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.