March 25, 2012

School program embraces Franco-American culture

By Keith Edwards
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Dominick and Rocko Napolitano are learning how to speak their grandmother's language: French.

click image to enlarge

CREATIVE LEARNING: Hussey Elementary students color together Thursday during an afterschool Franco-American culture program that’s funded through a grant. Franco-Americans’ culture and their regional variant of the French language wasn’t always appreciated, either in the streets of Augusta or the classroom.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

And not just the French spoken in France or found in most of yesterday's French language textbooks. Dominick, 7, and Rocko, 6, are also learning the Franco-American variant of the language, and a bit about the rich Franco-American culture and heritage in Maine and the Augusta area.

That's "tres bon" -- very good -- to their mother, Amanda Napolitano, of Augusta. She's thrilled her two boys, enrolled in the new afterschool Maine French Heritage Language Program, are learning about their family's Franco ancestry and building a new connection with their grandmother, Theresa Dostie, who grew up in Augusta and still speaks French fluently.

The ability to speak French "kind of got lost in my generation," Napolitano said. "This is a great opportunity for them, to gain that knowledge and appreciate the language and culture of their ancestors."

Franco-Americans' culture and their regional variant of the French language wasn't always so appreciated, either in the streets of Augusta or the classroom.

Napolitano said her mother told her stories about growing up Franco-American in Augusta and being afraid to cross the Kennebec River because she didn't feel welcome in some of the city's non-Franco neighborhoods.

Not always welcome

Nor did some Franco-Americans feel welcome in the classroom, even in French class. That's because the French they spoke wasn't quite the same as the classic French taught in school.

"The way French was taught in the past has sometimes been a very negative experience for Franco-Americans in Maine -- that's part of the reason I created this program," said Chelsea Ray, a University of Maine at Augusta assistant professor of French and an organizer of the pilot French program, which began this year in some public elementary schools in Augusta and Lewiston.

"You here these stories over and over again. People were made fun of. They were told they didn't speak the right French, that their French was bad. So they had a real incentive not to speak French. A main goal of this program is to acknowledge that history, and also say we can move forward with this new generation of children, of French speakers. We're trying to show the positive aspects of this culture, so the children will know something about Franco culture in Maine."

Ray described the variation within the French language as similar to someone from Maine having a hard time understanding, or being understood by, someone from the deep South, even though both are speaking English.

The Maine French Heritage Language Program aims to teach multiple variants of the language, especially, but not exclusively, the variant spoken by Franco-Americans in Maine. Students have also learned about other variants from their teachers and guest speakers from French-speaking locales including France, Rwanda and Madagascar.

Ray said children seem to grasp the idea of there being different ways of speaking the same language much better than most adults.

The 22-week grant and fee-funded program started this year, offered to students from kindergarten to third grade at Hussey Elementary School, and kindergarten to sixth grade at Lincoln Elementary School, with students attending the city's other two elementary schools also welcome to take the classes.

Parents pay about $150 per child tuition, but Ray said the true cost of the program is probably closer to $500 per child.

Grant money from Centre de la Francophonie des Ameriques and the French Heritage Language Program, collaborators in the project, subsidizes the program. It's also an extension of two successful programs established in New York City and Miami. The University of Maine at Augusta also provides support for the program.

(Continued on page 2)

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