Bienvenue à Burlington!

church street

Last week’s blog was inspired by an enlightening encounter during a trip to Burlington, Vermont, on the shores of Lake Champlain. This wasn’t the first time that Burlington has provided the backdrop for the scenarios presented on our blog – we’ve written about the lively Bosnian community in the city and its environs as well as the bilingual French heritage of the Green Mountain State.

The French-speaking ancestors of many Northern Vermonters immigrated to the area at a time when Quebec was a poor province and the factories of New England offered the prospect of steady work. The tables have slowly turned and Vermonters are now used to seeing Québécois as relatively wealthy tourists on par with the New Yorkers and Bostonians who seem to have been vacationing in the region since the Republic of Vermont became the 14th of the United States.

I was particularly struck by this change as I strolled down Burlington’s charming downtown marketplace, Church Street. Many of the restaurants, cafés and boutiques lining the pedestrian street make it clear that they happily welcome the new foreign clientele with a little blue sticker which reads “Bienvenue Québécois.”

The simple blue stickers are a small change to Church Street’s quaint aesthetic, but they represent a big change to its mentality. Issued in 2011, the Bienvenue stickers were joined in 2013 by over 700 bilingual signs on parking meters, courtesy of the Alliance Française of the Lake Champlain Region, adding to a concerted effort to capitalize on Vermont’s proximity to Canada’s French-speaking province. After all, tourists come from New York and Boston, which are 300 and 215 miles away, respectively; why shouldn’t they come from Montreal, which is at a relatively short distance of 95 miles?

The fact the signs are written directly in French means that store and restaurant personnel on Church Street are ready to welcome not only the Northern tourists, but their language as well. In order to help the downtown merchants with this task, the Alliance Francaise offers them affordable French language courses under the auspices of a program called “Bilingual Burlington.”

Curious to know how much salespeople and waiters actually use French with customers, I stopped in to Jess Boutique to ask a few questions. General Manager Erin Brennan explains:

“I believe I am the only one who speaks any French in the store right now. I took about 6 years of French in high school and at Concordia University when I was living in Montreal. My conversational skills are basic, but I have used them some with customers in the store. I find it’s mostly helpful in understanding what people are saying and less helpful when I am trying to converse. I tend to get a bit nervous and forget my vocab and verb conjugation skills! Most Quebecois tourists speak both English and French, or have someone with them who does.”

As a foreign language teacher, I know that when someone has studied a language for several years but gets nervous when she has to speak, what she needs is a little practice! After my quick visit to Burlington, it seems to me that Erin is in a great position to get just that – Church Street has opened its arms to its northern neighbors and has created an environment where their language is well-received. I heard echoes of French all around town, and over time I wouldn’t be surprised to see Church Street merchants acquire more confidence in their language skills. I’m looking forward to hearing a few more bienvenue‘s the next time I come to visit!

Language Regulation

Is the foreign language you are studying regulated? Many countries have bodies which officially govern their national language.

The most famous of these is probably the Académie Française, the French language moderator whose role is “to work, with all possible care and diligence, to give our language definite rules and to make it pure, eloquent, and capable of dealing with art and science.” However don’t try to tell French Canadians that they have to follow the Académie’s rules- in Quebec the Office Québécois de la Langue Française holds forth on how the language should be spoken.

French is not the only language to have multiple standardization bodies. Portugal’s Academia das Ciências de Lisboa, Classe de Letras (Lisbon Science Academy, Class of Letters) is trumped in Brazil by the Academia Brasileira de Letras (Brazilian Academy of Letters). The National Language Authority governs Urdu in Pakistan, while the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language makes the rules in India. The bad blood between mainland China and Taiwan is carried into linguistic governance- the People’s Republic of China has the State Language and Letters Committee and the Republic of China (Taiwan) has the National Languages Committee.

However, aside from these few cases, international collaboration seems to be the rule in language regulation. The Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung (Council for German Orthography) is composed of 18 councilors from Germany, 9 from Austria, 9 from Switzerland, and 1 each from the South Tyrol in Italy, the German-speaking community of Belgium, and Liechtenstein. The Odbor za standardizaciju srpskog jezika (Board for Standardization of the Serbian Language) was founded in 1997 as a collaborative effort between institutions in Serbia, Montenegro, and the Republika Srpska (one of the two main political entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina). The Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa (National Swahili Council) of Tanzania regulates the Swahili language and works in partnership with the Chama cha Kiswahili cha Taifa (National Association of Kiswahili) in Kenya. The Academy of Persian Language and Literature includes members from Iran, Tajikstan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan while the Academy of the Arabic Language has an even broader reach, uniting councilors from Algeria, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Iraq, Tunisia, Sudan, Israel, and Somalia.

