It’s a story Lian Cheramie has told and heard so many times in her life, it’s become folklore.
Once upon a time, when her grandmother was a young girl, she would sneak under her schoolhouse to speak with her friends in her native tongue, French.
It was an act of pure rebellion.
It must have been about the mid to late 1930’s Cheramie estimates, at a time when Louisiana’s constitution mandated that all public schools teach in English. This was part of a government-backed effort to "Americanize" the population and students were reprimanded for speaking French in schools.
“That’s where the dying of the language began. There was so much shame in speaking the language,” said Cheramie, a theater teacher who lives in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Cheramie’s dad and great aunt are now the last two French speakers in her family but she’s intent on changing this.
Like millions of Americans over the last two weeks, Cheramie has suddenly found herself with ample time on her hands.
Cheramie said the additional time she has now will be devoted to learning the language of her grandmother — in a digital space.
“It’s important for my mental health to focus on something bigger than myself. Ultimately, if I work towards this goal, I am doing my part to keep it alive,” she said. “I am doing it for my ancestors.”
Learning Louisiana French is a 'life’s work'
Social distancing matters. Here is how to do it and how it can help curb the COVID-19 pandemic. USA TODAY
The time away from jobs and daily schedules has already proven to be intensely creative for many people. Social media has become a platform that is not only keeping people connected through this unprecedented time but has also become an educational tool for a quarantined public seeking to learn new skills.
Ashlee Michot, a fellow teacher and friend of Cheramie, began using Instagram Live to offer Louisiana French lessons over the last two weeks. Michot would normally spend her days in the classroom teaching at Beau Chene High School in Arnaudville, Louisiana.
Michot's husband, a professional musician who performs internationally, is out of work.
“Every single gig is gone,” she said. “Thank God for my health insurance. We have had to re-evaluate things quickly.”
Michot has spent her entire life learning Louisiana French. She grew up listening to news and weather in French on the popular radio show “La Tasse de Cafe” broadcast on the KVPI station in her hometown Ville Platte.
“I wanted to know this language, but it seemed impossible for our generation,” she said. “My parents wanted me to speak perfect English. I never even knew my grandfather spoke French until I started speaking it.”
She started transcribing the folklore, remedies and jokes shared in French on the radio program, soaking up details about plants and animals.
“Learning Louisiana French has been my life’s work,” she said.
Efforts to preserve Louisiana French
It is estimated that the number of people who speak Louisiana French dialects at home once numbered at about 1 million in 1970, according to Joseph Dunn, the former director of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. Today there are less than 100,000.
In recent years, there has been a growing effort in the state from school and individuals to preserve the language. Since the 1990s, more than 30 schools have opened where French is the primary language, Dunn said.
The Cajun French Virtual Table, a Facebook group that launched in 2015, is a platform for its 34,000 members to share Louisiana French vocabulary and stories. Louisiana State University, the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, as well as Tulane University are now all offering courses in Acadian history specializing in Louisiana French.
Tara Trammell graduated from Tulane University in 2012 with a Louisiana Studies degree and since then started learning Louisiana French phrases, jokes and stories in between breaks at work.
Like thousands of other hospitality workers in New Orleans in the last two weeks, Trammell has lost her job. She was working as head bartender at a hotel in downtown New Orleans until March 16 when all non-essential businesses, including bars and restaurants were required to shut down amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Suddenly she has time to focus on learning Louisiana French as well.
“Of all things, coronavirus has given us time to help preserve Cajun French,” she said.
Then she paused, contemplating aloud the weeks of isolation that still lie ahead for New Orleans and the day when things will get back to normal.
“Maybe by then we’ll be sitting around the bar joking in Cajun French,” she said.