco American Heritage Center in Lewiston, Maine, a few hundred people fill an old church converted into a concert hall.

Musicians play guitar and accordion, and sing French-Canadian songs, while the crowd watches. It’s the last part of a monthly meetup – known as Le Rencontre – where locals gather together, and speak in French.

Most of the crowd grew up in Lewiston, or neighboring Auburn. They have French-speaking families, many of whom migrated from Quebec, and other parts of Canada. And even though, until a few decades ago, French speakers faced a lot of discrimination – including being punished in school for speaking French – the language has managed to hang on.

Louise Bolduc is a regular. She’s sixty-six, with long gray-blond hair, and a spotless white baseball hat that says C’est bon. I ask her if she speaks French a lot.

“Oui, c’est ma première langue,” she says. “That means it’s my first language. When I started school, I didn’t know any English.

The director of the center, Louis Morin, is standing beside her. His parents migrated from Canada shortly before he was born. He and Bolduc continue talking, in French.

“It was the same thing for me,” he says to her. “I didn’t start speaking English until I was six years old. Before, I spoke only French at home.”

Louise Bolduc adds that for her, it’s easy to keep up the language, because her family still speaks it. They’re actually waiting nearby, and she runs off to join her sister and cousins.

Today, Franco-Americans make up 20% of the population in Maine. In Lewiston-Auburn, some officials say it’s closer to 70%. And a lot of them still speak French, as Bowdoin College Professor Chris Potholm found when he was doing a study.

“28% of Franco Americans are fluent in French. Now, when you think about that, that wouldn’t be surprising if you were interviewing recent immigrants. But if you think of the Franco-Americans as being here for 250 years, that’s an astonishingly high number.”

But many Franco-Americans worry that that number is only going to decrease. And some are skeptical about kids picking up French once their families have stopped speaking it at home.

Teacher Jacynthe Jacques leads an after-school French class in Auburn, Maine (Annie Murphy)

Teacher Jacynthe Jacques leads an after-school French class in Auburn, Maine (Annie Murphy)

Teacher Jacynthe Jacques leads an after-school French class in Auburn, MaineAcross the river, in the city of Auburn, one after-school program is trying revive local French. In a space at Sherwood Heights Elementary School, over a dozen students repeat the class rules, in French. One of the teachers behind the program, Doris Bonneau, translates for me.

“Raise your hand to speak, to move from your space. Follow directions. Be polite. The golden rule, is do your best. And the last one was: pay attention!”

Bonneau – who seems both patient and enthusiastic, especially when it comes to French – says that program is part of an effort to bring the language to younger generations. And rather than focusing on so-called “classic” French from France, kids are exposed to all sorts of dialects, particularly local ones that make up the French specific to Maine.

One of Bonneau’s students is 10-year-old Lucas Pushard. He says his grandmother speaks French, and that now, he can actually talk to her a little bit. He also mentions picking up on more French being spoken around town.

“It’s kind of like a secret language,” he says. “You can finally find out what people are saying, you’re finally in on it. It’s kind of cool.”

Another teacher in the program, Jacynthe Jacques, came here from Quebec. She was surprised to meet so many local French speakers. And she also noticed that words and accents from different parts of Canada come together in Maine. For example, she says, some locals have an accent from a smaller region within Quebec, called La Beauce.

“A bench in French is a banc, and a bath is a bain. But if you’re from La BeauceFrench, you can sit on a banc and it’s almost the same pronunciation as a “bath,” says Jacques. “Little things like that.”

What’s also surprised Jacques since moving to Maine is the presence of French speakers from different parts of Africa, specifically in Lewiston-Auburn. She thinks that maybe with the new wave of immigration, French will be able to hang on here.

“I’ve noticed that, through this program, and other venues, there’s a lot of getting together between the French speaking communities in this area. And I think that’s great, because we meet in the language,” she says.

Pierrette Rukundo, born in Rwanda, resident of Maine (courtesy Pierrette Rukundo)

Pierrette Rukundo, born in Rwanda, resident of Maine (courtesy Pierrette Rukundo)

Pierrette Rukundo, born in Rwanda, resident of MaineBack in Lewiston, French speakers from places like Ivory Coast, Chad, and Togo have attended the monthly Le Rencontre meetup. At the one I go to, I talk to 21-year-old Pierrette Rukundo moved from Rwanda about a year ago, with her three brothers and her parents. Rukundo says she’s excited to find this community of French speakers, and that she plans on bringing her parents next time.

“They’ll be so excited. My mom will not stop talking,” says Rukundo. “I think she’ll be talking the whole time, because she’ll be with people speaking in French.”

Recent immigrants, like the Rukundo family, bring even more dialects into the mix of Maine French. They’re also likely to be key to the language staying alive.


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From Afrikaans to Zulu, South Africa’s languages have stories to tell

Trilingual government building sign in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa (Wikimedia Commons)

Trilingual government building sign in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa (Wikimedia Commons)

During apartheid, South Africa had two official languages, English and Afrikaans. Indigenous languages, like the people who spoke them, were considered inferior.

