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"Waking Up" the French language in the Valley

August 29, 2008


A new opportunity is available to anyone living in the St John Valley area who grew up hearing French, but never really learned to speak it, or who has since lost the ability. At several events during the week of September 14, the public is invited to return to its roots and “wake up” its French, according to University of Maine at Fort Kent Professor Dr. Katharine Harrington, one of the organizers of the event.

The University is collaborating in this French-language revival project with Julia Schulz, co-founder of Rockland, Maine’s not-for-profit Penobscot School, a center for language learning and international cultural exchange.

"We have wanted to bring Julia Schulz up to the Valley for some time now. She has done such exciting work in other parts of Maine, New England and Louisiana; it only makes sense that she should bring her French reacquisition approach to the Valley," said Dr. Harrington.

"Tragically, the decline of the French language is a reality here in northern Maine, and I know that many people regret that fact. For this reason, I sincerely hope that community members will come out to learn about Julia's work. With her help, we can be a part of the solution in reversing language loss here in the St. John Valley," notes Dr. Harrington.

The week-long project is being funded through a grant from the Libra Foundation, and is being organized by the University’s Academic Outreach Office, the Acadian Archives, and the Education and French departments.

“Preserving, and in this case, revitalizing, our Franco linguistic and cultural heritage is an important part of our mission as a university,” according to UMFK President Dr. Richard Cost. “This project will explore collaborative efforts that will engage individuals and agencies with similar goals in order to better understand a heritage language and how to revitalize its utilization. We are excited to be a part of this dialogue.”

Some of the objectives of the Libra Foundation grant are to renew people’s self-confidence and pride in their heritage, provide resources and information on language re-acquisition, and to empower individuals within the community to become facilitators and move the concept forward.

“I have met so many people all over Maine who say they heard French as children and can not speak it. I’d like to see if what the brain researchers are saying is true: That is, if a young child is exposed to a language, does that language stay imprinted somewhere in that person’s brain even into adulthood? And can it be reawakened with renewed exposure?” says Schulz. “Our idea is to gather, to have a little conversation, and see what is familiar. From there, we will together find out what people can do to eventually be able to function in French.”

A highlight of the program will be a public showing of the documentary film, “Réveil-Waking Up French,” by filmmaker Ben Levine.

The film will be shown on Monday, September 15 at 6:30 pm in the UMFK’s Fox Auditorium.

Schulz also will lead three separate community discussions about heritage languages.  On September 16, at 6:30 p.m., she will meet at the Mikesell Library in Madawaska.  On the evening of the 17th she will lead a meeting at the St. Agatha public library at 6:30 p.m.  And on the 18th she will be back at UMFK to lead a session for those who want to take the lead and facilitate waking up French in their communities.  This last session will take place at the Nadeau Hall teleconference center at 6:30 p.m.

The University’s French faculty is excited about this visit.  “Julia is a leader in this area, and her work has had great impact in communities in Maine and Louisiana.  Everyone with an interest should come out and meet with her, and take part in these sessions.” said Dr. Harrington.

Professor Harrington and Acadian Archives Director Lise Pelletier also will be host two lunch-time “French tables” with Julia.  On September 17 people can join them at the University’s Bengal Lair in Cyr Hall.

“Our mother tongue is interwoven with our earliest memories, our childhood, and our identity. It is the vehicle that allows the transmission of our traditions, our history, our expressions, our songs, our attitudes about life and our most intimate thoughts and emotions. The loss or suppression of that mother tongue creates an emptiness that no other language can fill. It even causes us to question who we are. For the St John Valley, the loss of the French language means the first step in the disappearance of a culture, and eventually, of a people. We are at risk of becoming Franco-Americans whose only claim to a rich, vibrant heritage is the fact that we eat ployes and use the expression ‘Wayons!’  French reacquisition is the way to reclaim the treasures that our ancestors bestowed upon us so that we, in turn, can share them with our community and the generations that follow us,” said Pelletier.

On the 18th they can join the group in the Archives, adjacent to Blake Library. “These will be a fun opportunity for people to speak French and get to know Julia.” adds Pelletier.

In addition to the public sessions, Julia will meet with teachers in local schools, from St. Francis to Van Buren. She will talk with students in various Education and French classes on the UMFK campus.

 For a complete listing of events, or for more information, contact Eno at 834-7835 or, or go to: (link no longer available).