The Bilingual U.S. – French New Hampshire

The two tiny, rural, long and narrow states of Vermont and New Hampshire may often be confused; but closer inspection reveals striking differences between the two neighbors.

Politically Vermont is liberal while New Hampshire has moved from the right to the center; the Green Mountains are primarily composed of green schist while the White Mountains are dominated by granite. Vermont is narrow in the south and expands towards to the north while New Hampshire does the opposite. This geographic detail reflects an important demographic difference: the population centers of the states are diametrically opposed. Burlington, VT, is in the north, 73 miles south of Montreal, while Manchester, NH is in the southern part of the state, only 53 miles north of Boston.

This difference in population distribution leads New Hampshire to “look towards” the much more populous state of Massachusetts in the same way that Vermont is linked to Quebec. It is therefore surprising to discover that Manchester has a rich Franco-American culture which has weathered the past century better than that of Burlington.

Manchester, much like its namesake in Northern England, is an industrial city which flourished along a river (the Merrimack in New Hampshire and the Irwell, the Irk, and the Medlock in England) during the 19th Century. Of the 900,000 French-Canadians who left Quebec in the period from 1840 to 1930, many came to Manchester to work in its factories. By 1900 60% of the textile workers in New Hampshire were French-Canadian.

These French-Canadian immigrants were children of La Survivance- the battle for cultural survival initiated by the 60,000 French immigrants left in Canada in 1760 when the French withdrew from the territory and left it in the hand of the English. Dominated by the English, the Quebecois sought strength in unity, closing their community to influences from the outside in order to maintain their language, religion, and way of life.

So it should come as no surprise that the French-Canadian immigrants in Manchester formed a tightly-knit, somewhat isolated community in their new place of residence. The West Side was a world unto itself for the Franco-American community; it contained the French-speaking parishes of Saint Augustin and Ste. Marie, L’Association Catholique de Jeunesse Franco-Américaine- a sort of French Y.M.C.A.- and the nation’s first credit union, La Caisse Populaire, Sainte-Marie.

A trip to the West Side no longer feels like a trip into Quebec. La Caisse Populaire, although still in operation, is now known as St. Mary’s Bank and recently removed the French language option from their ATMs. Ste. Marie Parish no longer offers masses in French, and L’Association Catholiqueno longer exists. On the other hand, the children of many of the French-Canadian immigrants have remained and pulses of Franco-American culture are to be found everywhere.

On Kelley Street on the West Side Chez Vachon is still serving many of the foods (such as poutine) that the French-American factory workers of the past century would probably have enjoyed after a hard day’s work. Over on the East Side, Mass is now offered in French at the Parish of Saint-Antoine-de-Padoue. Roger Lacerte broadcasts his French-language talk show “Chez Nous” on Manchester’s WFEA 1370 AM every Sunday from 9 AM to 12 PM and manages La Libraire Populaire, a bookstore completely dedicated to French literature. Finally, the somewhat exclusive Association Catholique has been replaced by the Franco-American Centre which regularly offers French cultural events open to everybody.

The city of Manchester is still growing and changing. With the construction of new headquarters, St. Mary’s Bank is taking an active role in the restoration of the West Side’s urban vitality, which was greatly damaged in the 1960’s by central city planners. Some Manchester Franco-Americans, like Robert Perreault, author of the 2010 book “Franco-American Life and Culture in Manchester, New Hampshire: Vivre La Différence”, are very keen on keeping their culture and language alive. Perreault and his wife Claudette, who grew up speaking French at home and perfected it in bilingual parochial schools, taught their son to speak French, and are now teaching their granddaughter. At least for the moment, the little girl won’t have many opportunities to use the language in her community, but the future always holds the possibility for change.

The Bilingual U.S. – French Vermont

The French language is one of the primary languages in North America. It is the official language of the Canadian Province of Quebec and shares this distinction with English in the Province of New Brunswick.

The Northern New England states bordering these provinces- Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine- all have some French in their heritage as a result of contact with their northern neighbors, albeit in three very different ways. This is the first of a three-part series which explores the history of the French language in Northern New England. Today’s post focuses on the smallest of the states- Vermont.

The first European explorers to discover Vermont were in fact French: Jacques Cartier is thought to have set foot in Vermont in 1535 while Samuel de Champlain visited the area he named les Verts Monts (The Green Mountains) in 1609 and would thereafter give his name to the state’s important lake.  The construction of Fort Sainte Anne on Isle La Motte in Lake Champlain- the first European settlement in Vermont- signaled France’s claim to the area.

Southern Vermont, meanwhile, saw settlement from the neighboring British colonies of New York and Massachusetts. The area remained a disputed territory until the 1763 Treaty of Paris following the French and Indian War ceded control to the British, who decided to allow settlement only in Southern Vermont, leaving Northern Vermont to the Indians. A cultural distinction between North and South remains to this day.

