Jacynthe Jacques received the good news before the bad.
She moved to Lewiston from Quebec 18 years ago and did not speak a word of English.
“I am Canadian, so I came here as an immigrant,” she said. “It was a discovery to come here and realize that most of my neighbors still spoke French. It made me feel at home when I realized that this was a French-speaking community.”
Then came the bad news.
“I realized that my neighbors’ children were not French-speaking,” she said.
Jacques has four children. She and her husband taught them French first and English second.
“Our neighbors love it,” she said. “They love to hear the kids talking in French.”
What worries Jacques is that the Lewiston and Auburn French is not everyday French.
“The type of French that is spoken here is particular,” she said. “It’s not Quebecois and it’s not French from France. It’s very regional. It’s particular to Maine, and it’s dying off because those parents did not transmit their language to their kids because it was not being reinforced anywhere.”
Jacques knows the feeling firsthand.
“We try to speak French at home as much as we can,” she said, but it’s a challenge because her children’s homework is in English.
Spanish, German and French are not taught in Lewiston and Auburn elementary schools. A small after-school program in Auburn is trying to keep the French with a Maine influence alive, but like the language itself, the program is struggling to keep its voice from fading away.
The Maine French Heritage Language Program taught at Fairview and Sherwood Heights elementary schools is in its third year but is losing its financial backer, the Franco Center, after this school year.
Students as young as 7 are learning the language and culture of French-speaking countries two days a week after school.
“I really wanted to learn more about my heritage because a lot of my family is French,” said Sophia Therrien, 10, a fifth-grader at Sherwood Heights. “My grandmother is French. My mom is French. My memere’s family is French. Most of my pepere’s family is French, and my dad’s side has a little bit of French.”
The curriculum is divided into four themes, teacher Diane Pelletier-Perron said. Students learned about “Roots and Identity” the first nine weeks, “Festivals and Traditions” the next, then “Food” and last, “Songs, Games and Stories.”
“We are not only teaching French, but the Francophone world,” Pelletier-Perron said.
Jacques, who teaches in the program, said children learn French language and local history. “For most of these kids, this is the history of their grandparents or their great-grandparents, who came down here to work in the mills and who speak French at home.”
Students have interviewed local immigrants from French-speaking countries such as Togo, a country in east Africa. A Bates College student from French-speaking Senegal volunteers with the program.
“It’s really neat to open up the world to these kids,” Jacques said. “It’s not just about the French in Maine or Quebec, but the rest of the world. To broaden their horizon is really, really neat.”
Pelletier-Perron said she is looking for a financial backer to keep the program going.
“We are playing with ideas,” Pelletier-Perron said. “Hopefully we will go beyond this year.”
Therrien hopes to take the class again.
“I would be kind of sad if it was not offered because it’s really fun,” she said. “If it’s not, I could ask my memere to help teach me a little more. She was born in Canada.”
Class volunteer Georgette Morin of Auburn said she grew up speaking French in Lewiston and did not learn English until she attended kindergarten. She and her husband still speak French at home.
“Helping these kids makes me feel younger,” the 83-year-old said.
“Georgette is one of the last few who speak that type of French, and it’s so beautiful,” Jacques said. “It’s so different and colorful, and I love that we get to teach that to the kids.”