When apartheid ended, the Afrikaner minority that had ruled South Africa was willing to give up some of its power — but not its language.

“Language for the Afrikaner nationalists had been central to their identity, their being, their struggle,” said South African constitutional judge Albie Sachs. “They could just about imagine conceding democracy, and could just about imagine a constitution in which black and white were equal. But if Afrikaans was downgraded: boom!”

Sachs — who was imprisoned and exiled during apartheid — helped write the post-apartheid constitution, which upgraded nine indigenous languages without reducing the status of English and Afrikaans.

“In two sentences, we had solved the basic dilemma of the language question in South Africa,” said Sachs. “No language is any more important than any other language.”

Government recognition of 11 languages reflects Nelson Mandela’s vision of an inclusive rainbow nation. But it has also created tensions: English dominates in many spheres of business and culture, as it does elsewhere around the globe.

Afrikaans remains tainted by its association with apartheid, even as some of its younger speakers are trying to change that. Also, some middle class blacks prefer to speak English in the home, rather than Xhosa, Tswana or other indigenous languages.

South Africa has nearly seven million Afrikaans native speakers, placing it ahead of English, but behind Zulu and Xhosa.

More than 11 million South Africans grew up speaking Zulu, but few speak it as a second language, and fewer still speak it in business settings. As a result, the language is not evoloving as rapidly as say, English. It can also be clunky. The words for the numerals eight and nine are horribly long, for example, so Zulu speakers often just switch to the English words. And like many indigenous languages, there aren’t many Zulu words for the Internet age.

So language activist Phiwayinkosi Mbutazi has invented his own Zulu words, and hoping that his neologisms catch on. He has already dreamed up more than 500 words, such as buyafuthi (recycling), derived from the Zulu words for ‘bring back’ and ‘again.’

You can hear Phiwayinkosi Mbutazi discuss his one-man Zulu language academy in the audio of this story, along with excerpts of linguist Mark Turin’s excellent BBC documentary on the recent history of South Africa’s languages. The full version of Turin’s documentary is in this previous podcast.


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A New Beginning for the Kurdish Language in Turkey?

Taha Tursun is studying to be a Kurdish teacher at Dicle University. Changes in Turkish law have now paved the way for Kurdish language education. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Taha Tursun is studying to be a Kurdish teacher at Dicle University. Changes in Turkish law have now paved the way for Kurdish language education. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Note from Patrick: Here’s a guest post from Turkey-based reporter Matthew Brunwasser.

Just 10 years ago, Professor Hasan Tanriverdi could have been arrested by security forces, blindfolded and taken to an underground prison and tortured, just for doing this.

Speaking Kurdish was banned under Turkish law.

The language challenged the national myth that all citizens of Turkey are ethnic Turks. So it was treated as a crime against the state. Repression and forced assimilation were so brutal that many Kurds in Turkey no longer speak Kurdish fluently. Today, Tanriverdi is teaching future teachers of Kurdish language at the state Dicle University.

“Our people are excited,” says Tanriverdi. “A language has just been freed. We are creating a master’s program for teaching Kurdish. For the first time, these teachers are able to learn how to teach Kurdish.”

Professor Tanriverdi says that 1,500 students applied for 150 spots in the program.

Sevet Turkoglu is a former history teacher, now a student in the Kurdish course. He says that Turkey’s government is righting the wrongs done to the Kurds by helping them learn their language. He says he’s sure that he will have a job when he graduates.

“The Prime Minister of Turkey said so,” Tukoglu says. “That’s why they made this course. Kurdish is now an elective course in schools. We hope that all subjects will be taught in Kurdish some day. But for now its most important that we focus on learning our language and culture.”

But not all students trust Ankara’s good intentions. The government introduced an elective course this year for 5th graders in public schools, to learn Kurdish two hours per week. Over the next three years it will expand to more grades – but still two hours per week. Student Adem Kurt says this means that the government policy is not serious.

“It doesn’t work with only one or two lessons,” says Kurt. “That’s how you learn a foreign language. If they are serious about giving Kurds our rights, they should open the way for mother tounge education in all subjects.”

After years of promises, many Kurds are skeptical of any offer by the Turkish government. Some say the government has no political will to really educate Kurds in Kurdish, even Taha Tursun, a student who’s enrolled in the course.

“Even though they are saying that they will hire us as teachers, it’s a lie,” says Tursun. “It’s only a red herring so they can tell society ‘look, we are training graduate students how to teach Kurdish. The Kurdish language problem is taken care of.'”

But the government has made other moves in what it calls its “Kurdish opening.” Bans on the Kurdish language have been wiped from the books. And the state created a television channel in Kurdish.

But the growing demand for teaching all subjects in the Kurdish language has still not been addressed. Didem Collinsworth, from the International Crisis Group in Istanbul, says the demand is common to Kurds from all political, regional and religious backgrounds.