Vermont, whose population center, Burlington, lies only 45 miles from the Canadian border, is simply the closest state to Quebec, and so early Canadian immigrants often stopped their journey here. Between 1840 and 1930 900,000 French-Canadians immigrated to the United States. In 1860, 44% (16,580 people) of the immigrants from Quebec to the six New England states had chosen to remain in Vermont, although industrialization later caused immigrants to prefer the factory towns of Southern New England over the agricultural jobs generally found in Vermont.

Factory jobs were to be found, however, at the textile mills of Winooski, a village just outside of Burlington. In 1867 the total population of Winooski was 1,745, of whom 855 were French-Americans. The parish of St. Francis Xavier was founded in 1868 in Winooski to serve this population- masses were in French and education at the parochial school was bilingual.

As for many immigrant groups, religion was an important identifier for French-Canadians in Vermont and was the only institutional context in which they could use their native tongue. In 1891 the diocese of Burlington had a French-speaking priest for every 1,600 francophone parishioners- the best ratio in New England, and really no surprise considering that of the 45,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Burlington in 1890, at least 33,000 were of French-Canadian origin. However the upper echelons of the church hierarchy were not very sympathetic to its French parishioners. Said the Bishop of Burlington in 1908: “As to the prominence and influence of French-Canadians, the claim that they possess either, is misleading. Good people and devoted, yes. But they havenot (sic) the education or the other qualities for prominence and influence, either in Church or state.”

The Good Bishop also made a prediction about the fate of the French language in Vermont: “in a very few years there shall be little or not (sic) French spoken in Vermont, unless in…Winooski…because they have French schools.” The words of the Bishop were prophetic- in Vermont, 24% of residents declare that they are of French or French-Canadian heritage, making this the largest ethnic group in the state; and yet the French language is nowhere to be heard, even in Winooski, where as recently as 1990 55% of residents claimed French-Canadian heritage. This perhaps coincides with the demise of bilingual education- the St. Francis Xavier school still exists, but offers instruction only in English.

The result of decades of growth in Vermont is that despite its historical importance to the state and its people, French is a language which is to be learned and spoken only at home; however the recent strengthening of the Canadian dollar with respect to U.S. currency may catalyze some change in this situation. Last year the City Council of Burlington passed a resolution encouraging the use of both French and English on everything from highway signs to restaurant menus.

In Northern Vermont the history of French is still being written. Increasing tourism, business, and political relations with Quebec may restore institutional dignity to the French language. In the land where the “rivers flow north”, lakes, radio programs, and entire towns cross the border; an increased level of bilingualism is the last piece of the puzzle.

The Essay: Don’t Let the Best Be the Enemy of the Good

Painting In the story of João and Ana the characters demonstrate two very different approaches to learning a foreign language.  João is driven by a quest for perfection but is hesitant to use his French in its nascent, flawed state; Ana, on the other hand, seems to care only about communicating and uses French as she knows how, as mangled as it may be. During the course of their time in Paris, Ana experiences a great deal of growth while João remains paralyzed by his insecurities. Ironically, the character who accepted her imperfections (knowingly or not) ultimately arrived at a much greater command of the language. The story illustrates a curious paradox- an obsession with perfection can be the enemy of real progress!

Anyone who has lived abroad while learning a foreign language can probably identify with either João or Ana, or both. It is nearly impossible not to make mistakes in grammar, syntax or pronunciation while learning a new language and while it is obviously important to correct our mistakes, no betterment can be achieved without speaking and practice. To master a foreign language we must strive for excellence while at the same time accepting our own imperfections and trying to speak. We may think that we are making fools of ourselves, but the real fool is the language learner who is too timid to try.

Postponing an action until the “perfect” moment arrives is something that we all have done at one moment of another. Most of us have also had the experience of finding that the longer we wait the more difficult things become. “It’s been 3 months since I’ve called Grandma, I absolutely have to call her but I’ll wait until tomorrow, it’s too late now… It’s too early in the morning, maybe she’s still sleeping, I’ll call her after work… I only have half-an-hour now, maybe I should call on the weekend, when I have more time… She likes to watch TV on Saturday evenings, I wouldn’t want to interrupt…” Before long 3 months have become 4 and the situation just gets worse and worse. Probably the perfect moment that we are waiting for will never come and if we are smart we realize that an imperfect action is better than no action at all.

A songwriter will usually have at least some small part of the melody or the lyrics which he is not completely satisfied with but which he must accept for the greater good of the song as a whole. An engineer designs a bridge as best as she can but knows that there is always some situation- as extreme as it may be- in which it will fail to function. A painter is forced at some point to step back from his work and say “it’s not perfect but I like it” or he risks spending the rest of his life covering the same canvas with ever thickening layers of paint. The song, the bridge, and the painting would never be sang, crossed, and admired by the greater public if their artists were not willing at some point to let some small imperfections go.

What actions are we putting off for eternity while we wait for the right moment? What projects are we hiding in the workshop, unsatisfied with their imperfection? Waiting for perfection, how much good work are we forsaking? The adventure of learning and growth starts with the first step, and no amount of immobile preparation can make the first step so long as to make up for all of the progress that we could have made while we were waiting.