French Studies, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures
I am a sociolinguist whose primary research focusses on Franco-American French, that is, the French spoken by descendants of the nearly one million French Canadians (from present day Quebec) and Acadians (from the Maritime Provinces) who settled in the northeastern United States largely between 1840 and 1930.I have collected either myself, in collaboration with my colleague Jane Smith at the University of Maine (my Co-PI on a three year project funded by NSF), or as the supervisor of graduate and undergraduate student fieldworkers, over 300 hours of recorded interviews with French speakers living in twelve different communities located in northeastern New York and across New England. This material has been used to better understand the current situation of the Franco-American variety (e.g., who speaks the language, when, and for what purposes), to investigate Franco attitudes about the language and about their Franco-American identity more generally, as well as to describe the structure of the language and the effect of contact with English, among other things, on the way in which the language has evolved.
Despite their significant presence throughout the northeast, Franco-Americans have been largely left out of the narrative of North American history. Americans and Canadians alike are surprised to learn, for example, that French is, after English, the language most spoken at home in Maine and in Vermont, and that it is only since 2010, and then just barely, that Spanish has overtaken French in New Hampshire. Locally, the city of Cohoes had as many as four French parishes that operated in French and offered bilingual schooling well into the 1950s. My research has shown that, although French is generally no longer systematically being passed on to the next generation and there is longer any domain where French is regularly used, many speakers over the age of 60 continue to use the language on a daily basis and consider it an important part of their identity. It has also revealed that, contrary to what many Francos themselves believe, Franco-American French cannot be described as a mixture of French and English. Indeed, given the context in which Franco-American finds itself, the influence of English on the language has been quite minimal.
None of my work would be possible without the generosity of the many Francos who have invited me into their homes and shared their stories with me, and I consider it my responsibility to give back to the community in any way that I can. I have done this primarily through various forms of programming in which I seek to educate the public about the French presence in the northeast, and to dispel linguistic myths that make Franco-Americans feel that their variety is inferior to the “good French” of France. This programming has most often been in the form of talks to community groups, but also includes the creation of a small exhibit, Le français en Nouvelle-Angleterre/The French Language in New England. Notes from the Franco-American French Project, that travelled to locations in Massachusetts and New York, and incorporated information specific to each of the different communities as it went. I have also made it regular presentations on Franco-American topics at conferences such as the annual meeting of the American Association of Teachers of French where the focus is on pedagogy. In these presentations I not only inform teachers about Franco-Americans, but to provide materials with suggestions for how to use them to teach their students about the French presence in their own backyard.
A long term goal is to make the corpus of recordings available in a form that makes them accessible not only to future researchers, but to the community as well.