“I can say that is probably the strongest demand they have,” Collinsworth says. “They see it as a recognition of their Kurdishness, of their identity, of their culture. It all culminates in being able to learn Kurdish in schools.”

Collinsworth says that generations of repression has taken its toll on the language. There aren’t many Kurds fluent in Kurdish. They are used to speaking Turkish for all official matters. Even in Diyarbakir, the capital of Kurdish nationalism, Collinsworth says that none of the newspapers are Kurdish-language only.

“We were told by a Kurdish TV host that they had a hard time finding people to speak on their shows because no one spoke Kurdish that well anymore, good enough to be on TV,” says Collinsworth.

The attempt to crush the Kurdish language is now a dark chapter of Turkey’s history. But the battle for making Kurdish a second official language lies ahead. As Turkey struggles to become a more open society, its Kurdish-speaking citizens may continue to provide the biggest push.

Medya Ormek teaching Kurdish in her class. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Medya Ormek teaching Kurdish in her class. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

[Patrick adds: Also included in the podcast is a report on Diyarbakir-based Kurdish language teacher Medya Ormek, who is all of 13 years old.

Also, here’s a previous pod on the letters Q, W and X: they appear in the Kurdish alphabet, but not in the Turkish one.]



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Sugar Sammy: Quebec’s Multilingual Court Jester

Sugar Sammy (Photo: Susan Moss)

Sugar Sammy (Photo: Susan Moss)

Samir Khullar aka Sugar Sammy is the Quebec-born son of Indian immigrants. As a kid, he spoke Punjabi and Hindi at home and French at school. But he learned to tell jokes in English.

Sugar Sammy (Photo: Patrick Cox)

“I’d host all the talent shows at school,” he says. “I’d make all the announcements on the intercoms, and when we had school trips the teachers would let me go to the front of the bus to entertain the kids.” He did all that in French. He had to– those were the rules. But he’d switch to English whenever he could, “just because it wasn’t allowed. As soon as it’s not allowed, as a kid you want to do it.”

That sense of linguistic rebellion has stayed with Khullar as Sugar Sammy. For years, he did shows in French and shows in English. He wanted to do a bilingual show, but people told him it wouldn’t work, that the public wouldn’t want to see it. Last year, he finally started performing bilingually, flipping back and forth between French and English.

Traditionally, Quebec is viewed as consisting of ‘two solitudes,’ one Francophone or French-speaking, the other Anglophone or English-speaking. But Sugar Sammy says that’s no longer the case. “I knew here was a certain demographic in Montreal…who live in French and English on a daily basis without even thinking about it. So I decided to put this show together and try to mix both sides.”

Sugar Sammy’s bilingual show, You’re Gonna Rire, is a raging success. It’s the kind of mash-up that Quebec’s French language charter is supposed to guard against. So you might think that some Francophone politicians, especially from Quebec’s separatist ruling party, may not appreciate Sugar Sammy. But he has become so popular that politicians court him in public.

He appeared recently with Quebec Premier Pauline Marois on French language TV. Quebec’s most powerful politician and its hottest comedian each used the occasion to prod each other linguistically. Smiles all round, of course.

Sugar Sammy now does four separate shows: in French (En français, svp!), in English (Illegal English Edition), the bilingual show (You’re Gonna rire) and a new show aimed at Quebec’s Indian immigrants and their offspring (Indian Edition). It’s mainly in English, with some French, Punjabi and Hindi thrown in.

The Indian connection has developed beyond that: Sugar Sammy just completed a series of sold-out shows in Indian cities. He told audiences there how surprised he was to find himself in a modern society, and how he’d have to tell his Canadian-based parents that they had misled him. “It’s no longer that pure India that they thought it was.”

You could go several ways with material like that. Sugar Sammy turns it into comedy.

There’s more on Sugar Sammy on his website and his YouTube channel. Also, check out this previous World in Words blog post and podcast on Quebec’s latest battles over language.



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The English-only movement in America

A conversation about making English the only official language in the United States. Tim Schultz, lobbyist with Washington-based US English makes the case for this, ahead of an English-only vote in Oklahoma.

This is not the usual fare on The World in Words: we don’t often offer the microphone to people who discourage the use of other languages. But Schultz argues that English is what keeps America — a land of immigrants and therefore of many languages — intact. He believes that Spanish in particular is fast becoming an unofficial official language here (if that makes sense). He says government agencies use Spanish and other languages without thinking about the message they are sending. What they should be doing, he says, is using English so that non-English speakers are encouraged to learn the language, and succeed in their adopted homeland. Finally, he acknowledges that bigots and racists may be among the supporters of English Only. But as far as he’s concerned, they do not form the mainstream, nor does he share their views.

Also, an election ad in Chinese, aimed at Americans who don’t speak Chinese. This comes courtesy of conservative think tank/advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste, which clearly doesn’t think this glossy ad in a foreign language is a waste of money.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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