FORT KENT, Maine — Walk into any business in the St. John Valley and there’s a better than average chance at least part of any given conversation is conducted en francais.
Area language advocates hope today — and every Wednesday — those conversations are 100 percent French seulement.
The combination of the area’s immediate proximity to bilingual New Brunswick coupled with French being the native tongue to the area’s European settlers has helped keep the language alive.
Alive, but according to at least one French-language proponent, in desperate need of life support.
“There’s a big awareness of a lot of people who speak French and then shift midsentence to English,” said Ross Paradis, president of Le Club Francais. “People keep telling me we need to speak more French.”
Bringing the language of their Acadian and French-Canadian heritage back into mainstream culture is a big part of the club’s mandate.
For more than a decade Le Club Francais members have worked supporting an environment that promotes the French language in everyday life for all ages.
“Many people here bemoan the fact young people here don’t speak French,” Paradis said. “We want to encourage people to speak French to the kids then they can go on and carry the ball.”
Business breakfasts, school functions, presentations, films, gallery events and cultural festivals have all been past targets of the club’s language crusade.
Due in large part to the members’ efforts, Paradis says there has been a resurgence in residents’ interest in using French in their day-to-day activities.
For Paradis, a retired educator and former member of the Maine Legislature, the language issue is personal.
Raised in a French-speaking home, he recalls the days in which young people who spoke only French were forced to speak English in the schools.
“The schools did a great disservice for years,” Paradis said. “Now they have learned you don’t have to sacrifice one language to learn another.”
In the latest move to bring French to the forefront, Paradis hopes breakfast groups at local restaurants, students at all levels in the public schools, and people in the their homes join in and confine their words to French today.
The club also has started a French merit award for young people recognizing youth in the area who use French in their daily lives.
Paradis spent hours this week visiting local businesses to encourage owners and managers to use French and put up conspicuous signs indicating their willingness to participate.
At Roy Auto Parts–NAPA in Fort Kent, owner Louis Roy said he’d not yet heard of the movement, but thought it was a good idea.
“We’ll probably give it a try,” he said.
As it is, Roy indicated close to 50 percent of what goes on in his shop is in French already.
“We do a lot of business with the Canadian customers,” Roy said. “Plus there are a number of residents from here who speak French.”
Though Roy’s parents spoke French at home, he admits his own skills were pretty rusty until he began working at the auto parts store.
“I had to learn pretty quick,” he said.
Downriver about 50 miles in Van Buren, Chanel Bouchard, owner of Chanel’s Service, is a business owner who is happy to take part in a French-only day.
“I think it’s a super idea,” Bouchard said. “I do know I have at least one customer who speaks only English but it’s worth a try to at least start out speaking French.”
Like Roy, Bouchard sees a number of French-speaking Canadians in his shop.
“I’m all for using French,” Bouchard said. “The kids tell me they will never use it, but I tell them, ‘never say never.’”
In fact, Paradis points out the benefits of being bilingual are numerous.
Knowing two languages, he says, can help in securing good jobs and make world travel more accessible.
“One way to raise your IQ is to learn a second language,” Paradis said.
Le Club Francais members intend every Wednesday to be French-only until their ultimate goal is met.
“We need a day to focus on the French,” Paradis said. “Until we don’t need just one day because people are speaking French all the time.”