Governance of the Spanish language, meanwhile, is a truly global effort involving 22 countries and one territory. The Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española (Association of Spanish Language Academies) is, as the name suggests, a council which unites regulatory institutions from across the Spanish-speaking world. Founded in 1951 in Mexico, the Association brought in the historic Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy) and has welcomed such newcomers as the United States’ Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española (North American Academy of the Spanish Language), founded in 1973 in New York.

However, despite being home to a linguistic council for Spanish, the United States has no regulatory body for the English language. In fact English is not a regulated language in any country in the world. English speakers rely on dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster’s and Oxford English, high-quality publications, and the speech of the Queen of England as sources of “proper” language, but even these sources are up for disputation. The English language is governed directly and democratically by its hundreds of millions of speakers, and it seems to be doing just fine.

The Bilingual U.S. – French Maine

Maine is by far the most expansive of the Northern New England states, plunging far past the 45th parallel into the French speaking territories of Quebec and New Brunswick; however a great part of this northern territory is privately owned by logging companies and completely disinhabited. The vast majority of Mainers live “Down East”, in cities like Portland and Lewiston, the latter of which has a French-Canadian heritage very similar to that of Manchester, New Hampshire.

At the farthest northern reaches of Maine lies Aroostook County, separated from the coast-hugging, populated area of Maine, and henceforth the rest of the United States, by hundreds of miles of forest and mountains. Here the St. John River divides “The County” from Madawaska County in New Brunswick like a sort of Rio Grande of the North, although two centuries ago the river was not a border but the central lifeline of the briefly-lived, never-recognized République du Madawaska. After a brief skirmish known as the Aroostook or the “Pork and Beans” War, the United States and the United Kingdom signed the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 and separated the Brayons on the north and south banks of the river.

Brayon is the term which the residents of the Upper St. John Valley use to culturally identify themselves, thus distinguishing themselves from Acadians and Quebecois, the other francophone populations of the area. The brayons living in New Brunswick continue to use French; in Edmundston, the largest town in the Valley, 93% of the population use French as their mother tongue (as of 2006). Numbers from 1993 show that the situation was similar in the towns of Fort Kent, Van Buren, and Madawaska on the Maine side of the river- 88% of residents were French speakers.

However the fate of French on the north and south banks of the St. John is quite different. Until 1960, a Maine state law forbid the use of any language but English in public school education, and French was of course not allowed in politics. Without any opportunities to use French in institutional settings (outside of the Church) even complete isolation from the rest of the United States and close cohabitation with the French-speaking Canadians wasn’t enough to keep the language alive on the south bank of the river. The five-year period from 1987 to 1991 saw a 18% drop in the use of French as their mother tongue among Maine school children in the Valley.

Bilingual schools like the L’Acadien du Haut St. Jean school have occasionally sprung up in the Valley, but they don’t seem to last very long. Bilingual education in the Frenchville-St. Agatha school district (MSAD # 33) is limited to “services [for English Language Learners] in the Dual Language Instruction/Two-Way Immersion Program.” In other words, the school helps French speakers adjust to a lifetime of using English in all community functions rather than helping them perfect their mother tongue. This treatment of the language maintains its perceived inferiority to English, with consequences on its survival. As Prof. Joseph Price of Texas Tech University concludes in his PhD thesis study of bilingualism in Madawaska, Maine, “although there are still many individuals with ability in French, the differences between younger and older speakers…suggest that local French will be lost unless further action is taken to reverse the progress of French language loss among young bilinguals in the community.”

Without a serious bilingual education program which teaches French speakers of the St. John Valley that their mother tongue is the language of Hugo, Voltaire, and Proust, the language of Montesquieu, whose thought so greatly influenced the American revolution, and the language of millions of people in Europe, Africa and Canada, the French of the American Brayons will never develop its full potential. One can only hope that an Montesquieuian “Enlightenment” in bilingual education will sooner or later give the American residents of the Republique du Madawaska this opportunity.