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Parlez-Vous? Some Louisiana Pupils Being Immersed in French Instruction

December 6, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Louisiana's French heritage is being embraced in many immersion classrooms in the state. It goes beyond language -- some students are learning math, science and social studies in French. Sue Lincoln of Louisiana Public Broadcasting and the Southern Education Desk reports.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: We look at language immersion classes in Louisiana, where the state’s French heritage is taught as more than just history.

Our story comes from Louisiana Public Broadcasting and the Southern Education Desk, a partnership between public radio and television stations across the gulf.

The reporter is Sue Lincoln.

RACHEL JUDSON, STUDENT: If you ever have the opportunity to speak French or the chance to, you need to take it.

SUE LINCOLN: That’s Rachel Judson, a fifth grader from Lake Charles, and she’s starting her 6th year in the French immersion program at Prien Lake Elementary. Rachel’s family is not of French descent, so her first contact with the language was, like these kindergartners, singing songs.
   
(GROUP SINGING)

SUE LINCOLN: French immersion students take their reading and writing classes in English, but learn math, science and social studies in French. For example, it’s a geography lesson for Julia Lambart’s second graders.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking French)

 UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking French)

GROUP: (Speaking French)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking French)

SUE LINCOLN: The history of the French language in Louisiana runs deep. It was introduced to this land at the end of the 17th century. Then, as Europeans emmigrated from France, African Creoles came from the West Indies, and the Acadians refugees from Canada, French was Louisiana’s language.

But the state of Louisiana hasn’t always embraced its heritage language. Joseph Dunn, director of CODOFIL, The Council on the Development of French in Louisiana, says speaking French used to be a crime.

JOSEPH DUNN, DIRECTOR, CODOFIL: In 1916, French became sort of illegal to speak in the classrooms and also in the public buildings in the state. And in 1921, there was a new state constitution that reinforced those anti-French laws.

SUE LINCOLN: Students caught speaking French were suspended, even expelled. High school and college students could study French, but only as a foreign language. Dunn says all that began to change in the late 1960s with the establishment of CODOFIL and its push to reintroduce French into elementary classrooms.

JOSEPH DUNN: I myself was introduced to French through those programs in 1980.

SUE LINCOLN: Dunn was in 4th grade then, and says it was far different from today’s French immersion programs.

JOSEPH DUNN: Actually, it was French as a second language program. So students were given, depending on the school and the system, 30 minutes of French three times a week. So that’s where I began.

SUE LINCOLN: An upgrade to true immersion started in the mid-1980s. That meant finding the right teachers. Dunn says to this day they must still search for teachers outside the state and country.

JOSEPH DUNN: There are foreign associate teachers that are recruited from France, Belgium, Canada and from out throughout the French-speaking world.

SUE LINCOLN: Now French immersion classes are in more than 30 schools in 10 school districts across south Louisiana. Amina Gheraia is one of this year’s new imported teachers, coming to Lake Charles from the Normandy region in France. What motivated her to take this job so far from home?

AMINA GHERAIA TEACHER: I love teaching and I really wanted to travel, but I didn’t want to stop teaching. So I went on the French website, listing the opportunities for a primary schoolteacher, and I found this program, the immersion program.

And I thought it was just great, that I could be teaching in French and live in another country and find out about how people live and so that was this — the perfect combination for me.

SUE LINCOLN: Amina has only been in America for three weeks, and in her classroom for one week. But her students found out about her birthday, and threw her a surprise party, complete with a skit and costumes.

 UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Speaking French)

SUE LINCOLN: The students make it look easy. But they’ve already been studying in French for five full years. We asked some of the younger students, first graders, why they liked being in the French immersion program.

DANIEL CHRISTIAN: Because I learn French, French social studies, French math and French science.

SUE LINCOLN: Daniel Christian says he didn’t know any French before this. But his family doesn’t speak the language at home.

DANIEL CHRISTIAN No, I’m teaching them.

SUE LINCOLN: Bella Calabra says her dad speaks French, though her mom only knows a little bit. Still, she says, for her, French immersion is all about improving communication.

BELLA CALABRA: So I could speak my — to my abuelo and abuela in Canada.

SUE LINCOLN: Bella’s (ph) grandparents live in Montreal. Of course, the final decision to enroll students in French immersion courses is up to the parents. So why should they choose this course of study for their children? Dunn says research proves immersion learning increases kids’ brainpower.

JOSEPH DUNN: The children that are in immersion programs in immersion settings typically are doing about 10 percent better on standardized tests that children that are in monolingual settings.

And it — there’s a plethora of research on this and just about every country and from every perspective that you can imagine, that proves that immersion learning, dual language learning, increases brain webbing, increases intellectual capacity.

SUE LINCOLN: Sara Judson is more than pleased with the impact the classes have had on her daughter, Rachel.

SARA JUDSON: Our daughter and her friends in French immersion are so open to the world. They are very interested in other countries, what it’s like in other countries, what are their — what time is it in other countries, you know, basic things and things that are more advanced.

 And because the — most of their teachers have been from French-speaking countries, they have learned a lot about those cultures. And I think whenever they’re adults, they are really going to be ready for living in a global world.

SUE LINCOLN: A new state law passed by the legislature this year requires expansion of French immersion programs into 22 south Louisiana parishes by the fall of 2015.